He speaks simply but directly in an irresistible Spanish accent; his athletic, heavily tattooed frame displaying all the emotions of a man doubly possessed… by music and food.
Two Michelin star chef Sergi Arola started out with dreams of becoming a rock musician but eventually pulled on chef’s whites and went on to conquer the world, setting trends with his fuss-free approach to modern Spanish food. That he has trained under two of the world’s most influential gastronomic geniuses — Ferran Adria and Pierre Gagnaire — is no surprise.
Apart from winning two Michelin stars and countless accolades, the hard-working Arola has also simplified the art of cooking with his book Cooking is Fun, which features signature recipes and techniques from his award-winning restaurant La Broche in Madrid, Spain.
Chef Sergi has launched dining concepts in cities like Abu Dhabi, Mumbai, Verbier, Santiago de Chile,Barcelona and Madrid and became an international culinary sensation and television personality with Master Chef and many other programs.
The rockstar chef opened up to me about his mentors, heady career course and zeal for sustainable food.
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking when I was 12 years old. I would cook at home with my grandfather. I grew up wanting to become a musician. I worked in restaurants to pay for my guitar.
How did you transition from rock guitarist to chef and restaurateur?
I had always dreamt of becoming a rock musician, and joined a band called Los Canguro in my teens. I turned my interest in cooking into a side job to pay the bills and also attended culinary school in Barcelona. It turned out, I was an okay guitarist and composer but a damn good cook!
After graduating, I continued to work in restaurants, doing everything from cleaning dishes to chopping and cooking. In 1995, I was asked to come and work with one of Spain’s most celebrated chefs, Ferran Adria at his restaurant Talaia Mar and then at el Bulli (considered the world’s best restaurant by food critics). After that, there was no looking back. I thought it better to continue my passion for music as a hobby and make food my profession.
What is your food about?
Mine is a cuisine of complicity. My food is simple and sophisticated.
I don’t believe in garnish and unnecessary flourish. I don’t believe in putting more than three things on the plate at the same time. I don’t invent techniques although I am constantly reinventing classics.
Why is Spanish cuisine so popular in the rest of the world but not in India?
Spanish cooking appeals to the global diner because it is simple yet flavoursome. It can also be easily adapted to post-modern cooking. I don’t think it is right to compare the popularity of Spanish food in India with Italian or Chinese, which has been around for decades. How many Spanish restaurants do we have in India? Barely a few! Eating customs in Spain and India have so much in common. People out here just need time and exposure to warm up to our cuisine.
What did you learn from genius chef Ferran Adria?
Ferran Adria is creative, but also has an analytical side to his personality. From him and other greats like Martin Berasategui and Juan Mari Arzak, I learnt the importance of teamwork and how one shouldn’t place themselves above everyone else. My chefs, line cooks and I are like one big family.
Sergi shared with us a recipe from his book Cooking Is Fun
Sauteed Apple with Dried Beef, Manchego Cheese and Olive Oil Ice Cream
- 1 Granny Smith apple
- 30 grams dried beef
- 20 grams cured Manchego cheese
- 1 liter extra-virgin olive oil
- Emulsify the olive oil in a Thermomix by applying 3 spins of the turbo. Freeze in a Pacojet beaker and process just before serving.
- Cut beef and cheese into very thin slices, about 5-centimeters wide so they fit into a 6- centimeter baking tin. Cut them just before plating to avoid them drying too much.
- Cut the apple lengthwise into 1-centimeter wide strips. Remove the core and sear on a griddle until they turn golden brown.
- To assemble and serve, place the apple on a plate inside a cake ring with the slices of cheese and dried beef on top. Remove the ring and add a scoop of ice cream on top. Garnish with chervil.
CHEF SERGI’S SPANISH CUISINE 101
Earthy, flavourful and uncomplicated, Spanish food is purely Mediterranean and very healthy. Moreover, dining in Spain is a communal affair and is often followed by a two-hour afternoon siesta. The similarity to Indian dining doesn’t end there; Spanish food is largely spicy too. Olive oil, garlic, cheese, ham, anchovies, seafood, legumes and nuts form an integral part of the cooking process.
If you’re clueless about what to order when you walk into a Spanish restaurant, here are a few dishes you can’t go wrong with…
Tapas: There are hundreds of varieties of these “little Spanish meals” you can munch on, with or without drinks. Some of the popular tapas are Tortilla Espanola (Spanish omelette), Patatas Bravas (potatoes in Brava sauce), Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp in garlic).
Paella: Named after the special pan used for cooking it, Paella is a classic Spanish dish of rice combined with fish and meat or vegetables.
Chorizo: Spanish pork sausage.
Churros con chocolate: A fried dough pastry snack dipped in dark chocolate sauce while eating.
This interview was first published in Times Life by The Times of India