Spain's canny chefs cook for credit crunch

19th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

With the economic brakes on worldwide, many chefs are reeling as diners scale back.

BARCELONA  - But while French chefs turn in their Michelin stars, some of Spain's best are staying a step ahead with "prêt-à-manger" dining.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in food-crazy Barcelona where a host of what some call "prêt-à-manger" restaurants have sprung up, making the country's Michelin-starred chefs look like economic fortune-tellers.

"The mood here is grey," said Pau Arenos, author and food writer for newspaper El Periódico where he coined the term "technoemotional' to describe the space-age cuisine chef Ferran Adria, who helped launch Spain into the culinary limelight in the last decade.

Now, Arenos is watching the pendulum swing back. "There is fear and excitement -- it's hard to know who will fall or if the model of haute cuisine is in jeopardy."

"Now, diners order cheaper wine and those who occasionally went to big restaurants but fear a crash are remaining in their homes. Check totals have fallen by 30 to 40 percent, and one-star restaurants, particularly those with younger chefs, have been forced to offer fixed price lunches at around 35 euros."

It's not all bread and roses on the Iberian Peninsula, the chefs agree.

"Restaurants are fighting," confirms chef Carles Gaig who runs the one-star Gaig Restaurant, along with the tradition-based Fonda Gaig.

"The future is uncertain and 2009 looks like it will be even tougher than 2008, particularly for high-priced gourmet restaurants. Every day, people are spending less, so [high-end] chefs are looking for alternatives -- whether that's opening a new style of restaurant, incorporating different offers at their existing places, or simply battening down the hatches."

Gaig and several other Michelin-starred chefs have gone for the first option, opening new restaurants that concentrate on the classics without melting the credit card. Martin Berasategui, Nandu Jubany and Joan Roca -- all starred chefs, now have "prêt-à-manger" offerings.

Chef psyche has been forced to swing with their clientele's needs, switching from out-of-this-world technique and expensive products like foie gras and truffles, to making the best of the basics.

At the high-end Gaig, one of the chef's best-known plates is cannelloni with truffles; at the crunch-friendly "La Fonda Gaig" his macarrones de cardenal -- pasta with sofrito, onion, Iberian ham and a parmesan sauce -- are much more economical, but still draw rave reviews.

Chef Ramon Freixa runs the one-star El Raco d'en Freixa, where diners might choose a dish like streaky bacon cannelloni with curly endive, pumpkin milk curd and white truffle yogurt.

But at his brand-new Avalon, one of the most popular dishes is a traditional "arroz del senorito" -- a type of seafood paella.

The back-to-basics trend shows no sign of abating.

Fermi Puig, whose one-star restaurant, Drolma, has been wowing Barcelona diners for years, opened the classic-heavy Petit Comite on December 17.

"We need these tradition-based restaurants to help us keep a strong base for our cuisine," says chef Freixa. "We couldn't keep our roots without them."

For in a curious twist of fate, these avant-garde chefs are now rekindling interest in traditional Catalan cuisine, pouring energies once devoted to "airs," "spherificiations" and foams into updating the classics.

"They're using new methods like "sous vide" (vac-pac cooking), new products and new appliances," says journalist Arenos, "but what appears in the dining room looks like it came out of grandma's kitchen."

This isn't a rejection of the avant-garde, but a market-driven pot-stirring for clients who are hunkering down.

"Chefs are being forced to become more creative and imaginative to get better results out of the same ingredients," says Gaig. "We do this by paying much more attention to cost and product selection."

At Barcelona tapas bar Inopia, Albert Adria (pastry chef at the three-star El Bulli and brother of that restaurant's superstar chef, Ferran) gets his tripe from Hospitalet de Llobregat, the brothers' childhood home.

Carles Abellan, chef at Barcelona's one-star Comerc 24, is now becoming famous for a kettle-cooked dish combining eggs, potatoes and blood sausage at his "prêt-à-manger" restaurant, Tapac 24.

After a while, it's hard to tell if the overall trend is pushing Catalan cuisine ahead, or back to its origins.

"Forward," affirms chef Gaig. "Catalan gastronomy is based on its roots."

"Actually, both," counters chef Freixa, "There is no evolution without tradition."

AFP/  Joe Ray/ Expatica

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