CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF JUAN CARLOS
This is the first Chef I asked to interview after I had dined at his restaurant and fell in love with the food. And my meeting with Juan Carlos was as interesting as the dishes he serves. A man whose passion to travel saw him take up a job as a dish washer in a restaurant in Andora which became the turning point in his life – it was where he was introduced him to the world of the kitchen. This is the same man who years later worked at the kitchens of Michelin starred El Bulli and at the El Celler de Can Roca which received the award for the “Best Restaurant Award” from the Diners Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy in 2013. He has no airs about him, and that is what I loved the most about Chef Juan – his simplicity. As he patiently talked me through the Spanish dishes, I realised that Chef Juan was like the sofrito at El Sur – absolutely essential and I am glad I got to celebrate my birthday with food served by one of the ambassadors of Spanish cuisine.
Name: Juan Carlos
Restaurant: El Sur, The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina
From: Salamanca, Spain
Culinary School: Bellamar, Marbella (Malaga), Spain
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @elsurdubai
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
For me growing up I ate more meat. In my city, Salamanca, which is in the interior of Spain we eat more vegetable and meat as compared to those who live in cities in the South where they eat more fish. In our recipes we have a lot of pork. My city is very famous for Jamón ibérico (Iberian Ham). When it came to vegetables, as a child I did not like beans but the rest I liked.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Because my father is an electrician, I studied to be an electrician but I did not enjoy it. I even worked with my father for maybe two years and still did not enjoy it. I love to travel, so when a friend in Andora (between France and Spain) told me about job in a hotel – washing dishes. So when I was 22 I went to Andora to clean plates. I did that for about four months and it is where I saw what happened in a kitchen and that piped my interest. So I told the Chef that if he had a position in the kitchen I would like to work there. Luckily a position came up where I had to make the salads. I did this for three months.
But then I wanted to learn more, so I joined the restaurant Baviera – a mix of gastronomy and traditional food – which has since closed down. Here I learned a lot. The most important thing I learned was how to cut with a knife, how to clean vegetables, how to clean meat – the basics. I did not have any experience in the kitchen and I had never studied anything related to the kitchen. It is here that I decided that I needed to go and study at a culinary school because all my work mates they had studied and suggested I did the same. All I knew was that I liked to cook and that I had patience in the kitchen because when I was young I remember thinking how can I make pasta with a tomato sauce – I must have been about 10. So at 23 I went to culinary school and over the weekends I would work in the kitchen in a small restaurant.
I then worked as a commi in a 5-star hotel in Malaga – Hotel Puente Romano – in worked in the hot section in the kitchen.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
All of them. I learned from all of them. I have worked in many restaurants in my career because I wanted to learn. I have worked at El Celler de Can Roca which is considered one of the best restaurants in the world. I have worked at El Bullli which is a Michelin star restaurant. My focus when I finished culinary school was to work in a Michelin star restaurant because this is what I thought would be best for my career and I like the fine dining concept.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
My wife, Lada, is from the Czech Republic and she made a typical dish called Bramborový guláš. It is cooked in little pot with potato and chicken stock, chorizo, onion and paprika.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I like to try different restaurants. I have enjoyed dining at Nobu. I liked their tuna and their cracked tempura. Sometimes I go to Pier 7 as it’s close to where I live. I enjoy eating at Fumé – I like their steak tartare. A few weeks ago I ate at this Greek restaurant in JBR called Eat Greek. I loved their lamb stew – it was very good. I also had their Tzatziki which was very good. Their salad with eggplant was also excellent.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
This is too difficult to answer. Because without garlic I cannot work because of the flavour. In Mediterranean cuisine to make Sofrito (a sauce used as a base in Spanish cooking) and one of the main ingredients is garlic, the other ingredients include onion, tomato, olive oil, rosemary, thyme. I also have to use good olive oil – it’s a Mediterranean thing – and Spain also produces the best olive oil. In France they use butter, but in Spanish cuisine we use olive oil. I have to have Iberian ham – it’s from my city and my country and if you have it, it’s an ingredient that has a lot of character. You make the Iberian ham when it’s raw, you remove a little fat and then cover it with salt for about 20-25 days. Later you clean this salt and leave it to dry – the curing process takes between 10 months and two years. I also need to work with saffron as it’s very aromatic and paprika because it is also an ingredient for the sofrito.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
As my last meal I would like to eat a dish my mother, Genoveva makes called Chanfaina – for me this is one of the best dishes and it’s a typical Salamanca dish. It has rice, the belly of the lamb, trotters (hoof) of the lamb, some cubes of chicken blood (optional) , roasted cumin is very important and of course the sofrito with garlic, onion, tomato. The belly of the lamb and the trotters we cook separately as it takes a longer time to cook – so we boil this for about 2 hours. We then take the lamb stock and add the rice, sofrito, and cumin and cook until the rice cooks.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Australia or Asia. In Australia it would be Melbourne or Sydney. I have never been to Australia but I know that Australia was literally on the other side of the world from Spain. As a child I used to dream of kangaroos, koala bears and the country is known for its clean environment. I choose the city because that is where I want to live and learn. I think I would work in a fine dining restaurant serving Mediterranean.
I also like Asia because the flavours are amazing. For my holidays I went to Vietnam and I loved their food. They use a lot of citric flavours – it is totally opposite to how I cook in my kitchen. I would not mind going to Vietnam or Thailand. Here I believe I will learn a lot from those in my kitchen – learn the cooking style of that country.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Maybe the Dalai Lama because he is a very special person. I think I would cook him something traditional from my country. Maybe one rice like paella and some tapas like Spanish potato. I believe that when you live abroad it is important to show people your traditional food – this is very important because we can then showcase our country to the rest of the world. Introducing people to my culture is very important. Something traditional but something that the person who eats it can identify very quickly, simple but tasty.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Tiradito. It’s a very simple dish and very traditional to Spain. Here we mix Asian and Spanish food. It’s basically raw fish – sea bream – and we serve it with two sauces – one with ginger olive oil and soy sauce which has more of an Asian influence and the other with a Spanish sauce called coriander mojo. For me this dish has a lot of character.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Food needs to be tasty. I like simple plating where food is the focus. You must always be honest with your customers. If the quality of produce is not up to my standard, I would much rather tell my customer that the dish is not available. This honesty to my customers also means that I am honest to myself. Use the best quality products.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
When I was working at El Bulli, I tried dry jellyfish and did not like it. We had received many items from different countries to try and we would have to try and see what we could do with the ingredients.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was at a very simple place. When I was holiday in Florence, Italy I remember it was very cold, about -10⁰C and I saw a food truck preparing a sandwich with belly beef – and I tell you this place was amazing. I remember if I go to Roma, I will go to this place to try this sandwich. It reminded me of something we eat in my country which is with chick peas and belly beef which we cook with chorizo, sofrito and Cajun chilli and so when I ate the sandwich, it reminded me of home.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Cocido madrileño is one of my guilty pleasures. It has a lot of fat and after I eat this I have to have a siesta. This is the dish I mentioned in my earlier answer – the one where we have the chick peas, belly beef, chorizo and sofrito. This dish is very popular on weekends because you don’t want to work after you have eaten this traditional chickpea stew which is popular in Madrid (hence the name).
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
You need to work step-by-step and with a lot of patience. You need to be patient with the food. This piece of advice was given to me by a Chef and my teacher Chef Simon Padilla when I worked at a 5-start Hotel Puente Romano.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I would love to have a small farm but unrelated to the food business, I would most likely have been an electrician.
Most underrated ingredient? Garlic. In the UAE, the people don’t like too much garlic but for the Mediterranean people garlic is very important. Like I said before, without garlic I cannot cook.
Best culinary tool? Spatula. It’s very important to Spanish cooking especially the sofrito as we make it slowly and we need to stir it constantly.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Simon Padilla – he was my teacher and mentor. In school, he was very patient with us and taught us how to cook, to understand ingredients etc.
Favourite cuisine? Mediterranean but now I also like Peruvian, Mexican and Asian cuisine. They all have character. They are also simple and fresh cuisines.
One dish you can’t live without? Bread. I have to eat fresh bread with almost everything. And of course Olive Oil.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Sofrito. I remember my mother making this at home. I remember as a child I used to take the bread and put it in the sofrito and eat it. I loved the smell of this being made.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Chicken croquette. This is one of my wife’s favourite dishes so I make it but it takes time. You put the flour and the butter together and cook for about 4-5 minutes on a stove until it thickens and then add milk. Separately you have to boil or roast the chicken and you then need to de-bone it and shred it. This chicken then gets added to the mixture on the stove for about 20 minutes. Usually we leave this for 4 hours and then make it into round balls, and then roll it into flour and egg and bread crumbs and deep fry it. So inside it stays a little creamy.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Authentic, tasty and fun.
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?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!