US Chefs in Madrid
Ingredients, techniques, aesthetics, community and the gastronomic culture of the Spanish capital, are just some of the things that seven young chefs from the United States absorbed this past April–June as the recipients of all-expenses-paid scholarships from the Community of Madrid (in collaboration with OléSAY) to intern at prestigious local restaurants.
The chefs, who are graduates of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) – a prestigious, national non-profit that trains youth in the culinary arts and prepares them for college and careers in the restaurant and hospitality industries – trained for three months under top chefs at Madrid restaurants Alabaster, Álbora, A'Barra, Club Allard, Coque, Santceloni and Gaytán. Additionally, their exposure to Madrid and its gastronomy took the form of visits to agri-food producers, markets, restaurants and wineries located throughout the region. The experience culminated in a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the Copa Jerez, a world-renowned food and wine competition that takes place every two years in Jerez de la Frontera (Andalusia).
Given all this, it's not surprising that phrases like, "It was a dream experience", "I’ve grown as a person and a chef" and "I've learned so much", are just a few of the sentiments that these chefs expressed to Foods and Wines from Spain on the eve of their departure from Spain, as well as the following thoughts and impressions about their time here.
Tradition, lifestyle, community
Chef Eldridge Betts, who interned at iconic two-Michelin-star restaurant Santceloni, was impressed by the importance of food at the center of everything in this country. "Understanding how people in Spain enjoy their lives. I want to take the tranquilities back to the United States. People take time to drink their coffee and talk to their friends. People take time to eat. There is a strong sense of community in Spain... in the U.S. it seems people are out for themselves. The conversations here start around food."
And for many of the chefs, this sense of community extended to the kitchens of the restaurants where they were working. Gabrielle Calle, for example, who goes by the name Gabee and interned at two-Michelin-star restaurant Club Allard underlines this fact: "The experience (is) so different from any restaurant I have worked at in New York. I have never worked in a kitchen like this. I have made a family of people so quickly, and I am sad to leave." These sentiments are shared by Tchnavia (Tché) Carter-Hallman, who worked at one-Michelin-star restaurant Gaytán: "I think a kitchen like Gaytán back in the States would be the most cut throat, hard-core kitchen I can imagine. It takes a team to win the game, but also a special bond to make something great."
Letting the products speak for themselves
Most, if not all of the chefs, were also struck by the amazing quality of the raw products here in Spain. They also now have plans to incorporate many of them into their cooking back in the United States, fulfilling one of the program's goals of creating culinary ambassadors for Spanish gastronomy. One of the most eye-opening products was Spanish olive oil, which the chefs got an in-depth look at while attending an olive oil seminar and cooking workshop sponsored by ICEX Spain Trade and Investment.
Gabee Calle plans to take as many Spanish ingredients home with her as possible, both literally and figuratively. "I have bottles of olive oil from the seminar on oils, sherry wine from Jerez, olives from Spain, and chocolate. I have more food going back with me than clothes! I want to cook at home like I cook here in Spain, and the best way to do it is with the best ingredients." Like Gabee, Eldridge Betts has gained a newfound love for olives, "Before I went to Spain I did not appreciate olives as much as I appreciate them now". Tché Carter-Hallman remarks that she is, "bringing back loads of photos, a few bottles of wine, some olive oil from the olive oil seminar... and knowledge about true Spanish cuisine, products, culture, and kitchens."
This collective awe at the quality of Spain's raw ingredients ("I've never seen such a ripe tomato!" – Gabee) was only surpassed by the way that these products are allowed to shine through on the menus of top-tier Madrid restaurants. According to Abdallah Farraj who worked at two-Michelin-star Coque: "I found the lack of seasoning to be surprising. They use less salt and spices than we do back home. I believe they do this to allow the ingredients to speak for themselves." Gabee agrees: "[I like] the ideas of fresh ingredients making the meal, not the additions of salt and sugar like in the United States. Taking only five ingredients and making a completely flavorful meal out of them." Brianna Wellmon, who interned at one-star Alabaster restaurant, also shares this view: "I like that the food is light, yet flavorful in Madrid. It is not covered in a lot of salt and condiments. I learned how to work with many products in multiple ways."
Technique, presentation and style...
Spending three months training under top chefs in acclaimed Madrid restaurants also impressed the young American chefs in terms of different culinary techniques, restaurant styles and even food aesthetics. Abdallah Farraj, for one, had his eyes opened to the technique of fermentation and pickling vegetables while working with Chef Mario Sandoval at Coque. He was also impressed with the chef's whole concept: "He has created an excellent as well as unique guest experience at Coque restaurant. I believe his dining concept is completely innovative, bold and fresh for this industry."
Christopher Williams, a pastry chef who worked at A'Barra, says: "I have gained tons of knowledge working on my craft as a pastry chef. I realized there are so many things I haven't learned in pastry school and I have decided to return to school this fall and revisit these skills and techniques thoroughly. I have already made plans and want to incorporate the things I've learned here during my annual baking and pastry camp with C-CAP... interesting plated desserts with tons of flavor, color and with some imagination." His direct training with the restaurant's pastry chef Samuel Naveira included watching the chef, "create his own silicone molds with interesting shapes using figs and peach stones." Christopher goes on to say that, "[Chef Samuel's] versatility with combining flavors was extraordinary and all the components in his desserts worked very well together. He has given me the passion to think outside the box, knowing that many things have already been made or done before but taking it just an extra step higher."
At Gaytán restaurant, Tché's experience with pastry chef Ondrej Jerabek, "opened my mind to the flavor combinations and ways to manipulate chocolate." Gabee adds that, "the techniques I have encountered in this restaurant (Club Allard) are unlike anything I've worked with before, my entire outlook and style of cooking is changed forever."
Talking about the importance of presentation, Eldridge Betts remarks that, "I am indulging in that area at Santceloni because of the beautiful food they produce regularly. Absorbing that aspect will make me a better chef. I can create and produce delicious food, but now, let's make it look better. Consistently. Transformation. I am all about it."
And, while interning at one-Michelin-star restaurant Álbora, Chris Andrade, "refined my technique”, tried new ingredients and successfully worked in a high-stress environment. Beyond Madrid, he has also found inspiration from acclaimed Spanish chef Ricard Camarena whose, "perspectives and methods on stock and broths challenges me to be more creative, develop deeper flavors and twist traditions."
Of course these chefs' experiences in Spain were by no means “all work and no play”. In addition to visits to wineries, restaurants and food producers in El Escorial, Alcalá de Henares, Aranjuez and other areas of the Community of Madrid, the chefs also got to experience a one-of-a-kind opportunity in the form of a trip to the Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera on June 12th and 13th to attend the Sherry Wine Gastronomic Forum, the Sherry Showroom and the Copa Jerez, the biennial, international sherry wine and food pairing competition – all courtesy of ICEX Spain. Needless to say, this trip, which included a seminar and introduction to sherry wines given at the Regulatory Board of DO Sherry, attendance at talks by top Spanish sommeliers and chefs, vineyard and winery tours and much more, was one of the highlights of their experience in Spain.
In the words of Christopher Andrade: "The Copa Jerez has been the most memorable experience thus far. Extremely educational seminars, insightful pairings and tastings, and beautiful scenery. Gabee Calle concurs: "My most memorable experience in Spain would be the Copa Jerez trip we took. Never in my life would I think I could have the opportunity to go to such a prestigious event. Meeting the chefs and sommeliers was a once in a lifetime experience." In terms of how it has affected her cooking, she goes on to say, "now if I ever taste food that has Sherry wine or vinegar, I will know it is in there. My palate has been trained to taste the aromas of sherry and the beautiful complexities. I get to keep that knowledge forever." And while Christopher Williams was inspired by the experience to "want to compete in the Copa Jerez in the years to come", Eldridge Betts has more immediate plans: "I am in love with Jerez! There is a world out there and the United States does not dive deep. We know sherry, but we do not do nearly as much as we can with it. As a personal chef, I see myself wanting to do more with food and wine tasting with sherry wine."
In any case, whether talking about their time spent interning in Madrid, their exploration of the surrounding region and its gastronomy, or their travels down south, one thing is clear: for these seven chefs, Spain has become a country, culture, gastronomy and lifestyle that they will now take with them wherever they go.