50 Years of Contemporary Catalan Cuisine

The Spanish stars were out in force to honor the food world's most influential "motel"

 

When I got to the Hotel Empordà in Figueres, 20 miles or so south of the French border in Catalan Spain, late in the afternoon last Monday, I found a veritable culinary constellation sipping white wine and gin-and-tonics in the lounge: Ferran Adrià, Joan Roca, Carme Ruscalleda, and Elena Arzak, whose restaurants — El Bulli, El Celler de Can Roca, San Pau, and Arzak, respectively — each have three Michelin stars. Also present were the irrepressible José Andrés; the American TV and film producer Jeff Kleeman ("Friends With Benefits"), who is plotting a film based around Adrià's soon-to-close El Bulli; and the man everybody, myself included, had come to honor: Jaume Subiròs, chef, restaurateur, and hotelier, whose landmark establishment, El Motel — which is the hotel's dining room— is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

The place was opened in 1961 by a classically trained Catalan chef named Josep Mercader, who dubbed his modest roadside inn and dining room the Motel Ampurdán. (Spain doesn't have "motels", but Mercader liked the term, especially since the place was easy to pull into from the main pre-autopista national road that led down from France to Barcelona.) To advertise the new enterprise, he painted signs, with permission, on the whitewashed walls of houses along local byways. At one door he knocked on, the owner agreed to let him put up a sign if Mercader would give his young son a job. Mercader agreed, and an 11-year-old Jaume Subiròs came to work at the Motel to carry luggage and perform odd jobs. He stayed, working his way up to waiter, kitchen helper, and finally chef. He also married the boss's daughter.

Mercader was an enormously influential chef in Catalonia: He was arguably the first to bring traditional local dishes into a formal dining room context, and if that wasn't enough he went on to work modern variations on them for the first time. The rustic roasted vegetable dish called escalivada, for instance, became a mousse with an anchovy vinaigrette; the famous crema catalana, a kind of crème brûlée, was transformed into ice cream. When Mercader died suddenly in 1976, Subiròs took over and continued his work. The "motel" was subsequently renamed the Hotel Empordà (the Catalan form of Ampurdan), and came to be known as one of the best restaurants in Catalonia. Last year, to honor the origins of the place and to distinguish the restaurant from the hotel in which it was situated, the former was rebranded as El Motel.

With the 50th anniversary of the place approaching, a Barcelona-based professor of English literature — and longtime El Motel regular — named Miquel Berga assembled a book of recipes and tributes called Historias del Motel: 50 años del Hotel Empordà, and helped plan last Monday's gala celebration, which was held at the only institution in Figueres that might be more famous than Subiròs's: the Dalí Museum. Because I've known Subirós for 30 years and have written about his cooking on numerous occasions (starting with my book Catalan Cuisine, first published back in 1988), Berga asked me to offer a tribute to the guest of honor and to talk about his place in the history of Catalan cooking, which I was happy to do.

The original plan was to limit the guest list to a numerically appropriate 50, but the final tally was well over 200. "People who have been friends of the restaurant for a long time kept calling up and saying 'I hear there's a celebration…'," Subirós told me. "We had to invite them."

In addition to the aforementioned luminaries, the crowd included such celebrated Barcelona chefs and restaurateurs as Mercè Navarro (Roig Robí), Isidre Gironès (Ca l'Isidre, the city's best classic restaurant), José and Pedro Monje (Via Veneto), and Fermí Puig (Drolma) — the latter responsible for having brought a young Ferran Adrià to El Bulli for the first time back in 1983. Also there: Lluís Cruanyas, who ran Eldorado Petit, which was the best restaurant in the Catalan capital in the 1980s and now has the excellent Eldorado in Sant Feliu de Guixols (and who first brought José Andrés to America to cook at a short-lived Eldorado Petit outpost in New York City); a number of prominent chefs from around Catalonia, including Jordi Juncà of Ca l’Enric and Nandu Jubany of Can Jubany; Santi Vila, the mayor of Figueres; the well-known Catalan writer Josep Maria Espinas; and the Barcelona sculptor Xavier Medina-Campeny, whose heroic bronze bull's head is an oft-photographed feature of the kitchen at El Bulli.

After Berga, Vila, and I said our piece about Subirós, the man himself took the microphone to say a few words of appreciation. He is a soft-spoken man, unfailingly polite and far humbler than a man of his accomplishments would need to be, and when the room gave him a standing ovation, he seemed to blush.

At the reception held in the museum courtyard after the presentation, guests got tastes of El Motel specialties, including that mousse of escalivada, fava salad with mint, brandade of tuna with seaweed, salt cod with garlic mousseline, and anchovy and eggplant croquettes. A privileged portion of the crowd then repaired to — where else? — El Motel, for a banquet prepared by three chefs: Bart Thoelen, a Belgian who has a one-star restaurant called Les Palmier in Laroque des Albères, just across the border into France; Elena Arzak, who cooks with her father, Juan Mari, at the revered Arzak in San Sebastián; and Subirós himself. We ate cucumber and wild fennel gazpacho with tomato sorbet (see recipe), pork belly with confit artichokes, and carpaccio of local langoustines with "guacamole" (in fact a fine avocado purée), all cooked by Thoelen — who is definitely a chef to watch; beautiful, juicy hake long-cooked at low temperature by Arzak; and a classic roast duck with polenta, the contribution of Subirós. Desserts included Josep Mercader's mint sorbet.

A couple of nights later, when all the to-do had died down, I went back to El Motel for dinner. This time I dined superbly on the Spanish version of cecina, or dried beef, like a cow-based version of some rustic mountain ham; vinegary "gazpacho" made with beets and cherries; and earthy, wonderfully balanced dishes of sweet peas with mint and specks of botifarra negra (blood sausage) and regular botifarra (white pork sausage) and chanterelles sautéed with garlic and parsley.

Remarkably, considering the quality of the food and the history of the place — not to mention the stature of the chefs and restaurateurs who came out to pay tribute to it — El Motel lacks even a single Michelin star. "In Spain," says a friend of mine, a food-loving attorney from Barcelona, "the Guide Michelin is useful for addresses and phone numbers, and that's about it."