Ricard Camarena: today’s fine dining is an unforgettable aubergine

The great chef discusses global trends and young chefs, Italy, Spain and France. He’s sure: good vegetables are the future

19-04-2018

A long chat with Ricard Camarena, one of the greatest contemporary Spanish chefs, in Valencia

We sit in the lounge area of the new, magnificent location of his gourmet restaurantRicard Camarena is one of the current masters of Spanish cuisine. Philippe Regol, in our Guida Identità Golose, says: "It’s still not clear why his cuisine doesn’t receive more awards. It’s not a question of despairing for Michelin stars (he only has one), but if you compare the real standards of some “two stars” with this personal, intelligent and delicious cuisine, you have to be surprised". Indeed. And there’s more: Camarena is not just a great cochinero, but he’s also an excellent philosopher of contemporary cuisine. So before dining there, we have a long chat with him.

We sat with him on this sofa, in his restaurant 

We sat with him on this sofa, in his restaurant 

Can you explain to our readers your current culinary research?
«We base our gastronomic offer on local products and in particular on the products of vegetable gardens. Six years ago we established a relationship with a farmer, Toni also known as "Misiano", who’s 6 km from here. Together, one year in advance, we test the cultivation of the vegetables we think we’ll use in our kitchen the following year. Hence our creativity always emerges from the product, in all its features. We want to conceive a menu in which vegetables have the main role, and with Toni we can farm those “special”, unusual vegetables ourselves, that is to say products that are usually not available from the market: baby artichokes, habas [Lima beans], spring beans you eat with the pod... This way we can present the authentic flavour of the vegetables, aromas we no longer know. They are very intense, because we use local varieties that were not genetically manipulated and have not been subject to any chemicals. And most of all they stay in our pantry a maximum of 48 hours after they leave the fields; more often than not, if they arrive in the morning, we already serve them at noon. Their freshness is an essential feature: having the chance to taste authentic countryside flavours in a city is a real luxury these days».

Camarena in the vegetable garden with Jordi Roca

Camarena in the vegetable garden with Jordi Roca

How about meat and fish?
«Eating excellent and very fresh meat and fish in a city has never been a problem. If you have enough money. But with vegetables it’s more complicated, because some products are not available even if you go to the best culinary shop in the world. This is why we farm these vegetables ourselves and know all about them. We’re the ones to asses when, how and where from».

In which percentage is your cuisine vegetal? Do you have a vegetarian menu?
«No. For me the vegetal world always creates an important duality. I present a dish in which peas and scampi meet: then it’s the guest who decides which is the main character. Or aubergine with the belly of the best red tuna in the world. Then I like to understand what is at the service of what, who "leads". Or if you give two matched ingredients, a new, original mix always results from this. Our offer is entirely based on the immediacy of our ingredients; on broth made on the spot, to which we don’t add water, but we make use of the humidity of the raw ingredients, of their fat which we emulsify with the liquid... These are daily broths. I strongly believe in the essential power of oxidation, but never in a negative way: the passing of time is useful in some preparations, but in general it’s not my goal in the kitchen».

But you do like fermentations.
«Indeed, very much. They give a specific and different ingredient as a result, which you can use in a dish. I like fermentation, preserving in vinegar... But we believe in immediacy, in express cuisine (recien hecha), in a cuisine rich of aromas. This is the case when ingredients haven’t lost their aromas in time. If I use very fresh products, like in the broth we make hour by hour, all the aromas turn into flavour, because flavour is also about scents. When we have a cold, we don’t perceive aromas, which is a nasal aftertaste; we make broth on the spot, it’s concentrated, the aromas don’t evaporate, so it becomes sublime. See, this is my cuisine of aromas».

Anchovy colatura from Camarena

Anchovy colatura from Camarena

Speaking of fermentations: you’ve worked on a sort of “anchovy colatura”…
«I discovered anchovy colatura on my first visit to Terra Madre in Torino, in 2008. It charmed me. Two years later, in 2010, I met an artisan who worked with anchovies here in Valencia. He made a broth of it and I asked him: how do you use it? He said: I keep it for the next year when I fish new anchovies and it becomes like mother yeast. I thought that with that broth I could make something different, something fantastic. We started experimenting and the result is our product, which is made differently from Italian anchovy colatura. We’ve established the type of anchovy, the season, the methodology, if we have to use roe or not, the amount of fat, and so on. We clarify it. So basically we take greater care of this broth than of the anchovies themselves! I called it Letern, which recalls the concept of eternity. [It’s more balanced, it has a rounder flavour. Suave they say here: 4 years of fermentation, and then there’s a special version, with 14 years of fermentation: it’s black, spectacular, powerful]. I love it for its umami flavour, it’s like a substitute for salt».

Camarena and paella

Camarena and paella

How much of Valencia can we find in your style?
«I think it’s present most of all in the choice and origin of my ingredients: there’s authenticity, valorisation of indigenous products. But there’s no “Valencian style" of cooking, because I’ve revolutionised everything: my grandmother used to make paella in a way, I do it in another. The way we eat, the cooking point, the amount of fat have all changed».

Spanish chefs have researched raw materials at length. Do you believe there are some that still need to be fully valorised?
«Yes. Vegetables. I’ve been using vegetables more and more in the past seven years and I believe today they can make the difference. I believe we have an advantage and an opportunity here in Spain: there are many farmers now who make excellent vegetables. We are part of a global trend in this. I believe we’re responsible for what happens: if you come to my restaurant and order a tasting menu, the message I can give is important; if I show you how out of eight dishes, six have vegetables as their essential element, and I place vegetables in an unprecedented context, I associate excellence, fine dining, with the vegetal world. If I do so, if I present all the vegetables with complex techniques, and paired with fish, meat, crustaceans and so on, I send you a positive subliminal message».

Ferran Adrià surrounded by Spanish chefs (and Nobu)

Ferran Adrià surrounded by Spanish chefs (and Nobu)

Spain has been the home to cooking avant-garde for over a decade. What phase is the culinary industry of your country experiencing now?
«The past has been very important. When elBulli closed, all the great chefs in Spain started looking for their personal journey. ElBulli shed a very powerful light, it was a lighthouse for everyone, or at least for many, including me. I drew a lot from Ferran because he taught us to renovate cuisine; this was his great lesson, which is still valid: looking at things from a different point of view, with creative liberty. We can apply this today in the choice of style of each chef, even though they’re now very different from each other. In a way, Ferran was very generous, because by closing elBulli he allowed us to take on our personal journey. Now in Spain cooking is represented by many different personalities, different point of views depending on each chef. But there’s a common thread, which is creative liberty. And then there’s this return to products; technique is less important, we focus more and more on original flavours through excellent, genuine, authentic ingredients, as I said. This is the new luxury: buscar el ingrediente».

How would you like your style to be defined?
«A seemingly simple yet very complex cuisine, with elegant and intense flavours, and always very fresh».

The concept of post-avant-garde, the focus of Madrid Fusión in 2016

The concept of post-avant-garde, the focus of Madrid Fusión in 2016

Some mentioned post-avant-garde, referring to the current phase, which has you, León, Munoz and a few others among its protagonists. What’s your opinion?
«This is not my definition. It was given by journalist and gastronomy experts [it was given by Quico Sosa, see Inside the era of post-avantgarde]. I think it’s reasonable, but defining my cuisine is not my job».

What are the global trends, in your opinion?
«Sustainability, awareness, freshness, healthiness. Low fat, few simple carbohydrates, lots of vegetables... In other words, I think the global trend is my own!» he laughs.

To the left Marcos Morán with his father Pedro, the two generations running Casa Gerardo in Prendes, in the Asturias, in the north of Spain, tel. +34.98.5887797. «Marcos fights between the devil in his belly and the diplomatic wisdom of his father», wrote Spanish journalist Rafa Santos

To the left Marcos Morán with his father Pedro, the two generations running Casa Gerardo in Prendes, in the Asturias, in the north of Spain, tel. +34.98.5887797. «Marcos fights between the devil in his belly and the diplomatic wisdom of his father», wrote Spanish journalist Rafa Santos

What are the best Spanish chefs of the new generation?
«You mean aside from Dacosta, Dani Garcia, Aduriz? If we go beyond them, I’d say Kiko Moya (L'Escaleta in Alicante), Paco Morales (Noor in Cordoba), Marcos Morán (Casa Gerardo in the Asturias. See also Viaggio nelle Asturie), Alberto Ferruz (BonAmb again in Alicante), Javier Olleros (Culler de Pau in Pontevedra, in Galicia)... Nacho Manzano is a generational step above (Casa Marcial in Arriondas, Asturias). Then Álvaro Garrido (Mina in Bilbao). In this generation there’s also David Muñoz (DiverXo in Madrid), but he’s already consecrated internationally. Like Angel León (Aponiente near Cadiz). And there’s at least some 50 more».

And you?
«We’re establishing ourselves. We hope to say something for the future of gastronomy, but we still have a lot to do».

Angel León at Identità Milano 2017

Angel León at Identità Milano 2017

An adjective for Angel León.
«Brave».

Andoni Luis Aduriz.
«Determined».

Muñoz.
«Revolutionary»

Massimo Bottura.
«A philosopher».

Niko Romito at Identità Milano 2018

Niko Romito at Identità Milano 2018

Speaking of Italian chefs: you were born in 1974. Like Niko Romito, and Massimiliano Alajmo.
«It was a good year then! I’m a fan of Romito. I still haven’t experienced his cuisine directly, but I’ve seen his dishes, read his recipes and his restaurant is the one I’m most interested in visiting, in the whole world».

Which other Italian chefs do you know and like?
«I dined at Carlo Cracco’s, five years ago. I loved it. I follow Romito’s work, as I said. And Massimiliano Alajmo’s... I’ve heard very good things of Floriano Pellegrino and Isabella Potì at Bros in Lecce. And Enrico Crippa is spectacular. I’ve also been at Combal.zero...».

Paul Bocuse

Paul Bocuse

Paul Bocuse said that French cuisine will decline when Italian chefs will realise the heritage of recipes and products they have, instead of forgetting it out of ignorance, xenophilia, fashion. Do you agree?
«I believe French society – and their cuisine too – have a head start of one hundred years. They have a unique background: people buy a baguette and want the best; they buy cheese and want the best... There’s a widespread gastronomic culture, which you cannot improvise. Everyone knows excellent products, if they can afford them, they buy them. In no other country in the world good food is such a strong ideal, identity element, and this becomes an excellent cultural soup to continue to do good. Having said this, I’d say: if today I analyse restaurants, one by one, I must say that the comparison between France and a few other countries is between equals. As in the case of Italy, Spain, Belgium, Norway, Denmark...»

How about outside Europe?
«It’s hard to make comparisons. Look at Japan: it’s like Mars, and we are on planet Earth. It’s another concept of cuisine. They give value to things in a different way, and vice versa».

And South America?
«Great products, but fine dining restaurants are isolated. Only here in Valencia we have 5 or 6 great restaurants, 50 or 100 in Spain. Can we say the same of Brazil, which is much larger than Spain? I don’t know, I don’t think so. The relationship between fine dining restaurants and the population is very different, with a few exceptions like Lima, or Sao Paulo, or Rio de Janeiro and perhaps Santiago del Chile. These cities have more than one good restaurant, but it’s still very exclusive. In Italy, every town with more than 50.000 inhabitants has at least one great restaurant!».
 

Camarena’s final thoughts are like a perfect programmatic point for a new way to conceive our territories: we must recuperate the common roots of Mediterranean cuisine, enhancing the connections between these countries. «We speak of South East Asia, which is a huge and very varied area. We don’t do the same with Mediterranean cuisine, which has common roots, is born and developed in a much smaller area where we all cook in a similar way. It’s ridiculous. When I go to Israel, I feel at home; still I also find a different approach, in terms of products and places, which I find marvellous. The same happens in Italy, Greece, or in the south of France... We’re all equal and different at the same time. I believe the gastronomic identity of the Mediterranean area is very important. It will also be our distinctive feature. Forget about Nordic cuisine… let’s recuperate our roots!».

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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