The Barri Gótic is packed with restaurants catering to all tastes and budgets, and is also one of the most historic and touristic neighbourhoods in Spain. Before talking to some of the chefs who are in charge of these kitchens, I was expecting to hear horror stories on par with reality television—about the stress of the frenetic rhythm, the gruelling hours on their feet, and the hassle of dealing with rude clients. Surprisingly, three different chefs from three different kinds of restaurant were all uniformly laid back, as they lovingly described the day-to-day details of their jobs.
JESÚS ORTEGA MARIN AT CLEMEN’S
Jesús Ortega Marin is the chef at Clemen’s, a bar that has been located in the back of the Boquería since 1976. It’s a magical corner of the market that offers heaped plates of savoury tapas and vermut, served on sparkling jet-black countertops. Over 200 people may come through on an average day and everyone is personally greeted by the owner, Albert, and his wife and son. Chef Jesús has to keep up with this flow of clientele from 7am until 4pm, six days a week. “You can buy €900 worth of seafood and still run out before the end of a busy day,” he says. “Sounds crazy, but it’s true.”
Jesús has been working in the hospitality and food industry for 35 years, starting out as a planchista in 1978 in a Frankfurter shop on Carrer Sant Pau. “It’s a question of practice,” he says. “Like anything, you get better with time, and after enough experience you can adapt to almost any situation.”
He says that in spite of the hectic turnover rate at Clemen’s, the trick is to never forget to respect the dish you’re making. “Don’t be in a hurry. If you rush the base, for example the sofrito—the red peppers, onions, tomatoes, spices—the food will not come out right. You have to know your environment and how to control the elements within it, so that you can produce the best flavours possible.”
He says that the goal at the bar is to make good-quality, tasty dishes that leave every customer happy. “The psychology of the restaurant business trains you to deal with a customer who orders a tapa in the same way as a big party with a hefty bill. You never know whether that guy who just wanted a coffee might come back and bring a bunch of friends. It’s important to remember that you’re not only the chef, you’re a part of a complicated business machine.”
In spite of the long hours, Jesús says that his job has never felt like a job. “It doesn’t feel like work, I’m never looking at my watch. To work in this business, especially at a place with as much movement as Clemen’s, you really have to love it.”
LEONARDO DORADO CAMPOS AT LA PALMERA
Right around the corner from Clemen’s is the historic La Palmera, tucked away on Carrer Jerusalem. Leonardo Dorado Campos is the head chef as well as the owner, and he prides himself on serving traditional Catalan cuisine from morning till night. The walls are adorned with blue tiles and farm implements, and the bright lights show off spotless white table cloths. The smiling staff serves up hearty, homemade food and jugs of house wine at a good price. Around 2pm, you’ll find a rotation of regulars mixed with tourists who have hunted the place down after reading rave reviews on the internet.
Leonardo’s foray into the cooking world started at the age of 15, when he left his native Galicia and moved to Madrid. He started learning to cook in Madrid, adding to the baking experience he already had from his parents. After two years he moved to Barcelona, finished school, and decided to settle down permanently in the Catalan capital.
He worked in restaurants, cooked for private parties in masías, followed older cooks around as they shopped for mushrooms, veggies and spices, and picked other chefs’ brains when they invited him over for dinner. When he was 23 years old, he opened his first business.
“Two things were clear to me,” says Leonardo seriously. “I didn’t want to work for someone else and, I didn’t want to be mediocre.” He remembers covering the outsides of cookbooks in paper so that no one would be able to tell what he was reading on his morning and evening commutes in the metro or bus.
Thirty-two years ago, Leonardo and his team took over La Palmera, which had been a point of reference for high-end Catalan cooking in the city. “We kept the name, and we tried to preserve the same kind of dishes. The difference is that we’ve geared our menus more towards average folks.”
Leonardo does it all. “I buy the food, I cook it, I sell it, and I come out from behind the scenes to greet the customers. If you want to do anything well, you have to dedicate yourself to it. But if you love what you do, it really doesn’t seem like work. And if you put love into the dishes you make, people can tell.”
He says that the trick to maintaining the quality of a restaurant for so many years is quite basic. “Make dishes that are a little more complicated than a mamá at home would have time to prepare, but simple enough that coming in to eat doesn’t have to be a black-tie affair. That’s giving people a reason to come to your restaurant,” he says as he waves adéu to a couple of regulars.
“You also need to specialise in a few things, and to know what appeals to your clientele. For example, foreigners always want paella, so we make sure we make a great paella.” For the locals, he prepares typical dishes like escudella, garbanzos, and butifara negra y blanca. Leonardo says that it’s also important to use seasonal vegetables and fruits. That way the menu is naturally changing, and it keeps the food consistent with the outside world.
And, most importantly, says Leonardo firmly, “when you eat at La Palmera, you’re in my house. Everyone is welcome in my house and it’s my job to make sure that they go away happy, once or a hundred times.”
SERGIO SANCHEZ-MONTIJANO AT PLA
Yet another chef who shares this philosophy is Sergio Sanchez-Montijano. He is head chef at Pla, a small, romantic restaurant on tiny Carrer Bellafila that serves up artful cuisine.
Originally from Jaen, Sergio felt the urge to travel from a very young age. In San Sebastian, London and the south of England, he studied under chefs who had already made an international reputation for themselves. “I wasn’t just studying the profession, but the culture of cooking as well,” he says.
Sergio made his way back to Spain, finally arriving in Barcelona. He heard that the owner at Pla was looking for a head chef. “I came, had dinner, and saw a little of the way of thinking they promote in the kitchen, and then did several interviews here.” He says they only reached an agreement after having spoken carefully about their respective visions for the restaurant and the menu.
“You can’t work in a place where the philosophy doesn’t match with yours.” he says. “Cooking is an art, after all, and the cook must be given autonomy while still respecting the needs of the place where he works.”
The culinary goal at Pla is to be constantly changing. “There are lots of places that make great traditional food in Barcelona, but that’s not the goal here. I always try to be innovative,” Sergio says. “Though of course, the base style is Spanish cooking… well, because I can’t help it. I’m Andaluz, and my mother was a good cook!” But their food is influenced by their multinational staff. Sergio says he likes to have his employees try things, asking how their mother might have changed the recipe.
Sergio doesn’t do the shopping but he does roam the markets himself, looking for ideas. “For example, taking a traditional recipe like cannelloni, and making it vegetarian—maybe using beets instead of meat—and inviting friends to come and try it out, that’s exciting. After the dinner you go sit with them, and see what the reactions were. The more feedback you get, the more you can improve.”
Like Leonardo at La Palmera and Jesús at Clemen’s, he admits that he works longs hours, but “it doesn’t feel like work. I’m happy and comfortable here.” Echoing the words of both Jesús and Campos, he says: “You really can’t be a great chef if you don’t love what you do. I absolutely love it.”
I asked him: “You know, I’ve interviewed three chefs from three very different restaurants, and each of you is very zen. Don’t you ever get stressed?”
Smiling kindly at the question of an obvious novice, Sergio patiently replies: “The stress of the kitchen comes from working in a situation where there are many elements that you can’t control. I’ve been in those situations too, but when you make sure that you control your environment, you’ve prepared for the day in advance, and you trust your team, it’s not stressful. That reality television drama is really wasted energy that could be spent preparing a good meal. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Bar Clemen’s: La Rambla 91. Tel. 93 317 1084
La Palmera: Carrer Jersusalem 30. Tel. 93 301 4291
Pla: Carrer Bellafila 5. Tel. 93 412 6552