Spain's Top Food Critic Tells All | José Carlos Capel
José Carlos Capel shares insights with Anya von Bremzen on everything from the dishes that started Spain's food revolution to the next big trends.
"Spanish chefs have caught a creative fever," declares José Carlos Capel, the influential, forward-thinking food critic for El País, Spain's largest daily. In the late 1970s, a group of Basque chefs modernized Spanish cooking by borrowing nouvelle cuisine ideas from France. That prepared the way for the Ferran Adrià-led avant-garde revolution of the '90s, introducing groundbreaking concepts like smoke-flavored foam and Parmesan ice cream sandwiches. Today Spanish chefs continue to innovate, determined to translate Adrià's radical concepts into personal and increasingly accessible food. In this interview, Capel examines Spain's past, considers its future, and talks about where he eats when he needs a break from high-concept cuisine.
Why is Spain the world's most exciting food destination right now? Every culture has its own strength at a given moment: In Finland they do amazing things with cell phones, in Spain we cook. One of the main factors is the strength of our traditional cuisine. The best chefs reference regional classics, following the concept of memoria gustativa, or taste memory.
But what inspired the wild culinary creativity that makes Spain so exceptional? In the late 1970s, a group of San Sebastián chefs, led by Juan Mari Arzak, created a new Basque cuisine inspired by French nouvelle cuisine, making traditional dishes lighter and more exciting. Not coincidentally, this happened in Guipúzcoa, the Basque province that's considered Spain's gastronomic capital. The Basques started a culinary revolution and everyone was watching. Meanwhile, the cultural revolution after Franco's death brought out iconoclastic figures like filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar; for the public, modern cooking represented their new freedom.
Were those first innovators truly so avant-garde? Looking at Arzak's old menus, you'd be amazed at how simple and clever those dishes were. He transformed traditional Basque staples, such as merluza en salsa verde (hake in green sauce), by taking out the flour and making the sauce light and vibrant. Much of the change was in the method—cooking seafood perfectly, eschewing the fat and cream, using local ingredients. New Basque cuisine evolved through the '80s, then along came Ferran Adrià in the '90s and the scene was set.
What are the biggest trends in Spanish cuisine now? Back in the '90s, there were foams and cold and hot gelées, then came all the different crunchy textures, then sous vide [vacuum packed] cooking and then everyone was doing low-temperature poached eggs, then bubbly "airs" [ultralight foams]. Oddly, right now I don't see one dish that everyone is imitating; perhaps cooking has gotten more personal and individual. But there are trends. An incredibly important one is chefs collaborating with scientists. The University of Zaragoza, for instance, has a new food-science department with so many high-tech machines and resident chemists and physicists whose research is similar to that of France's influential molecular-gastronomy specialist, Hervé This. If the sous vide trend continues, I can imagine that in the future restaurants won't have kitchens, but only high-tech steam ovens. Chefs will have perfect control, with each serving coming out exactly the same as the last one. I've tasted some dishes made this way and the flavors were amazing.
What's driving Spain's young chefs? The best ones are real romantics who do it for the sake of science and art. Angel León Gonzales, a young chef from La Casa del Temple restaurant in Toledo, works with a local university's science department researching fish eyes and fish scales! I'm not kidding. He dehydrates them, then turns them into amazing foams, which have an intense sea smell. Another young chef, Senen Gonzales, in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque region, just invented a technique for simultaneously grilling and frying ingredients, like potatoes. To make ends meet, he moonlights as a disc jockey in Ibiza in the summers. And Andoni Luis Aduriz, of Mugartiz restaurant near San Sebastián, has become so ascetic, I think he'll soon be wearing monk's robes and living in the woods, gathering wild herbs.
What's making new Spanish cuisine evolve? Spain's young chefs all over the country are united into a movement. They are all friends and travel to each other's restaurants. Spain is like a cooking school with open doors—there are no secrets. When somebody invents something new, everyone knows about it immediately; Adrià and Martín Berasategui are amazingly open about everything that they're doing.
Has the popularity of tapas inspired haute cuisine? Tapas have always been ubiquitous in Spain, but they have gotten more sophisticated over the years. In the '80s, San Sebastián's tapas bars started serving fancy, elaborate pinxtos [Basque tapas] using ingredients like foie gras. Then came Ferran, with his multicourse menus of tiny tastes—essentially tapas. And suddenly, there were full-scale restaurants like Barcelona's Commerc 24, and Madrid's Azul Profundo, serving tapas with a knife and a fork. And many traditional restaurants have tapas bars—for example, La Sirena in Alicante, and El Faro in Cádiz in Andalucía, where you can eat cheaper and often better than in the dining room. Spanish diners don't care if a cuisine is avant-garde or traditional, as long as it's delicious.
What places have surprised you recently? There's always [Adrià's] El Bulli. But generally, I've seen so much innovation, the only thing that surprises me are fantastic ingredients. The great revelations are ingredient-driven restaurants, like Etxebarri in the Basque Country, where the owner constantly invents new grilling techniques, or Ca' Sento in Valencia, which has the world's best Mediterranean seafood. Ingredients are the last and ultimate truth.
You must get overwhelmed by the constant exposure to off-the-wall cuisine. Where do you eat when you're not working? I like the simple home-style restaurants in Madrid, like Villa de Foz, a Galician place, or Taberna el Are, which has great tripe, and hake Galician-style. And I love Japanese food.