Death of a Great Catalan Chef

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Santi Santamaria, Catalonia's first three-star chef, is felled by a heart attack
Santi Santamaria
Relaischateaux.com

Santi Santamaria

I first ate at El Racó de Can Fabes, in the nondescript town of Sant Celoni, about 30 miles northeast of Barcelona, in 1990. The place looked like a rustic inn of the kind you find all over Italy, France, and Spain — the kind of restaurant where you might very well eat a salad of fresh-picked greens and a roasted baby chicken and be happily on your way. What I found instead was cooking that betrayed an astonishing imagination and a very practiced hand — the hand not of a good country cook but of a serious French-inspired chef. Two dishes I had that day stood out: “ravioli” of shrimp and wild mushrooms, the trick being that the finely chopped, sautéed wild mushrooms were enclosed not in pasta but in translucent slices of raw shrimp; and a “cap i pota”, a term usually describing a traditional Catalan dish of pig’s feet (pota is Catalan for “leg”) and muzzle (cap means “head”), caramelized onions, and chickpeas but made here with frogs' legs and shreds of sweet meat from a calf’s snout, plus oven-dried carrots and tomatoes — a brilliant and thoroughly delicious transformation.

The chef at El Racó, I learned when he came out to chat after my meal, was a self-taught local boy — he was born in the building that now housed his restaurant — who was fiercely devoted to the raw materials of his immediate surroundings: Santi Santamaria.

Over the years, I ate many more meals at Santi’s restaurant, and got to know him and his wife, Àngels Serra, at least a little. One afternoon, he told me how he became a chef: He’d been an industrial designer, but was also an ardent Catalanist — almost seditiously proud of his heritage in the Franco years, when Catalans were forbidden to assemble or speak their own language. He began cooking to feed his friends at political meetings, and when he got laid off by his company, he took his severance money and turned a corner of his birthplace into a bistro. Little by little, inspired by forays into France, he refined his cooking and evolved his bistro into a real restaurant, eventually earning a Michelin star, and then another. By 1994, he had gotten good enough to win the coveted third Michelin star, becoming the first Catalan and only the third chef in Spain (after Benjamin Urdiain at the old-style Zalacaín in Madrid, since demoted to one star,  and then the esteemed Juan Mari Arzak in San Sebastián).

Santamaria was never tempted by the avant-garde, but he continued to use his imagination to transmute the vegetables and snails and rabbit and pork and (going a few miles further afield) the cuttlefish and anchovies and rockfish and the rest that were foraged or harvested or slaughtered or fished practically in his own back yard. His most recent menu, for instance, includes an assortment of different kinds of squash, raw, boiled, roasted, grilled, and fried; and a dish of freshwater eel with truffles and confit garlic; and a classic roasted woodcook with liver toast.

His empire grew: two restaurants in Madrid (one of which, Santceloni, has been touted as three-star material and already had two), two on the outskirts of Barcelona, one near Toledo, one in Dubai, one in Singapore…

Along the way, of course, Santi had gotten to know the Catalan chef who would eventually eclipse him, Ferran Adrià, and in recent years, in appearances at gastronomic conferences and in a book called La cocina al desnudo (The Kitchen [or Cuisine] Stripped Bare), he publicly criticized Ferran for everything from his commercial activities to his use of “harmful” additives. This was an unprecedented situation in Spain; it was as if Jean-Georges Vongerichten were to suddenly start denouncing Daniel Boulud as a charlatan cooking unhealthy food. Santi was widely condemned by many of his peers (Arzak once told me that he simply didn't speak about Santi anymore, because it would only encourage him), and at least some critics boycotted his restaurants. He remained convinced, though, that he was upholding basic culinary principles in the face of faddism—and while many people thought he was misguided, I don't think anyone ever accused him of being insincere. The last time I saw Santi, a couple of years back, we had breakfast together at the long table next to his kitchen, and when I brought up Ferran, he seemed more dispirited than aggressive. "Vanguard cuisine has broken the kitchen's relation with local culture," he said. "At some point, I stop. I say no. What is cuisine? We must ask this question, starting from zero. Many people have lost the idea. I think the message is that one must return to cooking." That’s hard to argue with. But the argument would now be moot in any case.

On Wednesday, February 16th, while visiting his restaurant in Singapore, Santi — who had grown over the years from a husky Catalan countryman into something of a roly-poly bear — suddenly collapsed, dying a short while later, apparently of a heart attack.

Last year, one of Santi’s most gifted graduates, Xavier Pellicer, who had been cooking at the acclaimed Àbac in Barcelona, came back to work with him in Sant Celoni, as chef and as a partner with Santi and his wife. I hope the restaurant continues, and suspect that it will — but of course it won’t be the same.