IT was exactly a year ago that I sat down with friends for one of the most otherworldly culinary experiences of my life.
Seated in an almost spaceship-style capsule, we were taken on a three-hour journey through the science of food by Paco Morales at Noor.
A genius long-aiming for the stars, it was highly appropriate then that he should land his third Michelin star last month, becoming Spain’s 15th restaurant with the world’s highest accolade.
To say Spanish cooking has gone stratospheric over the last decade would be an understatement. A decade ago, the country had 148 stars, with just seven places snaring the top honour. Today Spain has 271 stars handed out from the French food bible.
The numbers are soaring by the year, and let’s not forget how painful the French find handing out plaudits to other countries when it comes to cuisine.
So perhaps a better measure of Iberian success is the recent ‘Best Chefs’ in the world’ award, which saw an incredible HALF of the top 10 coming from Spain.
At the awards ceremony in Mexico last month, number one for the third year running was Dabiz Muñoz, from Madrid’s amazing Diverxo.
I’ve been fortunate to meet the man on a couple of occasions and sat down with him a decade ago for his first interview after snaring three Michelin stars for the first time for Madrid.
Almost the opposite of the intellectual Morales, he insisted he wanted his food to ‘feel like a bullet in the heat’. It was certainly a meal I’ll never forget.
But Spain has always had these incredible mavericks, the eccentric types who grabbed the world’s attention with their culinary skills.
It started with the likes of Pedro Subijana, Martin Berasategui and Juan Mari Arzak in the Basque region and soon spread to Catalunya in the guise of Joan Roca and Ferran Adria, at El Bulli.
This group of five chefs were always among the world’s best at one time or another, for their groundbreaking (yet all different) styles of cooking.
But what is different now is the sheer numbers of chefs that are leading the world.
Aside from Muñoz at number one in the Best Chefs poll, Spain has Albert Adria (Ferran’s brother) at number two and Andoni Luis Aduriz, from Mugaritz, in the Basque region in fifth spot.
That’s three in the top five, and when you add in the team at Disfrutar in Barcelona at seventh and Joan Roca at Celler de Can Roca at eighth and it really is hard to deny Spain the top spot.
The Best Chefs poll is selected, I should point out, by 150 professionals around the world, including critics, initially, before it is refined by 200 global chefs in the final round.
This makes it a genuine industry award, a chef’s chef honour
It is easy to see how well Spain has grown since the list first came out in 2017, when Spain had seven chefs in the Top 100, while France had 23 chefs and Italy 17.
Today, six years on, Spain now has 17 restaurants in that select 100, while Italy has 15 and incredibly France has just nine.
Talk about tables turned, the French must be feeling just a little browned off and wondering how to spice up their boeuf bourguignon.
Well, take it from me, having spent nearly two decades writing about Spanish cuisine and even publishing my own book Dining Secrets of Andalucia, they need to concentrate on basic local produce and respecting their ingredients.
What I think the Spanish have done so well over the last two decades is to think local and cook local… but then again, the Spanish did have a head start.
All the local chefs had to do was simply head down to their local markets and see what was in season and arriving that day.
Aside from the legendary vegetables and fruits that grow all around the country, the pork from around Jabugo and Salamanca, the beef from Cadiz and Galicia and the fish from around Barbate, Denia, and Murcia, so much more was staggeringly good.
Take the rice from around Valencia, the saffron from inland and the wild mushrooms from the many varied sierras, the list could go on.
And I’ll leave you with a thought: After our amazing 11-course adventure at Noor last Christmas, we were left with a bill of just €115 per head.
Sure, now it’s got three stars the price has gone up, but at just €145 a head, Noor is easily one of the best value leading restaurants in the world.
It was, naturally, up in the north, mostly centred around San Sebastian and Catalunya that the ripples began, founded on the shoulders of five key chefs, the aforementioned Berasategui and Adria, as well as Joan Roca, Pedro Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak.
This famous five of Spanish chefs has had so much influence on the country’s cuisine – and trained hundreds of brilliant chefs – that they deserve to be knighted today.
Each of them bold, creative men, what also marks them out is how much effort they put into training their staff.
One classic example is the success Malaga chef Jose Carlos Garcia has had since serving an internship at Joan Roca’s three Michelin star Celler de Can Roca two decades ago. Celebrating the 10th anniversary at his eponymous, starred restaurant last week, Roca cooked with his former pupil, before expressing his ‘pride’ at how well he has done.
Another talented protege is Benito Gomez at Ronda’s extraordinary two Michelin star Bardal restaurant. When I first met him he was cooking at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli sister restaurant at Finca Benazuza near Sevilla, pulling out a remarkable 25-course tasting menu twice a day. It was the best meal I have ever eaten (aside from the mastery of Dabiz Muñoz at Madrid’s Diverxo a few years back) and Benito gives so much respect to the inspiration he got from his teacher Adria who ‘blew away the establishment’.
Adria himself gave a glowing tribute to the new phalanx of chefs ‘doing amazing things’ in Andalucia, six years ago. Speaking to me at an event at Marbella’s Puente Romano hotel, the Catalan revealed how much he loved travelling south since things had improved. “The region really is extraordinary now and just keeps getting better,” he told the Olive Press. “There are at least five or six really amazing restaurants that did not exist here a decade ago and creativity is very much at the fore.”
Subijana (of Akelarre restaurant) is another chef who raved about the rapid improvements around the south of the country when I interviewed him in 2014. An incredibly generous and nurturing man, he didn’t stop stressing the importance of teaching and is known to give an enormous amount of time to young chefs.
Meanwhile, San Sebastian’s Berasategui, who has a record 12 Michelin stars globally, has sent out dozens of top chefs to cook around Spain. These include Eneko Atxa, whose own restaurant Azurmendi sits in the Top 20 of both the world’s top restaurant lists.
Last, but not least, Juan Mari Arzak, often described as the ‘godfather of Spanish cuisine’ is credited with creating a creative trend in Spanish cuisine which took on a head of steam when he set up the Basque-based Euro-toques network alongside Subijana in 1986.
One final point worthy of note is the importance in the growth of gourmet tourism over the last few decades with the industry predicted to grow by 16% to €1.8 trillion globally by 2027.
The World Food Travel Association estimates that visitors spend approximately 25% of their travel budget on food and drinks and the figure can get as high as 35% in upmarket destinations. With Spain coming second only to Italy with the largest number of culinary tourists (22%) a year in Europe, it has become very big business.
But, as Ferran Adria stressed to me in 2016, chefs around Spain have been brilliant at just getting on with it and focussing on creativity.
“There is a whole world out there past Michelin stars. Chefs need to inspire and create and not worry about awards and what people think. They just need to keep forging away and working hard and they will get there in the end.”
It is now quite clear that many of them have finally started to make it there.