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Rock star!

Sergi Arola has a knack for gathering Michelin stars. Now he’s ready to shake up Abu Dhabi’s culinary scene

Courtesy of Shangri-La, Qaryat Al Beri
Image Credit: Courtesy of Shangri-La, Qaryat Al Beri
Sergi Arola

 

You’d be forgiven for mistaking Sergi Arola for a rock star. He wears a pair of well-fitted jeans as black as the tight T-shirt that reveals the canvas of his arms. His greying hair is slicked back, his goatee on trend. But it’s his presence that invites the classification. He is clearly the one in charge as what Abu Dhabi knew as Pearls & Caviar is a hive of activity. 
“A restaurant is a bit like a theatre, or — even better, since I play the guitar — like music: you get immediate feedback to what the guest is experiencing, every single second,” Arola tells GN Focus. “What I do is very tangible. Obviously it involves all the senses, but there’s a direct connection — you can perceive immediately whether the guests are enjoying their food and having a good time. It’s very exciting.”
An epicurean journey
Arola, considered to be one of the most creative minds in Spanish haute cuisine, was in the capital recently overseeing the preparations for his latest restaurant, p&c by Sergi Arola, due to open at the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, next month. 
“I like to get out of the kitchen and go into the restaurant,” he says. “I prefer to go with the plate and to see your face when you first see your dish — that first impression. 
“One of the most exciting things is to see somebody’s face light up as they take a bite. When they get all excited and feed their partner, that’s when you know it works.” 
With Madrid as his gastronomic home — he’s cooked his way to two Michelin stars there at the restaurants La Broche and Sergi Arola Gastro — p&c will be Arola’s first restaurant in the Middle East, complementing a host of outposts around the world, including in São Paulo, Istanbul, Verbier, Mombasa, Barcelona and Ibiza.
“You try to tell a story with every menu. You try to balance all the different elements — it’s not only about food, it’s about the story. The gastronomic experience starts when you phone to make a reservation and ends with the bill, and everything plays a role, from the person you choose to share the experience with, to the other guests and even the music.” 
Born in Barcelona, Arola spent the late ’80s studying his craft while writing songs for and performing with the band Los Canguros. His dual passion for food and music endures, and p&c will feature a “unique experience”, he promises. “We’re going to get one of the world’s most successful jazz radio stations to broadcast worldwide from the restaurant. I think Latin jazz works perfectly with food, it’s probably the best music for it, so that’s what we’ll play.” 
Arola’s nonchalance towards the trend of diners first photographing their food is telling. “I care about the experience,” he says. “If you enjoy my food and want to share it, I’m fine with that. If you like it and don’t share it, that’s also fine. The real experience of eating out matters more, and that’s not something you can share on social media.”
Art or craft?
He might create gorgeous dishes that beg to be shared, but Arola doesn’t consider himself an artist. “I’m a craftsman,” he says. “Creativity isn’t the most important part of the gastronomic experience. 
“An artist is someone who reflects their state of mind and their soul in everything they do; emotions find a way into their work. 
“Now, as a musician, heartbreak is beautiful — I get three or four songs out of that. It doesn’t work that way for chefs — the guest doesn’t care about how you feel. They just want to know you’re professional and that the experience will be amazing.” 
The 46-year-old chef says p&c will feature a pork- and alcohol-free menu. “Trust me, you won’t miss it — we have many resources! Spain has an amazing culture of lamb, vegetables and sweets.
“I’m extremely serious about the cultural aspects of the places where I open restaurants. I did it in Istanbul, Paris, Mumbai — in fact, my Mumbai outpost has two menus, one completely vegetarian and with the same number of dishes as the other, which doesn’t feature any beef dishes. I believe in completely integrating into the local tradition and culture.”
Diners can expect a five-star tapas-inspired concept drawing from and influenced by his menus across the globe. “I take a simplistic approach to the dining experience,” says Arola. 
“So, come in, have some hot and cold tapas, then maybe rice or a main dish and finally dessert. We’ll have a variety of rice, seafood and vegetables, with three or four different paellas every day. 
“Life is complicated enough, there’s no need to complicate your meal. For me, the table is a place to share. It’s a place for enjoyment, a meeting point for friendship. It shouldn’t be serious or formal.”
Arola says he sources the produce locally. “But the local market for Abu Dhabi is the whole world, which means you can get whatever you want here.” 
New mountains to scale
After cracking the two-Michelin-star club twice, what’s next? “Three,” Arola replies without missing a beat. “I always do my best. Michelin is a beautiful, passionate competition, and I really love it. The best thing is that it’s a competition against yourself — your talent, knowledge and capacity of work. It is the best guide, much better than the others. You know the standard and what to expect at, say, a two- or three-star restaurant, and it will be the same anywhere in the world. 
“My favourite restaurants in the world are all three stars.”
Arola was hand-picked by Ferrán Adrià, who has been called the world’s greatest chef, to serve as the chef de partie on the meat section at elBulli in Catalonia, as well as assist him in his creative studio at the restaurant that popularised molecular gastronomy. He also worked with iconoclastic chef Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. 
“This is one of my most beautiful restaurants,” he says, looking around at the stylish interior and big glass windows that bring the outdoors indoors. “All around the world the UAE is known for its luxury skyscrapers. But this is the real Emirates, the real Abu Dhabi — looking out across the water at the incredibly gorgeous Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque without a skyscraper in sight. It’s simply magical.”
Arola plans on visiting the outlet at least four times annually, between spending half the year at his Madrid base and the rest travelling to his other restaurants. “It’s a matter of respecting the market,” he says. “I’m very lucky to be cooking in different parts of the world, and I bring with me cuisines from India to Chile. But I’m not here to put my name on the wall, get the money and run. I want to be a part of this city and this country.”
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