Rodrigo De la Calle
‘Gastrobotanics’ is the joint brain-child of restaurateur Rodrigo de la Calle and biologist Santiago Orts. It’s a concept that has turned De la Calle into a champion of undervalued and overlooked vegetable species which, in his hands, become the stuff of haute cuisine.
I’m off to Aranjuez (46 kilometers south of Madrid), and feeling quite excited at the prospect of eating food cooked by Rodrigo de la Calle (he was elected chef of the year for 2011 at Madridfusión, the prestigious international gastronomic conference held in the Spanish capital every year). I’m also looking forward to traveling through one of my favorite parts of the country –the fertile fruit and vegetable-growing area beside the River Tagus.
It occurs to me in retrospect that this brush with Nature put me in just the right frame of mind for grasping the essential point of Rodrigo de la Calle’s cuisine, which takes its inspiration from the vegetable kingdom. He is, after all, the inventor (along with biologist Santiago Orts, who runs the Viveros Huerto de Elche plant nursery) of ‘gastrobotanics’, a culinary concept that ushers unaccustomed vegetable species into the realm of haute cuisine.
In the setting of the welcoming restaurant that bears his name, located right in the centre of Aranjuez, Rodrigo de la Calle wastes no time in determinedly getting the message across: “The idea is to reinstate vegetable species and varieties that possess notable qualities yet have been disparaged, left unexplored, or simply never been discovered - products that contribute added value to gastronomy. Some may already be close at hand, possibly having been cultivated by our forebears, while others will be discoveries made in the course of our research – Nature still has plenty of secrets to keep the spirit of enquiry occupied”.
But there is more to it than that: the ultimate aim is to endow products that he considers to be of significant gastronomic interest with the sort of status that makes it a financially viable proposition to grow them as a crop. Obvious examples are fresh dates; finger limes (Citrus australasica, little lemon-like fruit with tiny vesicles that look deceptively like Ferran Adrià -type microspheres, that burst in one’s mouth releasing a richly acidic taste); and ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) and ice lettuce (early leaves of the ice plant).
Santiago Orts runs Viveros Huerto de Elche, a family-owned plant nursery that was originally part of the historic Palmeral de Elche, a vast palm grove declared a Heritage of Mankind site by UNESCO. The nursery has now expanded beyond the confines of the Palmeral, having acquired a new role about a decade ago when it was given over to growing dates as a crop instead of ornamental palms. At around the same time, Rodrigo de la Calle took over at La Taula del Milenio restaurant (also owned by the Orts family) armed with experience gained at Madrid’s top flight Lhardy and Goizeko Kabi.
The day when Santiago offered Rodrigo fresh dates for use in the restaurant proved to be a pivotal one: in fact, fresh dates have since become a signature ingredient. “I still remember that day!” Rodrigo declares passionately. “I’d never tasted fresh dates before. They made such an impression on me that – quite unexpectedly - my professional and personal life took quite a different turn from then on. I still look forward to the start of the date season in October, and I’m always a bit downcast when it ends in January”.
Rodrigo secured a job at the 2-Michelin-star Mugaritz with Andoni Luis Aduriz - not only a big name, but one with a special interest in vegetable cuisine. The experience of haute cuisine he acquired there was further rounded out by subsequent periods working at 3-Michelin-star Martín Berasategui; at Pastelería Totel with master patissier Paco Torreblanca; and at Quique Dacosta’s 2-Michelin-star El Poblet.
In the course of seven action-packed years, he acquired and mastered cutting-edge techniques and the skills and secrets specific to desserts, patisserie, rice…. Meanwhile, his research work with Santiago Orts continued in parallel. Furthermore, he was able to offer consistent supplies of dates and other protégé products to the chefs with whom he worked.
Meanwhile, Rodrigo and Santiago were having fun staging their own gastronomic conferences in emulation of the top chefs. It was at one of these, in 2005, that they decided over a glass of wine that the time had come to put a name to their area of research, and came up with ‘gastrobotanics’.
Passionate about produce
Shortly after his thirtieth birthday, towards the end of 2006, Rodrigo de la Calle decided to open his own restaurant, a showcase for his own auteur cuisine and the gastrobotanics concept. “I’d accumulated enough experience to be able to cook in my own way. Our menu includes a gastrobotanic one consisting of 5 dishes: ostra con caviar cítrico (oyster with citrus caviar), huevo con trufa y germinados (egg with truffle and sprouted seeds); two rice dishes featuring different desert vegetables; and a fruit macédoine that celebrates the diversity of citrus fruits now available”.
“So what”, you may be wondering “is Rodrigo de la Calle’s cooking actually like?” His style of cooking is out-and-out contemporary, at once flavor-packed and subtle. His dishes are cleverly thought out and their cooking is judged to the second so that their juxtapositioning of flavors and textures can be experienced to the full. Ingredients can sometimes be unexpected yet they take their place comfortably among the rest – the influence of Martín Berasategui is discernible here, albeit slightly toned down.
Rodrigo de la Calle describes his cooking as simple. By this he means that it respects the flavor of the ingredients involved, even when there are three or four elements.
Top quality prime ingredients are obviously a sine qua non as far as this chef is concerned, and seasonal products are given star billing on a menu that changes with the seasons. When a customer is shown to his table, he finds a little roll of parchment tied with a red ribbon. It contains this message: “Vegetables and their characteristics are the mainstay of our cuisine. We respect fresh produce - we accept its seasonal nature and the fact that it comes and goes. By observing the life cycles governed by the seasons, we are able to present their products at their best and most expressive”. That’s quite some policy statement, and they really do practice what they preach.
Rodrigo carries perfectionism to the extreme. His dishes are perfectly balanced, each a little concerto of flavors in which every element retains its own identity while playing its part in the overall harmony.
De la Calle dish allocates top billing to vegetables and consigns animal protein to a supporting role: “Vegetables are the mainstay of the restaurant, and on the gastrobotanical menu, animal protein features as a garnish: meat or fish, it can appear in many guises – little chunks, or even in a broth but always in a minor role”. His filamentos de lombarda con caldo de chipirón (filaments of red cabbage with baby squid broth) is a classic example.
The citrus fruits grown by Santiago Orts provide a leitmotiv, seasoning every dish, from oysters with citrus caviar through to the complete range of desserts. Rice is another thematic axis in Rodrigo de la Calle’s repertoire. Again in his rice dishes there is that stamp of perfection – grains just the right size, cooked for just long enough.
Santiago Orts’ plantations in Elche are Rodrigo de la Calle’s greatest source of inspiration: “When I go there and see all the produce growing and developing as the months go by, as I pick and taste them I start to see culinary uses for them in my mind’s eye – sometimes even the final dish”. The creative process may well be triggered in his mind by the sight of something growing in the garden, but a lot of experimenting goes on in the kitchen before the dish is declared complete.
Rodrigo likes to make a point of declaring that he doesn’t like to be labeled and doesn’t belong to any tendency. His guiding principle is gastrobotanics. Pure and simple.
Rodrigo de la Calle received a Michelin star in 2016 in his restaurant El Invernadero in Collado Mediano, a little townn located on the outskirts of Madrid city. There are just 4 tables in his venue and its menu is based on two basic ingredients: vegetables and wild mushrooms. In 2018 Rodrigo de la Calle announced the move of his Michelin-starred restaurant, El Invernadero, to the Spanish capital, Madrid.
- Cocina Verde (Planeta Gastro, 2017)
- Gastrobotánica (Temas de Hoy, 2010)