CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with MARTA YANCI
If there is a song that sums up what Marta Yanci is doing it has got to be ‘I did it my way’ by Frank Sinatra. A lawyer who loved to cook, Marta found her calling when she moved to Dubai in 2005. Her success sits lightly on her shoulders but her stubborness (and I mean this in a nice way) to do things her way, and only those things that truly make her happy is what has brought her so far. Her biggest critic is her father Juan and from his comments she gets her biggest teaching. She strongly believes that some of the best Chefs are self-taught – you may learn technique in culinary school but you still have to have the passion for it and Marta has an abundance of it. Her belief that cooking is an art which you need to feel, makes me realise, that with every serving, Marta is giving us a little bit of herself.
Name: Marta Yanci
Restaurant/ Food Business: Marta’s Kitchen
From: San Sébastien, Spain
Culinary School: Self Taught
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I was a very good kid, I ate everything. If there is one vegetable I did not like it was purple cabbage – I hated it. And because of that I have a dish that I do really often that involves purple cabbage – just because it was like a trauma of mine – and the dish has come out beautifully. Other than that, every vegetable I liked. I come from a family where we eat a lot of green and a lot of vegetables. If I had to choose a favourite when I was little, I would say carrots, pumpkins – it was always the orange sort of vegetables that appealed to me.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I don’t think I thought about that very much when I was young. I never had a clear idea of what I wanted to be. Some people say – I was born knowing I wanted to be an astronaut – no, that was not the case for me. When I was a teenager I thought of becoming a lawyer – a criminal lawyer. My mother always told me there was no way I could do that as I could never defend someone who has murdered someone but I was like – of course I can. I did study law in fact and started seeing how it was and thought that it was not for me.
How did Marta’s Kitchen come about?
I always enjoyed cooking – I always watched my mom, Paloma, cooking and am lucky to have a mum who cooks wonderfully well. I am from San Sébastien which is the city that has the largest number of Michelin star restaurants in the world for such a small city. Not just the Michelin stars, but it’s a city where you eat wonderfully well – we have fantastic produce, a lot of chefs and general public that really appreciate product and good food and know how to respect it and cook it really really well. Anywhere you go in San Sébastien you eat really really well. So in a way I think it’s in my blood. So when I finished my studies – I specialised in European Union Law – I moved to Brussels and was working there for a while and did my Masters. In 2005 my husband Jorge and I moved to Dubai and I was desperate to find a job. I did a couple of things but nothing felt right. And the thought of me doing a desk job for the rest of my life did not appeal to me. It happens to a lot of people, where they somehow get onto this path without even realising and not many people are able to at some point stop and say – hey maybe this is not what’s making me happy. I truly believe that there is something that will make everyone truly happy – you just need to find it. But sometimes you also need to have the courage to find it and it’s not always easy.
Jorge supports me big time. I was just so bored here (Dubai) in the beginning. I used to always entertain and have parties with friends and cook. I then had a couple of friends who would say – hey we are having a party would you mind helping us with the canapés. And it was husband who actually told me – why don’t you start a business, do your own catering company, you have nothing to lose. And I was like – are you crazy, that’s never going to work…. But I still decided to give it a shot. I got a licence as a private chef through one of the free zones and I would then buy the ingredients, cook at the client’s home. I started doing events up to 20 people.
To promote the business, I printed A4 sheets with all the information and I just distributed it to every single house I could see. I had security guards in compounds kicking me out because that was not allowed. And no one would call.
I did a couple of events for people that I knew and I guess someone tried the food there, and this French lady calls me and tells me that she is having her daughters first communion and asked whether I had catered for anything like that before. And I said – Yes! It was for about 40 people and I did that all by myself. And they loved it. In fact until she left Dubai, she remained my client. And then word of mouth started. And then the events started pouring in. It got to a stage when I was turning down events because I could not do everything.
In about 2010, that is when Jorge told me that I was losing clients because I could not do everything by myself so why not just open a proper kitchen, get myself a few chefs and a team in place. From that thought it took us about a year to get things sorted out. So I worked as a private chef for two years (2009-2011) and in 2011 we opened in JLT.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I am normally a very healthy person but I wasn’t yesterday. I went for lunch at the Reform Social & Grill at the Lakes with friends and had a barbecue short rib sandwich with salad and a sticky toffee pudding. Although I will say it again, I am normally a very healthy person – this just sounds terrible.
Place you eat most often on days off?
If I am with the kids I will go to Carluccio’s. I think its easy and the food is good and with the kids its fantastic. I enjoy their salads, my sons will always have the pizzas and Carluccio’s are very accommodating which is something that I appreciate. If you want changes to your dish they will do it with a smile.
If I am going with my husband and friends, I like Zuma – I like that everything is pretty fresh and although it’s so good its yet so simple at the same time. Its not so much the ambience for me but I love their food – especially their black cod. I like Qbara as well. I think when it comes to dishes – some are fantastic and some are just ok – but I think it’s a very daring place, in the sense that they have managed to modernize Middle Eastern cuisine and to blend it – I think that is something very interesting and daring to do. At least they moved a bit away from what everyone else is doing.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Carrots. Because they are so versatile. You can use them for savory, you can use them for sweet. They go well with fish, chicken and meat – even on their own.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would be in Madrid (Spain) because all my friends and family are there and I would ask my mother to prepare her cheese soufflé that I love.
Besides Dubai, iIf you had to start your business somewhere else in the world, where would you go?
I am doing that right now. I haven’t left Dubai but am starting a similar business in Brussels, Belgium – it’s in process. It’s taking longer than expected. So at the moment I am travelling all the time.
Why Brussels? My idea originally was to open a bigger place in Dubai and would have loved to have alcohol served because we at Marta’s Kitchen also do very interesting cocktails. For that we need a place that is licenced. Although I have been approached by a number of hotels to open over there, the prices are ridiculously high. We are not a big company, this is a family run business. And I don’t really want to get an investor because it really scares me – because if I get an investor they are going to tell me what to do – and I want to do what I want to do. So opening a bigger place in Dubai was not an option – it was just too expensive and risky. So we thought why not Europe? Spain right now is not the place to be in right now because of the crisis. London and Paris have had culinary revolutions. For example London moved from the Fish & Chips and lamb with mint sauce to something super modern in the last few years and now from a culinary perspective they are fantastic. So we thought Belgium is in the middle and nothing really is going on. They have a few restaurants that are interesting but in general they are into their brasseries, their mussels with French fries.. so now the plan is to open a restaurant and a cocktail bar with catering on the side which won’t be the main business. It’s going to be on the outskirts of Brussels – at Waterloo – serving modern European with a twist.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
I have had a few, not just one! This was earlier on, when a client asked for chocolate fondant and I didn’t know the oven that well so the fondant turned into a cake. There was also the time when we were supposed to prepare a pesto and we forgot the basil leaves – so we had to improvise and ended up making pesto rosso – so we did it with sundried tomatoes that we had and no one even asked – we served it saying it as x dish with pesto rosso and no one said anything.
What is the most popular dish on the menu that client’s ask for?
It’s our slow cooked beef tenderloin with smoky potato mousseline (the French version of mashed potatoes) and caramelized onions. To cook the beef it takes about 5-6 hours which we do under temperature control. The combination of the beef with potatoes and caramelized onions is really nice. And this is what gets mostly ordered. I think its popularity is because it is 100% comfort food, it’s so rich and it’s got such a beautiful blend of flavours and it’s a simple dish and sometime you don’t need to over-complicate things. This dish has only three ingredients but they blend just so nicely together that’s why. And I also think we live in a city where there are a lot of meat eaters.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
My food philosophy is that I think you don’t need to use super expensive or luxurious ingredients to offer a fantastic, outstanding meal. And our philosophy is that you can cook with everyday ingredients that anyone can find and buy and prepare an amazing meal. It’s just a matter of knowing how to use them. You don’t need lobster or caviar or foie gras to make an amazing meal.
Also respecting seasons as much as you can, although that is complicated in the UAE and we do have everything all the time. For example, in Belgium we are going to do that very much because the four seasons are clearly differentiated and if you go to the local market, the vegetable seriously change from one season to the next, you won’t find the same vegetables.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
When I was little they used to feed us sheep’s brains at home. It was believed that it had a lot of iron in it and was very good for kids. I can’t believe I ate that. They were pan fried and we would eat them with French fries and ketchup and I liked it. I just can’t believe how I could like it until I actually realised what I was eating.
What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
The best meal I have ever eaten would be at a restaurant in Bilbao (Northern Spain) called Azurmendi Restaurante. The cuisine was from the Vasque region which was traditional and modern at the same time and the Chef there is a a very humble guy – Eneko Atxa – who cooks amazingly well. Atxa has a very traditional base but everything else he does is very modern and contemporary. I love going to restaurants and not know how they have done things. There is a magic going to restaurants. You want to eat something you cannot do at home. Before I specialized and started learning to cook, I used to go to restaurants and was always surprised by what I ate. But today, majority of the restaurants I go to I can more or less know what techniques they have used or how the dish was cooked. But with Eneko Atxa, I can’t – and I love that – and everything feels so homey and traditional. I just love the way he cooks and just the way he is – I don’t think he even realises how good he is.
We had the tasting menu so we had a million different things to try. I remember Eneko did a dish version of Bloody Mary with sea urchins which was pretty amazing.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Chocolate – I’m an addict. I eat chocolates every day – after lunch and dinner. My favourite is the milk with salted caramel almonds by Côte d’Or.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
I would probably be a grapefruit. Because I can be very sweet when I have to be but I can also be very sour (and she told me that I could go back and ask her Chefs if they agreed with her – did not take her up on that though). I think it’s necessary in this job – you have to.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
The best piece of advice I have been given is by Jorge, my husband who is like my psychologist and a very calm person. Whenever I get super nervous he always tells me to breath and to just think about it – there is always a solution to everything in life except for death and everything passes.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Not a lawyer. It would have to be something where I am interacting with people – I would probably do something with kids – maybe a teacher or something like that.
Most underrated ingredient? Carrots. Because I think it’s a ingredient we take for granted as we get them all year round. I think many people use it, but don’t understand the versatility of it and how useful and necessary it is in the kitchen.
Best culinary tool? Polyscience sous vide temperature control cooker. I know it sounds extremely posh, but it’s absolutely fantastic because it has changed the way Chefs cook and plan. You cook everything at a stable temperature vacuum sealed and for people like me in catering, this helps bring everything ready to the event as it stays as fresh and as rich as if it was done just there on the spot.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Andoni Aduriz from Mugaritz (Northern Spain). I really like him because he does whatever he wants to do and I think that is fantastic. We had the pleasure of going to his restaurant a couple of summers ago and met with him and chatted. He is so realistic about what he does and he was telling us how many times he just felt like quitting, and I think that is a feeling all of us Chefs have had, because this is not an easy job. He followed his instincts and beliefs.
Favourite cuisine? Japanese for its simplicity and freshness. I also like Vietnamese cuisine for its freshness. So, I guess I like fresh cuisines.
One dish you can’t live without? Probably anything that has to do with vegetables, we eat a lot of vegetables. At my home there is always going to be some sort of steamed vegetables everyday – for lunch and dinner – whether its green beans with carrots, or broccoli etc. as a side.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Cupcakes. I don’t really like cupcakes and I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I’d rather have a muffin – its got a lot more flavour, its more moist. I just don’t get cupcakes.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. My mom’s cheese soufflé. She mixes three types of cheeses and she does this béchamel (a white sauce) that she does herself. It’s just done with so much love and care and it’s one of those dishes that you have to have as soon as it comes out of the oven.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? A salad with chicory and avocado with a sea bream that I baked in the oven with olive oil and lemon.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, daring and comforting.
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!