50 Years of Contemporary Catalan Cuisine

The Spanish stars were out in force to honor the food world's most influential "motel"
50 Years of Contemporary Catalan Cuisine
Colman Andrews

Jaume Subirós (left) and Ferran Adrià share a soul shake (among the applauders, Joan Roca, center).

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 (left, in a jacket borrowed from a chef at Arzak); 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.