CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF ANTONI MORALES
I have to admit, this Chef has courage. He left his home country to work in a country whose language he did not know at all (I know I wouldn’t have the guts to do that!). But, firm in the knowledge that his paella pan and his cooking skills would be able to break the communication barrier, Chef Antoni set food onto English shores 4 years ago. He is a man of few words (as you will see when you read the interview) but the Dubai Spanish dining scene has just got itself a young Chef who will let his food do the talking, and that takes courage.
Name: Antoni Morales
From: Valencia, Spain
Culinary School: Valencia Academy, Valencia, Spain
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I think I was eating everything. In Spain we eat a lot of meat, fish and vegetables. My favourite vegetable growing up I would say would be mushrooms – all kinds of mushrooms including boleto (kind of a mushroom).
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
At the beginning I did not know what I wanted to do. But I liked to cook and used to cook at home. At the beginning I cooked basic stuff like pasta – in Spain when I was growing up we had many TV channels which aired cooking shows and I used to watch my mother and grandmother cook that is how I learned. For example the paella recipe I use today has come from watching my grandmother and then my father make – it’s my family recipe. When I was about 15 or 16 years I thought it might be a good idea to be a chef after I finished basic school. That summer when I was finishing school, I worked in a factory during summer and I remember thinking that this was not a job for me. I could not see myself doing the same job for 8 hours every day. In the kitchen as a chef you are always doing something different – now we are peeling potatoes, tomorrow you are cutting meat – you are constantly doing something different. When I was in school, I used to work weekends at Kazar Hotel and I learned more here than I did in school.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Before I came to Dubai I worked for 4 years in Bath, England at a Spanish restaurant and tapas bar called La Perla. This was my first job outside of Spain and I did not speak any English – all I knew how to do was cook. Little by little I learned the language. I remember by sister the day I told her I was going to England and she said, “where are you going, you don’t speak English!” and I told her “I will speak with my hands and with the paella pan I can go anywhere in the world.” The language was never a problem as I did not have to talk to the customers. I learned new recipes and ways to introduce different recipes from different cultures into your style of cooking. For example, I was working with a Greek chef who introduced me to hummus, so I learned to make hummus but then I gave it a Spanish touch which I introduced on the menu at La Perla.
A grilled chicken sandwich with cheese and mayonnaise at home – I was home yesterday. After cooking at Seville’s 12 hours a day, I don’t want to cook at home as well – so I prefer to make something quick when I am at home.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I like Shawarma a lot. But personally I don’t like to visit restaurants here because I find that in some places the quality that they give and the price they charge is too expensive. So most of the time I prefer cooking and eating at home. Mostly I will make grilled food.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Garlic. It helps give more flavour to the dish.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would be at home in Valencia with my family and friends. I would love to eat the meat paella that my father Antonio makes.
Most exotic vacation destination?
I have enjoyed all my holidays, but my last one was perfect. It was in Spain but in Northern Spain in Galicia. I went there because they have a lot of shellfish, octopus – I went there because of the food – I wanted to try it and because I have never been there before. It’s a beautiful place filled with history and has great weather – it’s cooler than Valencia. I would love to go to Sri Lanka again because of the seafood and I hear it’s a beautiful place.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Maybe USA – New York. I have worked in Europe and the Middle East, so why not try working on a different continent. But I would definitely see myself cooking Spanish food. I believe that the Spanish cuisine scene is pretty good in New York, although I have never tried it but I feel that if I go there to cook, I will do it as I know how to.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
It was at Seville’s when we were catering for an evening event and they asked for boneless chicken paella. We had another paella for lunch so we had two containers – one with the meat on the bone and the other de-boned. And by mistake they put the deboned paella out at lunchtime. Luckily in the evening I went and opened the second container and I saw the chicken cut in pieces with the bones… so little by little with a knife we had to debone the chicken there and then.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Anyone. At home it would be for my family and friends. In the restaurant, I treat every customer the same, every one of them is special.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Costilla de ternera glaseada a la miel or in English we can call it honey glazed beef short rib served with potato mustard mash and broccolini. It is slow cooked and I love the texture and flavour.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I like traditional food but with a modern touch. I don’t like the modern in excess but its nice when it’s just a hint. For example, we serve a traditional Spanish dish at Seville’s called Salmon en Escabeche (it’s a sauce with vinegar). The sauce is usually put on the fish to protect it and you can then put it in the freezer for a year – in Spanish we call it conserva. But at Seville’s we make the sauce thick and put a spoonful over the raw salmon. So you are using a technique that was not supposed to be used like this.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
It was a dry Sichuan button flower in Birmingham in England. It was at a food convention introducing us to new ingredients. I saw this flower and since I had never tried it before I did. As soon as I ate it I felt like my mouth had been given an electric shock and it made my mouth salivate even more – this sensation lasted for a minute or so. It was different.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I was recently at Zuma here in Dubai and it was beautiful. I ate a mix of everything – sushi, show ribs, beef tartare and their fresh seafood. The quality of the food was brilliant. Another excellent meal I had I remember was having a grilled rib-eye near Madrid – it is the best meat I have ever eaten – the texture, the flavour and the meat cut – was just perfect. If you have a very good cut of meat, I don’t believe it is necessary to cover it with sauce. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant – my friends and I were driving from Valencia to Malaga and on the way we saw this restaurant.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Sucking pig – it’s very fatty I know. I love eating it confit (slow cooked) and then roasted in the end. It’s a traditional way of cooking it in an area in Spain called Segovia.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
It was at my first job I had where the Head Chef – Chef Fernando told me don’t leave it for tomorrow what you can do today. Another piece of advice I got was from the Greek owner Maikis at La Perla restaurant where he told me to always cook like you are making it at home – don’t try to change because you are in a different place – and it really works.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I have been cooking all my life, I haven’t tried anything else so I don’t know any other way.
Best culinary tool? Thermomix – it’s a kind of blender and I use it for almost everything.
A chef that inspires you? Ferran Adria – he is a Spanish Chef from Catalonia is one of the best in the world and he was also the Head Chef at elBulli. He was making scientific new cuisine – inventing new things. He was known for starting the deconstructive method of cooking.
Favourite cuisine? Spanish food because of the flavour. I also like Japanese food – how they take care of their fish.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. My mother, Maribelle making me a simple omelette. We used to have hens who used to lay eggs and we used to go and collect them in the morning and she would make me an omelette with raw tomato on the side.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Easy, clean and flavourful.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!