Juanito Bayén of Pinotxo, the perennial face of Barcelona’s Boqueria market, has just been honored with the Ciutat de Barcelona prize as the most emblematic ambassador of the cuisine of Barcelona and of Catalunya.
“They have just given me a prize, you know,” said Juanito with his thousand-kilowatt smile, undiminished in the 40 years I have known him. “Chef of the Year!” he jokes, poking fun at his little breakfast stand wedged into a corner of Barcelona’s most famous produce market.
As usual in the early afternoon, bar stools are hard to come by at Pinotxo, which has been written about and celebrated ever since Barcelona began to become fashionable in the early 1980s. A group of four gentlemen from, apparently, Samoa or the Marshall Islands or somewhere very far away from the capital of Catalunya, was received like old friends by Juanito, whose generosity of spirit and general love of humanity, even more than his peerless fare, has made Pinotxo such a popular place, an oasis of conviviality in the swirling commercial maelstrom of the market.
“Que tomais? / What’ll you have?” says Juanito, as he rattles off a list of his favorite über-fresh market ingredients of the day: oysters, razor clams, jumbo shrimp from Palamós. We stick with the tried and true: Juanito’s iconic judias de Santa Pau (pygmy white beans from Santa Pau) with xipirones (baby octopus) and his cigrons amb morcilla (garbanzo beans with black sausage), all well irrigated with the house cava (Catalan sparkling wine) and accompanied by pa de pagés, literally peasant or farmer’s bread, a crunchy yet tender and irresistible country bread for mopping up the juices.
The black sausage and chickpeas were dark and laced with cumin, while the white beans and xipirones were equally dark, cooked in squid ink. Both were liberally anointed with a light, flaky sea salt.
The Ciutat de Barcelona prize ceremony was held in the Saló de Cent, the Town Hall’s standard venue for public events, where flying bronze bats (a ubiquitous Catalan and Crown of Aragón symbol) hang from the chandeliers and a sculpture of city patron Sant Jordi abusing a dragon occupies the left side of the dais. The Saló de Cent or Hall of the 100 commemorates the proto-democratic municipal governing body of Barcelona founded in 1249 (nearly 500 years before the establishment of the British House of Commons).
Assembled were nearly all of the leading lights of Catalunya’s booming culinary world: Ferran Adrià, Joan Roca, Fermí Puig, Carme Ruscalleda, Carles Gaig, the Torres twins Sergio and Javier, Carles Abellán, and many others.
Ferran Adrià: “Juanito taught me to understand that gastronomy, beyond dining well, is enjoyment, affection, friendship, complicity, closeness.”
Joan Roca: “Juanito is a living legend and will become a Boqueria myth. He represents authenticity, hospitality, perseverance in making people happy out of a little stand in the market.”
Carme Ruscalleda: “Juanito knows how to make the gourmets on his bar stools happy. We love you and we admire you, Juanito!”
Fermí Puig: “To see a guy so happy so early in the morning while making your breakfast makes you feel like you’re going to have a good day. Pinotxo, you still have enough energy to run marathons for years to come; you will end up with a statue in the Boqueria.”
Carles Gaig: “Juanito is so overflowing with energy that you can’t figure out whether he’s 22 or 72.”
Sergio Torres: “Juanito is an emblem of Barcelona, vital and with a sense of humor as big as he is. Anyone who wants to know Barcelona needs to visit Pinotxo to be impregnated by his spirit and experience true market cuisine.”
Joan Bayén, Juanito, often confused with the long-nosed wooden puppet sitting on the roof over the corner of his bar, has been working here for 75 years and, at the age of 82, still rises daily at 4 a.m. to open Pinotxo at 6 a.m. sharp. At the age of six, he started helping his mother Catalina run her little hole-in-the-wall market bar after school. “I started by serving coffee and soon I was working at the bar, which changed places in the market several times.” Married but without children, Juanito exudes an irrepressible sense of wellbeing, mirth, and mischievous humor, combined with a playful flirtatiousness that his legions of “novias” never fail to adore.
Photogenic and constantly photographed by clients and professionals alike, Juanito and Pinotxo are an ongoing media event. “Ah, this fame thing is starting to wear me down,” he jokes through his enormous smile when we ask for a photo. Unchanged since I first saw him in 1975, Juanito sports a bristling head of reddish-brown hair, slightly spiky over the top, a frequent look among culinary asteroids around Spain, and it occurs to me for the first time that this is probably where it all began.