One of Spain's First Great Contemporary Restaurants to Close
Santi Santamaria was born on July 26, 1957, in an old farmhouse called Can Fabes on the edge of a little town called Sant Celoni, about 30 miles northeast of Barcelona. He grew up to become an industrial designer, and got his culinary start cooking stews and other simple dishes to feed his friends at community political gatherings. When the company he worked for as a designer went out of business in 1981, he used his severance pay to open an informal bistro in a corner (racó in Catalan) of the family home. That bistro, El Racó de Can Fabes, grew slowly but steadily, with Santamaria honing his craft along the way, into a serious restaurant, earning first one, then two, and finally, in 1994, three stars from the Guide Michelin. This made the place the first three-star restaurant in Catalonia, and only the third in Spain (Ferran Adrià had to wait three more years to earn a third star for his legendary elBulli).
Santamaria's cooking was contemporary, sometimes with French accents, but it was purely Catalan at heart. He was fanatical about sourcing the best raw materials from around Sant Celoni and off the nearby coast, and his creations were full of references to the region's traditional cooking, but always with an inventive twist. (His version of the definitive local preparation called mar i muntanya, sea and mountain — usually made with chicken and shrimp — employed pork belly and caviar instead.) He also set himself up as the anti-Ferran Adrià, criticizing the use of chemical additives in food and what he considered to be Adrià's disregard for local products and traditions. The so-called "feud" between the two great chefs was fodder for the Spanish press for years.
As the reputation of El Racó de Can Fabes grew, Santamaria went on to open an acclaimed restaurant in Madrid, Santceloni, and then exported his culinary genius to Singapore, joining chefs like Guy Savoy, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and Tetsuya Wakuda in the restaurant portion of the massive Marina Bay Sands project. Tragically, Santamaria died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting his Singapore property in 2011. His wife and daughter made the decision to keep the original restaurant going, bringing back Xavier Pellicer, an alumnus of the kitchen who had been cooking in Barcelona, as chef. El Racó subsequently lost one Michelin star, but maintained its quality.
This week, however, Santamaria's family issued an open letter announcing that "after 32 years of a wonderful culinary and gastronomic adventure… we plan to close the doors of Can Fabes this August 31." The letter goes on to say that "Santi Santamaria taught us to be satisfied with a job well done. Two and a half years after his death, we are pleased that we have maintained the values and ideals instilled in us, even in his absence. But in these difficult times in our country for fine cuisine, Can Fabes has lost the economic viability necessary to continue an enterprise based on excellence, and for this reason we have decided to put an end to one of the brightest chapters in Catalan and European cuisine in the past quarter century." The letter concludes by promising that "[The story] of Can Fabes will not end on August 31st but will live on in the current and future projects of all the people who have passed through out kitchen and our dining room, and in the memory of the thousands of diners who have always been our reason for existing."