It is no secret that I have a special affinity for Spain and it’s great culinary traditions. Some of my favorite people in the culinary industry hail from there and many have become good friends over the years and I am always game for an opportunity to visit with them. We meet not only at their restaurants but also at food congresses around the world. This year I saw Quique again after a recent visit to his restaurant ,first in San Sebastián and then a few weeks later in Cologne where we shared many laughs as usual as well as more serious conversations about work.
My recently published article:
Quique Dacosta: Serving up Fantasy with Panache
Quique Dacosta the chef patron of his eponymous restaurant in Denia, on the Costa Blanca of Spain received the ultimate nod from the Michelin with a third star in 2013.There is an amusing anecdote about the time when the restaurant was bestowed with this accolade and the super excited team celebrated by digging out three stars from their Christmas decorations to adorn the facade. The restaurant where Dacosta worked since 1987 which he took over in 1999 was initially named El Poblet till he replaced it with his own name in 2009, after receiving his first star in 2003 and the second in 2007. This self-taught debonair Spanish superstar has been creating his version of avant-garde Spanish cuisine in the small coastal town of Denia, south of Valencia for the past 17 years. If you stop to ask directions in the small town of Denia the locals sometimes still refer to it by the old name though they are immensely proud of their local hero. Quique Dacosta is truly a destination restaurant, about an hour’s drive south of Valencia and a four hour drive from Barcelona but a fast train from Madrid gets into Valencia in under two hours. His Daco & Co restaurant group also operates three other establishments in Valencia, a gastrobar Vuelves Carolina, Mercatbar, and El Poblet restaurant.
The cuisine at Quique Dacosta though technique driven has not strayed from the traditions and products of his region however it is apparent his travels do influence his menus and cuisine. Dacosta is known as an innovator with his edible veils, papers and landscapes imitated by cooks around the world. The Guggenheim Bilbao oysters, the cubalibre de Foie, the Animated Forest are dishes that put him in international spotlight. Dacosta’s book “Arroces Contemporaneos” and his red shrimp from the area as well as the dried octopus on the menu are his tribute to his own region and its traditions.
In the last few months we have met not only in Spain but also in Germany where he was a presenter at Chef Sache and subsequently he traveled to Korea and Japan and will be on the road till the restaurant reopens after the break in mid-February. We first met as he was plating one of his signature appetizers for me across the kitchen counter at a four hands dinner at Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi restaurant, and it was that mischievous smile along with the amazing bite that he put in front of me, that really intrigued me. Witty, intelligent with a charming personality, there is an air of sophistication about him and his food. He has evolved his concept on his own, never having spent time in other prestigious kitchens unlike most of his peers. The cuisine at his restaurant is geared towards sophisticated diners willing to step out of their comfort zone for an unforgettable experience and who leave planning their next visit. Chef Joel Robuchon, who lives in Alicante, is a frequent guest and evidently appreciates Dacosta’s cuisine.
At his recently refurbished white washed restaurant with a contemporary flair ,wood floors and striking art displays there is glazed lounge area where the diners experience begins with beautifully plated appetizers and champagne. The guests then proceed into the dining room with its minimalist flair but soon realize the real art is on the plates presented to them. The service is personable and gracious being led by Didier Fertilati, his manager and maitre’d who was recently honored at the San Sebastián Gastronomika as the best in his field. The herb gardens on the roof and in the courtyard perfume the air with herbs while the suspended octopus tentacles air drying on the terrace serve as indicators of the local, artisanal, sustainable ecological offerings inside. All these indications in no way prepare you for the sometimes whimsical ,very technical, globally influenced, inspiring and brilliant plates that appear on the tasting menus. The Senia rice or the Denia prawns gift packed in red cellophane while signature dishes that he is known for do not define the cuisine which is edgy, but fun, daring the diners to step into the future with an interactive experience. The menu rightly refers to the experience as “a caress in one mouthful and a slap in the next”.
My conversation with Chef Quique Dacosta:
At Chef Sache in Koln Germany in October there was film clip that preceded his presentation, an artistic interpretation of Dacosta’s work and dreams so I asked:
On stage today you spoke about and showed that amazing film about your dreams transforming into reality. How can an average person turn a dream into reality?
Not all dreams! (Laughing) Nowadays we are the only ones to be imposing limits on our creativity and work. You can visualize and transform your dreams into reality if you believe in them. I believe that the only thing we cannot do or accomplish is what we don’t believe in and have faith in ourselves.
How important is it for you to define your own place in gastronomy and not be compared to others?
To be authentic and real and keep creating something unique, it is important for your work or project not to have a stamp or name. Eventually when other chefs are mentioned our name will be mentioned next to them but not as a comparison.
Your food creations are sometimes fantasies but how about a creative cocktail that you have come up with?
About 22 years ago I created a cocktail when food first started appearing not in a dish but in glass, a martini glass for example. I was doing a martini with deer, black pudding, and patxaran liquor. It was an amuse actually, a creamy drink to be eaten with a spoon. At that time the combination was daring to say the least. At one time I was adding cray lobster to it as well though I am not sure if I will do that again! Though sometimes even now people do remind me of that creation.
Did that establish you as a creative culinary daredevil?
Maybe! (Laughing) Getting something right is great but sometimes a mistake is even better. In fact it was a kind of mistake which shows you what the limits are and you cannot do everything that seems good to you or because you came up with it. In the end it is all about balance.
By nature you are not conservative but are you a risk taker?
No I am not conservative for sure but what I am doing in my work is all natural and real and it not dangerous. It is my way of expressing myself and it is much more difficult for me to do something traditional or conventional. I am just being myself and expressing myself in my work.
How does your day begin at work?
I get to the restaurant very early about nine in the morning. I go through a few cups of coffee and then get to work with my kitchen team. Usually in Spain we begin a little later than other places. In the afternoon I take a break to spend time with my family and my two children. Then there are meetings and interviews and other things that are part of my day.
What products or techniques are you curious about these days, since you were using Korean chili in your demo at Gastronomika?
I am always aware and open to techniques or products but nothing radically changes my work or ideas. I want to be aware of new concepts and products in our field but on a day to day basis we are not just focusing on one thing while at work. Anything that can help my project grow is always of interest to me and my kitchen.
How do you keep flavor and taste intact in your food while using complicated technical processes?
It is very complex and not easy. In principle the process begins early for example while making for example a croquette from Japanese cuisine. The moment you eat one without knowing the process used to make it you want another one. The taste and flavor are what you are aware of instantly before you even know what it is made of. So I try to make something rich in flavor and with real taste before anything else as it should taste good to anyone no matter which part of the world or culture you come from. A cook has to guard the flavor and real identity of the product no matter whether it is simple cooking or complicated technical process. Essentially when I start cooking I already know I am in the modern or molecular realm and at some point while using techniques I have to set the limits technically and taste wise to challenge myself only up to what the diner can accept. Sometimes though I do go a little further on this scale with extreme use of a product.
What inspires you to include influences from many cultures and regions in your menus?
I think I am one of the chefs who think beyond my own region and my cooking is very open to all influences and all are welcome. All my travels help to make my cuisine global and as our menu has forty different things we want our customer to be excited and not get bored during their experience. As you see in my Tomorrowland menu I wanted it to be a global trip through food. We are using a lot of spices to enable this kind of travel through our food. On our menu one course can be Italian inspired pasta and then a ceviche of sea urchin inspired by Peruvian cuisine and the next dish will take you to Thailand. Even if we are using products from a 20 km radius the spices can take you on journey to far away places and next year we may be using kimchee or the gochujang Korean chili but with a product from only 5km away in the mountains near us.
This year you were at the Gastronomika in San Sebastián, at Madrid Fusion, and then Chef Sache a few weeks later, but are you cutting down on attending these as you announced that you will not be back in San Sebastián next year?
I participate in these congresses because I get a very positive energy charge from all the people with whom I share information. It is very enriching and helps me connect to a lot of people.
Does it bring attention and international visitors to your restaurant in Denia?
Yes it does but we need to take our message out and that is why I said that I will not be participating in any congresses in Spain next year and try to focus on international visitors who we want to encourage to visit our restaurant. We feel our job is done in Spain so we need to step out in the international sphere and reach more potential customers.
If you open a restaurant overseas, where would you like to be?
I like London since it the capital of Europe and also a cultural center and not only about food. If I get a proposal there I will not be able to turn down the opportunity as it will be a challenge that I will love to take on. It’s not only the contract that is offered which is to be considered because I have to love the concept first. I am a romantic and creative person and it has to suit my disposition.
What will be the ultimate deciding factor, finance or more exposure?
Of course money is important, otherwise you can just stay home but I want to bring Spanish culture whether tapas or products wherever I go. Whatever it is I don’t want to lose myself or not pay attention to my restaurant and my work which is extremely important to me.
Do you enjoy collaborative events with other chefs?
It’s great to work in another kitchen with cooks who have a different perspective and we can learn a lot and exchange information. It helps build friendships and associations. With regard to events outside Spain since we cannot bring products in or out of the country what we are acquiring are ideas and information.
How do you spend your time off or a free day? Are you on the beach since you are by the shore or go into the mountains behind you?
The mountains for sure if I unbelievably get a day off. On such a day and if I am in Denia which is very fortunately situated since in the same day you can be in the mountains as well as on the beach. I love to run and if you start from the mountains you can make your way to the sea and then go back up the mountains again. I don’t have many hobbies as such I like to find peace, time to relax, and be able to spend time with my children.
How old are the children?
One is six and the other four. I wish my children steal more of my time and I should let them rob me of more of my time. There is nothing that gives me as much joy as being with my children and one moment with them is more inspiring than ten years around the world.
I know you like music and you wanted it played during your presentation. So what kind of music do you like?
All kinds even some that don’t even know what category to put them in like jazz, pop, and I play it depending on the mood but not in the kitchen as I want to concentrate completely. When I am contemplating outside the main kitchen I listen to music. We play music on the terrace and lounge from DJ friends in Ibiza, Belgium and other places that are chill out music.
You have a great contemporary art collection as I have seen in your restaurant so are you a collector?
Yes I love art and appreciate it but I don’t feel the need to buy it and own it. All my energies and resources are concentrated in my work. So I prefer to enjoy art in a museum and find it much more inspiring to visit museums rather than markets where it is on sale.
Do you design any of the serve ware or plates in the restaurant?
I do and also collaborate on creating them from time to time. We have been working with our university and have an ongoing project to create china which will soon be on our table.
What is the most unknown trait of your personality?( I was joking!)
Geeta, if I tell you that it will no longer be a secret! The thing is sometimes people have a stereotyped image of of me because of what is written about me and what they read. Sometimes people perceive me as a cliche of sorts which creates a barrier between me and others, and then they don’t get to know the real me. And you know I hate talking about myself.But if some one wants to know me they are welcome to come visit and have a conversation with me.
(I joked) Some people can’t stop talking about themselves, as we know. Ok, give me one more thing?
I am a Capricorn!
He has a keen sense of humor and sometimes we joke about his very lengthy responses to questions since he gives serious attention to every query. If you have not been to Denia yet definitely plan on it on your next visit to Spain and once you meet chef Dacosta and taste his food you will also join his band of followers.