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A Top Chef Talks Barcelona

For fans of haute Spanish cuisine, Sergi Arola is nothing less than a superpower. The Catalan-born chef, who trained under Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, catapulted to the top of the food chain at the helm of Madrid’s Michelin two-star La Broche. He followed with his Sergi Arola Gastro, which also earned two stars, and then launched in 2004 his first venue in Barcelona, Arola at the Hotel Arts. Here he speaks about his food, culinary philosophy and restaurant ventures, his tips on Catalan wines, where he eats in New York and a memorable meal at El Bulli with Michael Stipe.

You were raised in Catalonia but made your name as a chef in Madrid. What inspired you to return to Barcelona to open a restaurant?

Barcelona is my city. Madrid has certainly opened its doors to me from the beginning, and I feel very thankful for my past fifteen years there and identify with the city. But when the possibility arose of opening a restaurant in one of Barcelona’s most emblematic hotels (a hotel I consider one of the best in the world), I jumped at the opportunity.

Certain dishes, such as your patatas bravas, have gained celebrity status for presenting a rustic dish as haute cuisine. Which of your recipes is a personal favorite?

I don’t think there are “favorite dishes.” There are moments, company, moods that respond to one type of cooking or another. Believe me when I say that I’m capable of enjoying myself as much eating some grilled sardines on the beach as in the most sophisticated of restaurants. It depends on the moment and the people I’m with.

The Rioja region has received a lot of attention from the wine community, but less is known internationally about the Catalan vineyards. Do you have favorite bodegas or vintages that you feature in Arola?

I like wines from Terra Alta and Priorato. Emporda Costa Brava also makes amazing Catalunyan wines.

Both Gastro and Arola have private dining rooms adjoining the kitchen. What do you enjoy about including diners in your kitchen?

I don’t know, perhaps listening to the stories of my grandfather of his visits back in the good old days to La Pyramide, where he sat at the table in the kitchen of Fernand Point. That might have influenced me. Also, my trip to El Bulli, my visits to Arzak. I think that the chef’s table is a super interesting tool of analysis and development, and it allows me to play the part of waiter, too, which is important because it gives me special contact with my clients. I can’t imagine a restaurant without it.

What is the most memorable meal you have eaten?

There have been a lot. My wedding meal with my wife Sara at El Celler de Can Roca, the restaurant of my friends the Roca brothers and, to my mind, the best restaurant in Girona. Or the last two dinners in El Bulli, first with my 11-year-old daughter, Carli (surely the person I have witnessed enjoy in the most innocent way Adria’s cooking); or the last one, last year, with Mario Batali and Michael Stipe and Mick Mills of REM, my favorite group since 1984. Good friends and great food! It was magical to enjoy that meal in the company of men who had brought me so much enjoyment with their music during my time as a chef in Montjoi.

The concept of the small plate dinner or tapas dinner has become a worldwide trend in dining. Do you think it’s been overdone, and what do you see as the next wave of culinary innovation?

Without a doubt, no. Tapas are – and will remain – by their own right part of the universal gastronomical patrimony, like pasta, pizza, sushi and sashimi, tacos and Mexican taquerias. The world is getting smaller and trends spread beyond their roots. Regarding new trends, I place my bet on the long reign of sustainable dining and “ethical cuisine:” local ingredients, artisanal products and small producers.

When you aren’t eating at your own restaurant, what are some of your favorite spots to hit in Barcelona?

My house, with my daughters. Also, with the people close to me—my father-in-law and my wife Sara both cook really well.

Where are some of your favorite places to visit and eat beyond Spain, and what new areas do you want to explore in the coming year?

It depends. My favorites range from street food in Mexico City or Istanbul to enjoying Per Se in New York, stopping by the sushi restaurants (without eating tuna) in the Tokyo market, the rodizio or rubayat of Sao Paolo, Din Tai Fung in Sydney or Singapore. When eating you must have curiosity, let go of snobbism and enjoy trying to feel yourself as part of the food, letting yourself get enveloped in local society or culture.

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