After two brilliant stints at the late Santi Santamaria's Michelin three-star El Racó de Can Fabes, northeast of Barcelona in Sant Celoni (from 1992 to 1999 and again from 2010 to 2013) and a long residency in-between at two successive locations of Àbac in Barcelona (from 1999 to 2010), chef Xavier — Xavi — Pellicer is doing it again at Céleri, a luminous space tucked beneath the Woki Organic Market just off Barcelona’s Diagonal.
After welcoming us to his new restaurant with a glass of organically made Marrugat + Natura cava, Pellicer explained the layout: four barras or elevated bar-style tables with four bar stools; four tables down the side of the space; an outside table on the tiny terrace with room for a dozen people; and a chef's table in the kitchen with four chairs. Four, four, four, and four: symbols of the organic biodynamic process Céleri and Woki Organic Market fervently embrace.
Pellicer sat my dining partners — mother-and-daughter Philadelphians Valerie and Margaret Burton and Jane Gregg of Epicurean Ways, a food and wine travel enterprise based in Charlottesville, Virginia — down at the chef's table in the kitchen. I say "in" the kitchen, but there is no actual wall between the kitchen and the rest of the place.
The barras and burners of Céleri are all in one space, thanks to the interior design of architect Sandra Tarruella of Hotel Omm fame. You're basically dining in the kitchen, with that relaxed informality for which kitchens are famous; the burners and machinery and walk-ins and pantries are lined up against the wall 20 feet away, with four assistants in snowy white uniforms patrolling the stoves, ranging the ranges, so to speak. Later, when Pellicer asks if anyone wants to see how to liberate a clam from his carapace he is suddenly surrounded by four reverent young heads: “You see, you respect the animal and his shape,” he explained as he delicately extirpated the living clam without breaking its flavor-and-seawater-containing membrane.
Pellicer explained the philosophy of Céleri: simplicity and clarity. You see what you are going to eat and how it is being prepared and you then you eat it and there are no mysteries and no surprises. No chemicals are involved, especially in the growing process; all the products are from certified organic and biodynamic producers. There are no sulfites in the wines, which are also organic. At Céleri you will have seven or eight courses and moderate doses of two or three wines and wake up the next morning feeling great — or if it's midday and you have afternoon meetings, you will not have to be recovering from lunch.
The chef added more about the theory of four — cows having four stomachs, for example, and four being the biodynamic totemic number. He sat us down at the chef's table inside the glass kitchen partition and served us some light and flaky lentil flour papadum chips while he showed us how to prepare hummus, our first apéritif. After cooking up some organic chickpeas in a pressure cooker and running the results through a mixer with some sesame paste (tahini) and a touch of cumin and turmeric (gleaned from a recent Ayurvedic cure), he put the bright yellow hummus paste in a large syringe-like tube. Five thin cylinders "like tractor furrows" are squeezed into the middle of a ceramic plate decorated with a cerulean swoosh. He then carefully applied onion seeds, chives, bits of half-dried tomato, a radish flower, a garlic flower, a beet flower, and a wild carnation blossom, one by one, until the cylinders were festooned with tiny, flavorful (as we will soon learn) decorations. We devoured them with the chips and a light Finca l’Argatà Garnatxa served slightly south of room temperature.
Next came eggplant cannelloni. Two foot-long cylinders of skinned eggplant pulp were placed on the cutting board table next to thin slices of more-textured eggplant. Pellicer then rolled the laminae around the softer cylinders, enclosing the tube in clear plastic wrap and tightening by pulling on the ends as he rolled. Soon a firm "eggplant sausage" was ready for cross-cutting into smaller rounds that the chef has said he likes to think of as vegetable scallops. The clear wrap was removed after the disks were cut, and razor clams were placed on top; an "Oriental vinaigrette" completed the dish.
Throughout the process, the chef appeared to be having the time of his life, cool, calm, collected and even amused. "For 38 years I worked in Michelin-starred restaurants," he told us, "first with Arzak [the venerable three-star in San Sebastián] and then with Santi, and at Àbac for 10 years. There was nothing but pressure. Now I have fun with products and techniques. I want to enjoy my work."
Xavi Pellicer arguably ranked among Spain’s top half-dozen chefs, the tier just behind Juan Mari Arzak and Ferran Adrià, before a disagreement with the Àbac ownership temporarily unhorsed him in early 2010. He returned to Can Fabes for just under two years before deciding to move in a new direction. Partnering with Argentine Guido Weinberg and his Woki Organic Market chain, he opened Barraca in June 2013, focusing on organic ingredients and fine rice dishes at popular prices, and Barracuda, a seafood emporium, in Castelldefels, just south of Barcelona, before launching Céleri in late May of 2015.
“What got me started was my French grandmother’s cooking," said Pellicer. "My mother was French, from Versailles, and my father was Catalan, and suddenly I found I was fascinated by the difference in taste between an egg cooked in butter and the same egg cooked in virgin olive oil. I studied at the French Lyçée in Barcelona, but when I got a chance to escape to the Sant Pol de Mar school of Hosteleria, I was gone. Then I started working with Michelin-starred chefs: Juan Mari Arzak, Jacques Maximin, Alain Dutournier at the Carré des Feuillants in Paris, and then Santi at Can Fabes.”
A slightly Rasputin-esque six-foot-plus presence who looks more like a pugilist than a chef, Pellicer believes that “Cooking is feeling.” As if in illustration, he quickly whipped up, on the spur of the moment, an off-menu cauliflower and tomato apéritif using what he called “vegan almonds” (chunks of cauliflower). He added grated tomato and sherry vinegar for acidity, finely ground black pepper, and some smoked salt. “I love black pepper as an aromatic," Pellicer told us. "I love it as a perfume.”
Then he was on to his own version of gazpacho, made with organic beets — “two parts beets to one part tomato.” He prefers gnarly little beets (“the little ones are stronger and come from a gardener, not a farmer,” he noted).
Next, the chef invited us over to the stove to bear witness to the demise of half a dozen live littleneck clams that he cooked for 20 seconds in boiling water until they were just thinking about opening their shells — at which precise point he snatched them out and put them in ice water with ice cubes. “If the boiling water gets in, it kills the clam,” he explained.
After prying the bivalves open, he explained that “the most important thing is to preserve this skin that keeps the seawater inside. When you eat it, you get this explosion of flavor. You carefully cut the tendons away from the shell, respecting the size and the shape of the animal. I add fine black pepper. Never lemon! Acidity kills the animal. They come out clean, fresh, tender. We try to define the basic essence of the product.”
Burratini cheese with dates, arugula, and chunks of mackerel are next, followed by cod in a cauliflower purée accompanied by a free-range egg, then oysters with asparagus tips and bits of orange and grapefruit, concluding with a potato cake cooked with lemon zest, tiny chanterelles, and green beans. We finished with a "tandoori rib," a beautifully caramelized rack of curried suckling pig that easily satisfied any lingering carnivorousness we may have been harboring.
“We can do vegan or vegetarian meals here, of course," Pellicer explained, "but we do everything, as long as its certified biodynamic or natural.”
Counting back, 10 dishes or at least platillos — “small plates” — came our way and then vanished. There were now some 20 diners spread around the room in groups of two or three, and Pellicer seemed as cool and unruffled as he was when we arrived. Customers, chefs, and sous-chefs were all in the same space, some eating, others working. Everyone seemed to be happy. Whatever Xavi is doing here, it seemed to be working.