Vice President and editorial director of The Daily Meal, Colman Andrews, sits down with acclaimed Spanish chef Paco Roncero, to discuss Spanish cuisine.
Paco Roncero, one of Spain's best young chefs, was in New York City recently for two important purposes: to demonstrate liquid-nitrogen cookery for a group assembled by the Tourist Office of Spain to promote their country as a gastronomic destination, and to run the New York Marathon. (In case anyone forgot about the latter event, he sported luminescent orange running shoes with his white chef's jacket as he dazzled the crowd gathered at the Trump Soho Hotel by whipping up caipirinhas in the form of instant sorbets and turning mixed fruits into frozen confections called "dragon lyos" — freeze-dried dragons — because when you pop one into your mouth and chew it, steam flows from your nose and mouth).
Roncero is a busy fellow. A native of Madrid who had cooked at the city's old-line Zalacaín (Spain's first three-star restaurant, though it now has only one) and Hotel Ritz, he went to work at the Casino de Madrid — which is not a casino in the Las Vegas sense but a private club with nineteenth-century origins — in 1991. He later became director of the Casino's restaurant, La Terraza del Casino, under the direction of Ferran Adrià. Adrià is no longer involved, but Roncero has won two Michelin stars for his contemporary Spanish cooking there."Contemporary Spanish cooking would not exist without traditional Spanish cooking." — Paco Roncero
But, he stresses, "Contemporary Spanish cooking would not exist without traditional Spanish cooking." That's why, in addition to his duties at the Casino, he has opened two trendy tapas bars in Madrid, serving classic tapas with a chef's refinement, both called Estado Puro (Pure State). Recently, he has expanded internationally with two locations in Shanghai. He'd like to open Estado Puros all over the world, he says, because he thinks it's important that people outside Spain understand what real tapas are.
As if that weren't enough, Roncero functions as "gastronomical assessor" (meaning that he's a hands-on consultant) for View 62 by Paco in Hong Kong — it’s the city's only revolving restaurant — and has developed the popular restaurant software called Kitchen Manager. Oh, and he has also opened what has been called (not without reason) "the most expensive restaurant in the world."
That would be Sublimotion at the Hard Rock Hotel in Ibiza, one of Spain's Balearic Islands. This is about as far from a typical casual Ibiza beachside restaurant as can be imagined. Here, Roncero gives full rein to his avant-garde imagination, offering a single 20-course tasting menu. The meal, which lasts about three hours and is conducted in English, involves art, magic, music, choreography, and more. Some 30 cooks and servers take care of a mere dozen diners per session (there is one seating per night in June, two in July, August, and September; then the place closes until the following June). The tariff? It's €1,500 (approximately $2,000) per person, including Champagne and wine, but not tax (which adds another 10 percent). That's one pricey dinner. "But," says Roncero, "it is not really a restaurant. It's a show, a spectacular, an experience."
How did Spain get to the point where one of its restaurants, "experience" or not, could command this kind of price and draw the enthusiastic diners that it does? For that matter, how did Spain get to become one of the world's great gastronomic destinations?
"I think there are three reasons," Roncero told me, both when I interviewed him on camera and later. The first, he said, was that the Spanish started to travel the world after the Franco era (which ended with the Spanish dictator's death in 1975). "We went, we saw, we brought back with us the most important foods and techniques from other places." Second, chefs began to share information and ideas, whether at gastronomic conferences or just having lunch together. "I don't think this is as true in any other country, or with any other profession," he said. Third, Spanish chefs began to establish separate spaces — call them laboratories or workshops — where they could work on the development of new dishes and ideas. (Ferran Adrià was the pioneer in this regard.) "If you work 14 or 15 hours a day for your customers," Roncero pointed out, "it's impossible to create new things. So we devote space, chefs, money to development." He and other chefs also bring in other kinds of talents — scientists, artists, designers, people who know things beyond the culinary arts. "Those," he concluded, "are the key things that make the difference with Spanish gastronomy today."