Chef Carles Gaig mains a familial point of view regarding Catalonian cuisine: an attempt to preserve authenticity of Catalonian roots.
Every morning, Carles Gaig is out the door by 8am. First stop, to the fish market, where fishermen relentlessly return from working in the Catalonian sea for eight hours, rebounding with cases of the freshest catch stored in boxes of frozen ice. By the time Carles sifts through oceanic gems in a crowded market in Barcelona; all the fish, with crystal clear eyeballs, appear as if they are still wiggling, straight out from water.
Carles has never been to Japan, but he watches many Japanese documentaries. He thinks there’s a great similarity between Catalan and Japanese fishermen, the respect to ensure that fish don’t horribly suffer when they are caught, and the careful approach to preservation and freshness of seafood. “It’s the reason why Catalan chefs are so honest with their food, we’re so blessed with natural products. When I traveled along the way, I realized that we have the best products here in Barcelona. In other countries, apples don’t taste like apples. Here, apples are sweet and good.”
Growing up in the small town Horta, where many riches from Barcelona spent their summers, he began cooking in his family’s restaurant that first opened its doors in 1869. Four generations ago, his grandmother began a lineage of restauranteurs, one so cultivated that passed down to Carles’ mother then eventually, to him. From chef to chef, grandmother to mother, Carles began directing the restaurant in 1970. Although he grew up looking at his mother and always thought she worked too hard, he never wanted to become a chef someday; his mother became blind from an illness, he was compelled to work in the family restaurant at nineteen years old, to sustain the legacy.
He learned everything on his own. From traveling, experimenting in foreign restaurants, educating himself with methods of other chefs and combining such knowledge with what he learned from his mother. Today’s newest venture, Fonda Gaig, which carries his famous last name, is his introspect of retrieving years of his mother in the kitchen. It’s about turning back time.
With two highly praised restaurants under his belt, Restaurant Gaig, one that received its Michelin star years ago therefore attracts foreign visitors by its fancier style of modern cooking, and Fonda Gaig – becoming his continuance to the roots. Also his views on Catalonian cuisine, an attempt to preserve authenticity of Catalonian roots.
“When clients come, they divulge in a restaurant serving dishes that come from a country with strong roots of cooking. As we offer them something they’ve never tasted before, they know they’re in Catalonia and these are the tastes we have.”
Customers from local areas in Barcelona come for memories of Catalonian’s way of cooking, the legacy that he is so famously known for.
Everything he does in the kitchen has the intention of lineage in mind. During summertime in Restaurant Fonda, particularly when shellfish is in season, the six-course menu begins with a focus on different types of shellfish that ascend toward cannelloni made with summer truffle. Dishes continue to move on upward, like drawing a line into the sky, but taste buds never experience a mountain-like or zigzag movement of palate triggers.
His inspiration for new innovations come from the most basic form of nature: the seasons. “For example, November and December is the season of truffles. Frozen products have the same taste. But with natural produce, not only does it taste different, we use it as a centrical subject and incorporate other ingredients surrounding it. By taking advantage of the product that is in season, we can see and experiment how various ways of cooking can play a supporting role with the main product by using traveling experiences and cookbooks.”
Carles traveled to France frequently to combine modernism with tradition in mind. He perceives a simple line, connecting all dots. He explains, “It’s important in all the products that we use, we follow the seasons and connect it with the city, the weather. In the end, it’s how my cooking comes to life, so it did for my mother and my grandmother.” In France, he learned a softer approach, with clean and smart cooking styles. To create a marvelous stew, it begins with the best quality of products. He thanks his fortunes for the land in Barcelona where produce and local-grown ingredients are extremely accessible.
What Carles focuses on, is the produce and how it arrives in its best form, in front of the client. His first rule is: respect the product – not overdone, not undercook. Then he highlights cleanliness and simplicity. “Every produce needs to taste just as how they are, from the sea or from the earth. In Barcelona, we have the perfect environment to discover real tastes of each product so why not take advantage of it.”
The most shocking element to the success of Carles’ restaurants is that, publicity is never done by paid-advertisement but completely by word of mouth. Despite enormous economic crisis that Spain is currently undergoing, his staff continues to work fourteen-hour days, because clients promote publicity for the restaurants. Carles caters to his clients, who have tasted the dishes rather than those who have never been to his restaurants.
With such a familial community of excellent chefs fostered in Barcelona, like Ferran and Albert Adria, Albert Raurich and Paco Pérez; Carles emphasizes that all chefs are friends. Since some may focus on molecular, or the classics, one may easily believe a certain category of chefs are considered as scientists. But he doesn’t view cooking as an exact science. “Products are always changing,” he indicates, “yesterday and today’s tomatoes are never the same. You need to constantly improve because one day’s batch may need more salt and tomorrow’s may need more sugar. Some may need more time in the oven, and some may not.” Such honesty is how he also views the future of Catalan cuisine.
“Catalan cuisine has roots that only belong here. It’s authentic, it’s native. And there are memories with our traditions.” He recounts the example of Christopher Columbus discovering America which led to the import of potatoes into Barcelona. “We used to make stews with apples. Then we replaced apples with potatoes, which is expected now in any restaurant. In the future, when we have products arriving from the entire world, I’m uncertain whether it will stabilize Catalan cooking.” There are dishes that one can find traditional dishes, but it has become difficult in the city.
So he wants to cook for a long time, hence Fonda Gaig came to existence. It’s his loyal attempt to remember the traditions, the lineage – his roots.