Suave, debonair, elegant are not the first words that come to mind when speaking of chefs but are very apt for Quique Dacosta the three Michelin starred chef from Denia, Spain. Witty, intelligent with a charming personality, there is an air of sophistication about him and his food. This self taught chefs steep learning curve began in the very kitchen where he works today as a chef owner since unlike many of his peers he never spent time in other prestigious kitchens.
The cuisine at his eponymous restaurant is definitely geared towards sophisticated diners who are willing to step out of their comfort zone for an unforgettable experience. The conceptualized dishes may not all hit the mark with diners but the ones that do linger on the palate for a while.
A few months ago as I traveled along the sparkling Mediterranean from Barcelona to Valencia, my first stop on a Quique Dacosta centered journey, I reflected on all our conversations and exchanges over the past few years. We have spoken about the wide range of his creations and the different genres of art that pique his interest and sometimes even random subjects like dreams.
The now four and counting establishments he operates under the aegis of his Daco & Co include QD (Quique Dacosta) in Denia and three restaurants in Valencia, an hour’s drive up the Costa Blanca, offer an insight into this conceptual chefs cuisine. On my first pit stop I visited his casual Mercat Bar in the market area jam packed with regulars enjoying the classic tapas of the region. Cut away to Vuelve Carolina in downtown Valencia where I fell in love with the vibe of the recently refurbished Gastro heaven before even tasting the food. There is tongue in cheek humor in the decor with paper animal trophies hanging over the long bar and even in the serve ware used in the restaurant. The sashimi de pez mantequilla and the razor clams in shells with coconut, shiso and sesame were a delightful departure from anything I had tasted at QD earlier.
The El Poblet restaurant upstairs with its own dedicated entrance gained a Michelin star within months of opening in 2012. The stunning interior with several private dining rooms has also been refurbished with no expense spared. It is a warm inviting space that is quieter than the bustling Vuelve Carolina downstairs and hung with lively modern art pieces and memorabilia. For Dacosta fans it is where they still get to taste some of his iconic creations such as The Living Forest, the Cubalibre de Foie Gras, the Rice Ashes: dishes that catapulted him to fame.
In Denia the whitewashed stand alone restaurant, home of the original El Poblet, with its collection of contemporary art displayed in the patio and lounge, the minimalist wood floored interior has held three Michelin stars since 2013. Dacosta began his career in the same kitchen in 1987 subsequently taking it over in 1999. He renamed it in 2009 post receipt of his second star that arrived in in 2007. There is an amusing anecdote about the day when the third star was awarded and the super excited team frantically dug out three stars from their Christmas decorations to adorn the facade.
The herb gardens on the roof and courtyard perfume the air 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 are signature dishes that he is known for but they do not define the cuisine which is edgy, but fun, daring the diners to step into the future with an interactive experience. Behind mischievous smile and twinkling eyes is a creative genius who likes to take people out of their comfort zone. A few years ago the menu referred to the experience as “a caress in one mouthful and a slap in the next”.
Over the past 18 years has come to be known as an innovator in the culinary universe with his edible veils, papers and landscapes imitated by cooks around the world. The expansive patio and the glazed lounge was recently refurbished and the dining experience begins there with aperitifs and appetizers. Dacosta and I sat there on a pleasant autumn evening conversing about his work and recent happenings in the culinary world before he headed into the kitchen to send out his latest creations from the DNA menu.
In 2017 he brought his idea of a D*NA festival within the framework of UNESCO’s creative cities in gastronomy to his region. The idea behind the event rooted in Denia is to share the Mediterranean lifestyle of this culinary/tourist destination. His well known chef friends like Joan Roca, Jordi Cruz, Angel Leon and Andoni Aduriz joined him for the event slated to be held annually on the Marineta Cassiana boardwalk in Denia. The restaurant’s expansive kitchens and the slick dedicated test kitchen with alterable lighting and a dedicated sound system where he works on new projects is as well-organized as this chefs ideas. In the dining room the DNA menu of the season was presented in six “acts” which in Dacosta’s words are a challenge to the diner, his team and himself “we are in the same boat and it’s going to be an emotional experience”. It was!
In the past few months we had caught up in Melbourne during the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards and at the Chef Talks in Barcelona. Picking up where we left off:
What drives you? Is it ambition?
The feeling of innovation, when you create. Initially I wanted a fine dining restaurant because I was influenced by a cookbook I was reading by a famous French chef (George Blanc) which had a lot of pictures. I couldn’t read French but the pictures were impressive and Michel Guerard’s book was another influence.
So pictures speak a thousand words?
(Laughing) Depending on which picture and who is writing about them. Currently there are 800, 000 million users of Instagram and 70% of pictures on Instagram are of food so that kind of says it all I think.
How do you define creativity?
Creativity within it has the word create. It’s a reflection of your expression, your ideas and innovation. It is what we exhibit in our work, our dishes. On the technical side we can do almost anything because we have a very strong technical team. Some of my team is much more technical than me.
What kind of a cook are you? Creative, technique-driven, conceptual, intellectual, organic?
I can’t pick one as I am probably all of those. Techniques are integral to my cooking, if I want to achieve the result I want to control the technique. Concepts and ideas are integral to creativity and we are a creative restaurant so we need to think ideas through. We also need to explore ideas to keep changing the menu and of course the intellect is involved. We are trying to work with producers around us so we are product based and organic.
So is it appropriate to refer to you as an intellectual and conceptual chef driven by techniques?.
I understand that but it’s the media that categorizes. Auto analysis is a very difficult exercise since I am so passionate that even when I am told to be careful of the world and how much to share, I believe so much in what I do and love it so much, I say it like it is. The only way in which I can describe myself is professionally otherwise. It’s hard to say who I am and the life I have lived.
What is more important to you: The fame and professional status, or the integrity of your work and concepts?
The honest way of working and presenting my concepts is what I started my career with and that is more important. I don’t consider myself famous just well known in my sector. People outside the world of gastronomy probably don’t know who I am (laughing).
Our work has been very influential in Spanish gastronomy as well as outside the country yet I can go out on the street and no one will know who I am since I am not Jordi Cruz or other chefs on TV. I have always been thinking as “and” than “of”. Why do I have to choose between product and technique. When I am asked to choose I ask “why”; if I am asked to be on a popular TV program why I have to lose my integrity as a chef.
Avant-garde or vangardia is referred to as the new or forward-thinking, but isn’t all that is new built on something that already exists?So are we really pushing forward or expanding on an existing idea, or isn’t everything linked to something in the past?
Let’s take Ferran Adria as a reference. The foams: were they an invention of Ferran, or were the foam, jelly, spherification, deconstruction all new? What Ferran really gave to the world is to think in an intellectual way without thinking about what existed before and what people were talking about.
If you believe in what you are expressing or doing then do the opinions of others matter?
Yes it’s true, but I’m going to present another extreme example about innovation. Looking at chefs like Andoni Aduriz, Ferran Adria, Albert Adria, Joan Roca etc. we can band all these chefs together as they have been talking about and doing something innovative in the industry.
Aren’t they reworking ideas?
In the last ten years the industry has advanced technically or some things that didn’t exist twenty years ago are now used widely. One singular technology that is brand new is hard to pinpoint. Imagine if you ate the same dishes in Enigma or Tickets that you eat at Denia what would you think. People don’t usually know or are not so well informed as to know what was first created where or by whom. By the way speaking of techniques El Bulli was 99% technique.
When we started the first refurbishment here ( Denia) and saw the results and talent of the team I realized we could do more with the talent we already had in the group. El Poblet was perfect because we had opened it right after the economic crisis which had been very severe in Valencia. It fit a much needed gap and unexpectedly within two months of opening it received its first Michelin star.
The name El Poblet was fitting since it was the first name associated with Quique Dacosta before I changed the name of my main restaurant in Denia to Quique Dacosta. The kitchen and everything else was all ready and I decided to put some of my most popular dishes over the years on the menu.
So some of the classic dishes from your Denia location are transitioning to El Poblet as you create new dishes at QD? What is your most iconic dish?
At present the menu has five dishes that are served both in Denia and in El Poblet.
At this moment it’s the bread here in QD. So it changes and according to diners it’s the Cuba Libre or the Denia prawns that are wrapped in red cellophane.
If there was a movie about your life and career which dish would you pick to be shown?
There are many and it’s hard to choose because they are all my creations so it’s hard to pick one. Truthfully I have one for each moment so the answers can vary. In that case I will say Cuba Libre and I can tell you why. It’s an iconic plate for ten years even though it’s been copied all over. Before creating the dish I had already written a book so my way of thinking and style of cooking had already been put out there so it was not really an introduction to my style of cooking or conceptualizing.
You are making me think antagonistic thoughts (laughing) so I am going to tell you that maybe the people in Spain identify me with my green curry langoustine. You are correct in saying that more people eat and watch tv than read cookbooks so this dish is well known because I have been cooking this dish on the master chef finale. So 22 million people have viewed this dish. The question is when do people discover the dish. When I create it, write a cook book, or watch it on TV?
Would that be TV since people who cannot travel here or afford to eat here probably saw it on TV?
What I can say is that more than the dishes it’s the products that are more representative of the gastronomy of our region. The red prawns, the rice, the citrus, which though is not the star ingredient in a dish, is always present, then there are the vegetables that are not in common usage, and we can be using the root and the flowers as well.
Is the lead idea for a dish always yours or can your team members propose ideas?
Everyone on the team can pitch in and bring up an idea. Invariably the first word and the last word are mine. The idea of this years menu is everything that is on the board and up for discussion, if it’s not used this year but is interesting, is on hold till next year. I have a lot of talent on my team and a lot happens between that first word and my last word. There is a lot of discussion and a lot of ideas are examined and investigated.
So the process can be described as an accordion where the ideas are compressed between the beginning and the end?
It’s like struggling with balls of water up in the air because no one other than me knows if it’s a sure thing. I question, I doubt my ideas myself before presenting them. For example right now I am doubting the choice of having only one menu. Normally we had two menus for guests to choose from in Denia. Since this season we went down to only one menu and though the second menu was to come back for fall I thought that personally I don’t feel like bringing it back. The idea is for people to come here and experience our latest work and we have the Valencia restaurant (El Poblet) cooking those other dishes anyway. Now I am thinking maybe the customers should have the choice between one or the other. So right now I don’t know.
According to you what is a perfect restaurant experience ?
At my restaurant I try to represent what I consider to be a wonderful experience, at least according to my taste. I am not sure that I would call it perfect, because perfection is in essence a utopia that is often far from a moving experience, and that’s what my proposal is aimed at: emotion. Creating emotions and memories for our customers.
What is your opinion on some chefs turning in their Michelin stars recently ? Is it going to impact gastronomy?
We are all free to do what we want in the world. Few days ago I was in the Michelin ceremony and I saw some Japanese chefs who received their first Michelin star and who got very emotional with tears in their eyes. It was happiness , emotion on one side while on the other someone gives it up so there will be a balance somewhere. Some people are tired of maintaining them while others are driven to get them and so I don’t think it will have any major impact on the industry. It’s just a moment in time.
How important are the Michelin, the 50 Best, the OAD, La Liste etc. for you ?
The year we got the third star we doubled the number of guests and obviously without them maybe we wouldn’t be. It’s also recognition for the team and a source of encouragement. Independently thinking about who will give them back and who will earn them. Where will go you first, will you will go with three stars or no recognition. I have a theory about it but I’m not going to tell you because you will write it!
What are your passions outside the world of gastronomy?
Family, art, literature, sport, also travel, but since I travel a lot for work and tend to associate it with intensive work rather than intensive pleasure. And as you know cooking remains a great passion of mine.
What particular region has impressed you most during your recent travels?
Colombia is a country that I continue to learn from each time I visit. But of course it’s not the only place. Copenhagen is another destination, which I had a very productive visit to with my team. So you can see, Colombia to Copenhagen, two apparently opposite destinations in terms of their culture, climate and cuisine, and yet that is where I want to be, amidst that diversity and plurality of taste.
How much power do food critics have?
Well, they have a lot in the sector. But no more power than the diners. The diners ultimately have the last word.
What is the D*NA festival and why did it originate?
It came about out of a vocation to disseminate and to celebrate the feast that is eating. It was the desire to highlight this place and its culinary greatness. We are all at the same place and time celebrating our importance. Without any sector hierarchies, with the producers and chefs on the same level, and of course, the citizens too.
What is the aim behind chef collaborations and pop ups? Is it to stay relevant?
Not so much to stay relevant, or perhaps yes (every chef has their own objectives at such events). Mine is to visit the chefs that have invited me out of affection and respect for my work, enabling me to strengthen my friendships even further. From there we know that every activity has its relevance and attracts customers to Denia, which is where we implement this wonderful project.
Replace them? There is no need for something to die for something else to rise. We live in a very heterogeneous world. Let each choose their own list, guide, event, influencer and follow them whilst they share values and tastes.
Are there relevant issues in the restaurant industry that are not addressed in such events or congresses?
Well, there are more events around the world every day. Organized by companies, brands, the media, journalists, cooks, sommeliers… I think that everything is ultimately covered somewhere. Possibly there is no single event that covers everything, but that is normal because of how long these events last.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now? Are there more casual projects or overseas projects in the works?.
I always see myself as being connected to cuisine, cooking and related businesses, with all the expressive plurality that goes with it. I would like to open restaurants overseas, yes. I have four successful formulas at present, and they could all be exported, and they represent me beyond any big differences between them. They are profitable and very established in the market. From there, finding someone who wants them beyond Spain would be the next step. I hope we will be opening an new concept in London, revolving around rice , the traditional and contemporary ways of cooking it in the Valencia region, which has given us the most important dish in Spanish cooking, “the Paella”. And other things will follow.
What drives you? What makes you happy?
Many things make me happy. They are all simple and I don’t need a lot to be happy. Being aware of that, knowing what I need for that simple happiness is what drives me today to seek it. Generally I am always happy and I have gotten much more than I ever dreamed of. I am very content
In recognition of my collection of the gold ribbons that tie up the familiar red cellophane wrapped Denia prawns QD shared a recipe for preparing them.
The use of the red Denia prawns in QD’s cuisine has inspired many other innovative kitchens of Spain to include them on their menus.
2 kg freshly caught Denia red prawns (45 g each)
5 l seawater
200 g coarse sea salt
3 kg ice
Bring the 5 litres of seawater to the boil in a large stockpot. Then add 2 kg of prawns. Keep the water boiling for 30 seconds, and then turn off the heat; this will make their bodies shrink and their flesh firmer. Leave them in the water for about 2 minutes with the heat off so that the temperature reaches 62 °C: the ideal temperature.
Remove the prawns from the pot. Add the ice cubes and dissolve the coarse salt. Then return the prawns to the now iced seawater.
After 5 minutes in the seawater bath, the prawns will have stopped cooking and will be done to perfection. Wrap them in red cellophane and tie the packages with a gold bow as if they were a divine gift from the sea for us to enjoy.