If politics were expressed in the food at your table, we’d all have a permanent case of indigestion. Thankfully, although Catalonia is very much the sujet du jour at dinner tables everywhere, Paco Perez at least is steering clear of the controversy.
The top chef is hosting a pop-up at the Ritz-Carlton Dubai International Financial Centre this week as part of a three-month residency at the hotel’s Center Cut steakhouse, and hopes to give diners a taste of his home province, L’Emporda, where he runs a pair of two-Michelin-starred restaurants. Miramar, his flagship in the coastal town of Llanca, was once a struggling boarding house, and Perez has been instrumental in turning the area into a tourist destination.
“I want to bring a piece of Catalonia to Dubai,” he said ahead of the pop-up, which begins on October 22. Perez himself is here until October 24, but the promotion — a menu of 26 dishes — runs until January 22. “My food is very modern, and also very Mediterranean, with a lot of importance to ingredients, and an emphasis on the entire experience,” he said, his words translated by Manuel Olveira Seller, a chef de cuisine from the hotel who comes from the same region.
One of the foremost culinary innovators of our time (he was one of the first to embrace 3D printing in professional kitchens), Perez coaxes superlative flavours from his produce to offer the diner a full-on sensory experience — not unlike his mentor Ferran Adria. He works with ingredients native to his region, from the sea to the mountains, and in the style of another teacher, the nouvelle cuisine pioneer Michel Guerard, you can expect plenty of #cleaneating.
Here in Dubai, anchovies from the Cantabrian sea are paired with Catalan mato cheese, while creamy artichokes with truffles compete for the diner’s attention with tartares from oyster and beef. Blue lobsters (with their roe), pigeon and goat all find a spot, and in a nod to the Spanish love of earthy rusticity, Socarrat, the caramelised golden layer found at the bottom of paella pans, comes topped with sea cucumbers and king prawns.
And in a nod to the nations on the other side of the Mediterranean, he’s serving an escabeche of tuna caught in the Almadraba style — a technique thought to have been exported to Andalusia by ancient Phoenician merchants.
Perez proceeds to draw me a rudimentary map to demonstrate the importance of this region on the Costa Brava.
“Tomatoes and beef came to us from America, spices from India,” he says, talking to me in English now. “All of these products travelled across the seas over the centuries and they make the food of L’Emporda what it is today — a paradise for food. I now want to bring that to Dubai.”
True authenticity, he insists, is a myth. “There is no cuisine that is 100 per cent authentic. Italian? Tomatoes are American. Nordic? Potatoes came from America. Nothing is authentic. We like to believe this of ourselves and our terroir, but even our mentality is — and has been — shaped by external influences.”
Yet, while he will try to use produce locally available in the Emirates, the majority of ingredients will be imported from Spain.
It’s the chance to be a cultural ambassador for his hometown that prompted him to accept the Dubai gig for the Ritz-Carlton, with whose Barcelona property, Hotel Arts, he has had a 10-year association.
“I’m certainly not doing it for the money,” he quips. “But this way I can take my food to new places, and also pass on the idea that chefs must respect their teams to get the best from them,” he says. From all his time in celebrity kitchens, it’s the one thing he’s discarded. “There should be any arrogance or shouting in a kitchen.”
If he’s representing L’Emporda, Perez is also an envoy for Catalonia, whose fate within Spain — and the EU — remains the subject of debate. We’re talking the day after the autonomous region voted for independence and I tell him of a conversation I had with British chef Jason Atherton recently, where we discussed how Brexit has caused severe price increases in food and drink. Does he expect his own industry to be hit? “Catalonia is closed today. So that’s the immediate impact,” he says, in Spanish once more. “There are different sides to the story, but government made a mistake to use force and send out the police. As for business, I’ve no idea what’s going to happen later on, but today there’s a strike. So it’s already affecting the business.”
Thankfully, as Perez has already demonstrated at Miramar, L’Emporda and its cuisine will thrive whatever happens.
Check it out!
Paco Perez pop-up at Center Cut through to January 22, 2018. Open for lunch and dinner.