The capital city of India, Delhi, is gearing up to witness the first edition of The Spanish Extravaganza. Michelin Star chefs Miguel Barrera Barachina and Ignacio Solana Perez will be making their maiden culinary visit to the city soon. Hotel Taj Mahal New Delhi is all set to host the event and provide a signature Spanish gastronomic experience.
Spain is the second most visited country in the world and the seventh largest food and drinks exporter globally. The Michelin Star chefs have been creating culinary waves globally with contemporary Spanish cuisine presented in fresh, authentic and innovative ways.
In a conversation with thestatesman.com, Chefs Miguel Barrera Barachina and Ignacio Solana Perez spoke about cooking as a profession, culinary inspirations, Indian cuisine, Spanish cuisine, molecular gastronomy and many other matters concerning food.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Miguel: There was no specific moment, more a certain time of my life. When I was 19 and I discovered all the aromas and flavours, I was instantly smitten. I thought: “This isn´t work, this is pleasure!” The training I received at the Castellón Catering School in Valencia, then considered the best in Spain, from my teacher Nativo Perez inspired me greatly too. Although, like many chefs, my major influence growing up was my mother and her cooking.
Ignacio: My mother sent me to work at another restaurant when I was 19. I realised there were so many different ingredients and ways of preparing food that I became hooked. I can still remember making a carpaccio from a venison tenderloin which tasted amazing and it blew me away because up until then, I didn’t think I liked the taste of venison. But I soon learnt that you could prepare it in so many different ways, with salad, by mixing it with sweet wine and dried fruits… I realised I was never going to reject an ingredient again. That’s when I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to be a chef.
How would you describe your job?
Miguel: I would describe my job as being creative, passionate and very satisfying. It’s a way of life and I am very lucky to be able do what I do. Being able to cook at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai and now at the Taj Mahal Hotel New Delhi for the Spanish Extravaganza Festival is a good example of the fascinating world and opportunities this profession opens up. Being able to bring our Spanish gastronomy to India is a real privilege.
Ignacio: My job is a way of life, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I spend the whole time thinking about food. It is very satisfying and every day is different. That’s the great part, that no day is ever the same. Being able to cook at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai and now at the Taj Mahal Hotel New Delhi for the Spanish Extravaganza Festival is a good example of how much I enjoy my job.
What is the biggest misconception that you think people have in mind about a chef’s job?
Miguel: Nowadays in Spain and Europe, there is a lot of respect for chefs, which is great. Clients often want to meet you and they sometimes even ask you for your autograph! So, there is sometimes the misconception that well-known or high profile chefs no longer spend any time in their own kitchens and are more focused on their image than actually doing any cooking. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The more respect you have the more responsibility you feel. So you end up being even more focused on working in your kitchen, getting better every day
Ignacio: People often only see the A side, of someone with success and influence. But on the B side are lots of hours of work and sacrifice. Many days when you haven’t seen your family, lots of stress in the kitchen. People think that maybe you are simply supervising but it’s not like that. They don’t realise that you have to resolve thousands of problems in seconds, twice a day every day.
What is your favourite cuisine to cook?
Miguel: Spanish Mediterranean cuisine is my one and only! Specifically from Valencia. We have such amazing fresh fish and seafood as well as local vegetables, truffles, wild mushrooms, artichokes… We are in the perfect place at the perfect time.
Ignacio: Spanish cuisine is my favourite, namely the north of Spain where I am from. The sea is colder than any other sea so the fish and seafood are the best quality in the world.
There must be more to Spanish cuisine than Gazpacho and Paella. What are the Spanish dishes that you think the world must know about?
Miguel: I think people need to get to know the fabada – a white bean stew from Asturias, northern Spain with several types of sausages and pork as well as spices such as saffron. Also, the huge number of stews in general which are popular all over Spain in all their regional variety and splendor.
Ignacio: The cold soups from Andalusia like salmorejo, the tripe stews which are popular all over the country and Iberian ham.
Do you find any similarity between Indian and Spanish cuisines?
Miguel: I think the fact that we both love rice dishes. That is the main similarity.
Ignacio: The format of the tapa and the concept of street food in India is very similar. In Spain, we use spices too like pimentón, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary as well as garlic.
And what are the main contrasts?
Miguel: The different spices I think is the main contrast and the hot spicy nature of Indian cuisine. In Spain, especially the Mediterranean, we focus more on drawing out and enhancing the natural flavour of each product, so the use of spices is minimal. We do use saffron and both spicy and sweet pimentón, but not much more.
Ignacio: In Spain, we focus a lot on the product itself and in India, the focus seems to be more on the fusion of flavours. Also in India, the chef has not reached the same levels of social recognition and respect as in Spain. I think that is changing, though.
Any particular Indian chef you would want to work with?
Miguel: I would love to work with Sanjeev Kapoor, Ranveer Brar and of course the legendary Gaggan Anand for his contemporary takes on Indian cuisine. I am also looking forward to working with Chef Arun of Taj Mahal Delhi. He has 25 years of culinary excellence across geographies & cuisines and has established Varq at par with famous international brand and hosts many Michelin chef pop-ups there.
Ignacio: I would love to work with Gaggan Anand. He is trained at Spain’s most famous restaurant El Bulli and he has known how to successfully blend the techniques he learnt there with his own gastronomy. I think he’s fascinating. I have heard a lot about Chef Arun’s rich experience and expertise in delivering fine food at various events. I look forward to working with him and creating unique and innovative experiences Spanish Extravaganza at Taj Mahal Delhi.
One tip for budding chefs.
Miguel: They need to love cooking. This is not a job. This is a way of life. It requires 100% dedication and involves a lot of sacrifices. But it also gives you so much back.
Ignacio: They need to have a lot of humility and the desire to learn on a daily basis. All chefs learn every day. They need to read a lot and watch a lot of chefs in action when they are starting out by working in many different kitchens.
What do you feel about molecular gastronomy?
Miguel: I think it deserves its recognition and place in today’s kitchen. It has given us so many new textures and enhanced the visual experience. In my opinion, there are only two types of cooking. The good and the bad! You can’t be too rigid. In fact, I and my fellow Michelin star colleague, Ignacio Solana, also taking part in the Spanish Extravaganza Festival, have two dishes on our menu which owe a lot to molecular gastronomy. My dish: Green beans, peas, Spanish pork panceta and Spanish Hojiblanca green olive cream for turning the olive into a different texture altogether and Ignacio’s Tomato textures with red tuna tartar and liquid Manzanilla olive, likewise with his olive.
Ignacio: In Spain, it went through a boom time and now that fashion has gone. We now focus more on flavour and perhaps less spectacular dishes but more based on tradition. But although the fad for it has passed, many molecular techniques are now a normal part of every kitchen. That’s its legacy.
Is there a secret for a successful restaurant?
Miguel: Being honorable, hard work, lots of effort and enjoyment. This last quality is the most important. It’s like the olive oil in a salad – it’s essential. You have to enjoy your work every day or there is no point. You also need a big dose of luck and a supportive team. Choosing the right location, near a large population of people so that you have a big customer base is also essential.
Ignacio: Humility, daily learning, having a positive attitude, looking for luck and opportunities…
One most unusual thing that you cooked.
Miguel: Everything I cook is something that I believe in. I would never cook anything that I didn’t like. For example, frog’s legs make my stomach turn. I have grim memories of them when I was growing up in the countryside after seeing them lurk in puddles. As such I would never be able to prepare a dish with them, no matter how popular they might be, because I wouldn’t be able to say whether they were any good. Some people have a similar reaction to eels because they are so wriggly and slippery. But I don’t find them off-putting so I do cook them because I think they are delicious! Travel in itself is a teacher. An experience teaches a lot too. During my travel tenure in the country, I look forward to tasting and creating something unusual and unique at Taj Mahal Delhi, in the upcoming Spanish extravaganza.
Ignacio: I’ve never cooked any insects, although I have prepared frog’s legs.
If you get to choose three people to invite for a dinner, who would they be?
Miguel: It would have to be Leo Messi, because I’m a Barcelona F.C. fan, Richard Gere because he´s such an amazing actor and Madonna because she would liven up any dinner.
Ignacio: Rafael Nadal, because I love sport and I think he is the best sportsman in the history of Spain. I like the way he transmits his values. Andres Iniesta, because football is my passion and although I’m not a Barcelona fan, (I’m actually a Real Madrid supporter), he is a humble champion, very natural and down to earth. Lastly, Bruce Springsteen because although he is successful he is also a fighter and someone who has always been real and given a great example of how to live his life.
What would be your “last request” dish?
Miguel: This is an interesting question! I think it would have to be the red prawns from Denia in Alicante on Spain’s Mediterranean coast because this is simply the best seafood in the world. Boiled or grilled, I’m not fussy!
Ignacio: If I could eat my mother’s red bean stew, I would die a happy man.