Sunday, 28 March 2010

It's all in the detail

Cocinar de Galego, or Galican cooking, is a funny old thing. From what I've seen so far, it revolves around a fairly small number of dishes, using a fairly narrow range of ingredients: Soupy caldos, cocidos and other stews; fish and seafood, grilled, steamed, or in the case of pulpo, just boiled in salt water; and inevitably pork in some form, usually salted and cured. Dishes are prepared the way that Mama used to make them, and be it on your head if you try to deviate. Rarely will a meal pass without one or more of the following: A salsa laced with paprika; floury potatoes – peeling and boiling is as elaborate as the preparation gets; and grelos – native Galego turnip tops – cooked until any tenderness has given way to limp submission, and the last remaining cells of chlorophyll are holding on for dear life.

People say that Galician's are renowned for their conservative palates... A suggestion that is backed up by the regularly formulaic, often almost carbon-copied restaurant menu boards that line the streets of almost every town I've passed through.

So what happens when a chef who learnt his trade under the tutorship of one of Spain's foremost gastronomic experimentalists sets up a fine dining restaurant in his Galician home town? The chef is Marcelo Tejedor, the tutor was one Juan Mari Arzak, and the restaurant is Michelin-starred Casa Marcelo in Santiago de Compostella. I spent a week-long stage finding out.

Marcelo's eponymous restaurant has received high praise for his creative, contemporary cuisine, and the man himself regular hosts sessions at industry get togethers, such as El Forum Gastronomico de Santiago. Each day at the restaurant, Marcelo prepares a new ten-course menu degustacion. New dishes are added as he sees fit, held together with a backbone of his signature dishes, based on local, seasonal ingredients.

Casa Marcelo
is about marrying subtle flavours using inventive techniques that are just the right side of experimental. This was my first time working in a Michelin-starred kitchen. The learning curve was steep and often challenging, but seeing how a top-tier chef at the height of his game operates was an invaluable experience.

The days ran in cycles of frantic mis en place, followed by dizzyingly fast bouts of service. Almost everything for the forthcoming sitting was prepared in the few hours before customers began to arrive. That meant working literally flat out for each and every fifteen hour day.

During the day, Marcelo and his Sous Chef would somehow find spare moments to play around with a new dish, or alter something that was already on the menu, to see how a different flavour or texture combination might work. A little Lecithin (a stabilising agent that's holds the bubbles in foam) might be added to a soup to create an espuma. A spoonful of Agar (a very strong gelling agent) might be dissolved into a sauce to create a hot, firm jelly. A piece of fish would be filleted and turned into sashimi in a matter of seconds, to be taste-tested alongside a fresh delivery of herbs spices or seasonings. The two chefs would stand over the dish, an eye brow raised inquisitively, a hand cupped under the chin, quietly debating the merits of their new creation, before handing the remains to the rest of the brigade for tasting. Typically a new dish might go through four or five incarnations over a two-day period before finally making it's way onto the menu.

The thing that really stood out was not only the speed, but the precision with which everything takes place. Everything, from the slicing of stock veg, to the end of shift cleaning is done with utmost efficiency, and nano-scientific exactitude. At first, my shallots weren't fine enough, my croutons were too irregular, and I wasn't delicate enough with my mushrooms. During mis en place one morning, I was tasked with the job of preparing potatoes, which I had to slice in such a way so they were no longer a standard, nobly potato shape, but uniform, equally proportioned, tapered cylinders. “¡Mas rapido! ¡Mas rapido!” barked one of the other chefs... I was already going as quickly as I could. Trying somehow to make my hands move faster, whilst keeping the same gradient of the cylinder, I momentarily lost control. My knife slipped, and before I could correct it, the blade ran straight across my thumb. It wasn't a deep cut, but it immediately drew blood. With service fast approaching, there was barely time to acknowledge the wound, let alone stop and get a plaster. I literally didn't have time to bleed!

Thank goodness that break times were treated with as much respect as the work itself. Each morning, no matter how much prep there was to be done, the Sous Chef would yell “¡Benga, ahora!”, ordering us all to stop what we were doing and gather round for coffee and freshly baked cake. In the moments before staff lunch and dinner were served, the whole brigade stepped up a gear to warp speed, finishing their duties and cleaning down their stations, in order to gain the maximum amount of relaxation time. For those vital fifteen minutes, absolutely everything stopped, as we all gathered around a huge table in the staff quarters for our well-earned 'family' meals, consisting of anything from tortillas and tapas to steaks and home-made pizzas.

(Xarda en Escabeche - Image courtesy of David de Jorge... I didn´t have anywhere near enough time to take a photo)

It took me a while to make my way beyond a lowly runner during service; fetching plates and containers, making sure everyone had the right utensils when they needed them, and clearing up after the rushes of busyness. By my third night I had graduated to preparing garnishes to order, and plating up the occasional Xarda en Escabeche – mackerel cooked sous vide in a smoky pimenton sauce - one of Marcelo's signature dishes. Having taken me to one side just before the evening rush got under way, the Sous Chef gave me simple, step by step directions of how to plate up the dish, which despite still having only a limited Spanish vocabulary, I fully understood. When the time came to get the first two away, he stood peering over me, shouting orders into my ear. “¡Vamos, vamos! Sale!” - Let's go, let's go! Away! Any hope I had of remaining relaxed disappeared as Marcelo stepped up on my other side, creating a kind of human pressure cooker around me. With my heart in mouth, and adrenaline pumping through my veins, I laid the fillet on the plate, hoping to god that I could keep control long enough not to smudge any dressing on the brilliant white of the china. I don't think I've ever been more nervous in my life.

From my experience, it seems that the kitchen runs on high-octane intensity. Each and every item that goes out requires utmost care and attention, with zero margin for error. What's more is that you cannot afford to spend any longer on each item than is absolutely necessary. In truth, it's not the food that you're paying for, but the effort and man-power that goes into preparing and presenting it.

I barely learnt a single recipe during my week at Casa Marcelo. But what I did learn was far more valuable; the rhythms of the kitchen that, in time, and with much practice allow your subconscious to operate one step ahead of you. Whilst at times I did feel out of my comfort zone, I take some consolation in the fact that the chefs I was working with had been doing what they were doing for years. I'd been doing it for a matter of days...

Traditions die hard around here, especially when it comes to food. But by twisting those traditions with flair and originality, Marcelo Tejedor is amongst a select few who are breathing new life into Galego cuisine. His trick is in not ignoring the details that are so important to the food of the region, but enhancing and updating them.

Judging by the number of punters who came though the doors during my time there, he's managed to successfully add a touch of his own personality to the food of the region, and still keep those conservative palates happy.

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