THE best restaurant in the world, according to many of those who passionately rate these things, sits on the Costa Brava at Roses, 160km north of Barcelona. There, at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli (three Michelin stars), you will find mosaics of sea anemones, and parmesan-infused air; spherified olives, with their concentrated essence minutely encased in gelatin; a tortilla española deconstructed into tiny layers of egg-white sabayon, onion purée and potato foam, served in a sherry glass; and a dessert called “Autumn”, where sweet and spicy powders make up a forest floor that is strewn with chocolate leaves.
An hour’s drive south, at a restaurant called Can Fabes (also three Michelin stars), Santi Santamaría knew just what he thought of such tinkerings. Mr Adrià and his followers, he announced in 2007, were a gang of frauds. By footling round with centrifuges and liquid nitrogen they were reducing food to a set of mental hurdles, as though there weren’t already enough traffic lights and zebra crossings in life. These were meals they would never dream of eating themselves, full of methyl cellulose and emulsifiers that might well poison their customers. No wonder Mr Adrià was stylishly slim where Mr Santamaría, white chef’s jacket stretched to bursting point as he rose monumentally from his chair to berate his rival in public, was not.
At his restaurant, he was quick to point out, the food was pure, unadulterated, and looked like what it was. Roast kid done so perfectly, lacquered and stuffed, with a simple jus, that it had stayed on the menu for years. Bean soup with black pudding and bacon, beignets oozing warm chocolate truffle across the plate. “Autumn” at Mr Santamaría’s establishment meant the earth-smell of mushrooms fresh-picked in the woods, damp-feathered game pulled from the huntsman’s pouch, and lentil stew so rich, so redolent of the season, that as the lid of the tureen was lifted Mr Santamaría’s hands would start to rotate sedately, wafting the aroma upwards, and his eyes to close with sheer rapture.
He knew about science. He’d had his fill of it as a young man, trying to be a technical draughtsman and then a quantity surveyor, when all he had wanted to do was stay in his mother’s kitchen cooking, and then eating, macaroni with sofrito and sausages, or her special filled pancakes. The day in 1981 when he put down the set square and put on the apron, having decided to turn that ancient, tumbledown family kitchen into a restaurant, was the happiest of his life—not forgetting the day of his marriage to his teenage sweetheart Àngels, who tied on her apron beside him.
Science, he admitted, was good for some things: to keep fish stream-fresh, to clarify a consommé. But he was on the craftsman’s side. An artist was what he had really wanted to be, and he had simply transferred his painterly feelings to stroking the rich glaze on a shank of lamb, or dashing his signature in a passion-fruit coulis. The menu changed with his moods as much as the season: red peppers because they had shone at the morning market, sardines for their feel in his plump fingers, the first wild asparagus simply because it was there, and had to be celebrated with his customers. His life was loudly dedicated to taste, real taste, and lingering pleasure for all the senses, not simply some brief, show-off spectacle achieved with stabilisers and steam.
As a young chef, self-taught, he had devoured cookery books of every kind: medieval, Japanese, Italian, all the French masters. Nouvelle cuisine especially impressed him. But he kept returning to the flavours and products of his beloved Catalonia, and even to the small, rocky stretch of it outside his kitchen door. His baby lamb came from his own Montseny mountains, and was flavoured with herbs that grew there. Fish came from Blanes, the first spring peas from Llavaneres, artichokes from El Prat de Llobregat. His enthusiastic immersion as a boy in Catalan culture—speaking, reading and writing a language that was officially banished under Franco to the hearth and home, wandering in the rugged, piny Catalan landscape—reached its natural apogee in preserving, lovingly, what Catalunya tasted like. It was fitting that the last meal he made, before he died of a heart attack at his new restaurant in distant Singapore, was a pa amb tomàquet, fresh tomato pulp and olive oil pressed onto bread, the purest taste of home.
By then a truce had been reached with Mr Adrià, though it was fidgety. The slimmer man dismissed Mr Santamaría’s barbs as total nonsense, and their originator as a staid old conservative. But Mr Santamaría did not greatly mind that, if it meant that he was honouring the best traditions of cooking and thereby contributing, as he saw it, to the beauty of life.
A table at Can Fabes—or any of his six other restaurants—was, in his words, “a poem”. It stirred memories of his mother spreading out the special white cloth she used for feasts. In this calm, unhurried setting Mr Santamaría, using only fire, would perform the “magic” of turning raw food into meals. The result could be shrimp “that makes you lose your senses”, or a fish and potato soup that would “put the moon on your plate”. And nothing could taste better, surely, for all those gizmos, at the best restaurant in the world.