Spanish chef Sergi Arola
Author: Rodrigo García Fernández /©ICEX
Translation: Jenny McDonald /©ICEX
A rebellious, anti-establishment, culinary trend-setter. A proponent of authentic Catalonian and, consequently, Mediterranean cuisine. The personality and approach of Sergi Arola (Barcelona, 1968) are really unique. He is a cook with character who has found the best way of satisfying his constant need to create and innovate.
Sergi Arola was chef at the La Broche restaurant in Madrid from 1997 to 2008. But his entrepreneurial view of gastronomy, while maintaining at all costs maximum product quality on his menus, has led him beyond this famous two-Michelin-star restaurant in Madrid to other scenarios, where the pleasure of eating is in consonance with a modern, avant-garde atmosphere. Sergi was responsible for the Arola restaurant in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (located in the spectacular extension designed by architect Jean Nouvel from France), and is still in charge of the Arola Arts restaurant in the Arts Hotel in Barcelona’s Olympic port, not to mention the Madrid signature sandwich bars called Paninoteca D’E (from 2006 to 2008). He also provided advice for the Las Ventanas by Sergi Arola restaurant in the Occidental Royal Hideaway hotel at Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya (Mexico). As if that were not enough, he is currently in charge of Iberia’s Business Class menus.
Starting out in Barcelona...
Although Sergi came into contact as a small child with traditional Catalonian cuisine thanks to his maternal grandfather, Joaquim Arola i Giralt, with whom he spent periods in the village of Olesa de Montserrat, cooking was not his main or first vocation. As an adolescent, he decided to leave school early for two main reasons – to become a musician (he was, and still is, a keen enthusiast of American rock music, especially groups such as Led Zeppelin), and to sign up at the Hospitality and Catering School in Barcelona, which he entered in 1985.
During his last period at the school, he studied alongside Carles Abellan and José Andrés , who were later to form part of the Spanish culinary avant-garde, one at Comerç 24 in Barcelona, and the other at Jaleo in Washington DC (US). He gave up the school in 1988, with three subjects unfinished, so was never able to receive a qualification. His rock musician appearance did not help him find work in Barcelona, so he spent a time at a paella restaurant on the Barceloneta beach. The owner offered him a job at another restaurant, Pica-Pica, from which he was thrown out after an argument with a customer.
From 1986 to 1989 Arola worked in the kitchens of Bernia, and in 1989 started a three-year job at L’Aram, under Álex Montiel, with whom he became involved in creative cuisine. In 1992 he took a position as chef de cuisine at La Jijonenca and in 1995 his former colleague at the Hospitality School, Carles Abellán, invited him to form part of the team at Talaia, an avant-garde restaurant in Barcelona that received advice from Ferran Adrià.
There he was discovered by the Salaverris, a Madrid couple with money to invest. They were overwhelmed by Arola’s creative promise, and a close friendship grew between them. Arola's period in this restaurant was crucial because he participated in the first elBulli laboratory, which used to meet in the afternoons at Talaia. This led on to a course with one of his favourite chefs, Pierre Gagnaire, with whom he worked for a month and a half at the Rue Balzac in Paris. On his return to Spain, Ferran Adrià invited him in 1997 to join him in the kitchen at Cala Montjoi. And that was where Arola received an unexpected visit from his friends, the Salaverris, who made a proposal he could not refuse, to take charge of a small restaurant in Madrid that needed urgent renovation, La Broche.
So he arrived in Madrid in 1997. After a difficult start, he gradually forged a position on the city’s gastronomic scene. That was when he met Sara Fort, a young woman from Roses (Girona) that he had known by sight earlier. The sparks started to fly, and they have been together ever since. Sara became maître at La Broche and, over the years, mother to his two daughters.
...and acclaim in Madrid
Arola's aim was to broaden the tastes and food experiences of his Madrid customers, and he was soon rewarded for his efforts. The first Michelin star came in just a few months, and in 2000 he received an offer to move the La Broche restaurant to larger premises in the Miguel Angel hotel in the city center. The change was substantial. He gained space in both the kitchen and the restaurant so that he could offer the minimalism and modern decor that were in line with his gastronomic offerings. In 2002, La Broche received its second Michelin star.
Sergi Arola's cuisine has very marked Catalonian, and above all Mediterranean, traits. It takes its inspiration from traditional Catalonian recipes such as those for mar y montaña (turf and surf) dishes, and certain specialties such a salt cod, Arola's favorite fish. He adores sardines alongside bread rubbed with tomato (plain, humble and great-tasting), curry as a spice, and tomato as a vegetable. He feels very proud of having restored to haute cuisine the Catalonian and Majorcan tradition of cocas (a sort of Spanish pizza), such as the coca he tops with duck liver.
Colors, textures and flavors that come from the best ingredients, using innovative culinary techniques. Sergi Arola brought a breath of fresh air to catering in Madrid, which had been unmoving for several decades. He sparked a thorough change, one that has led Madrid to be considered today one of the world’s most attractive gastronomic capitals. Arola, a chef and entrepreneur who likes to trust his intuition, certainly played his cards right in the Spanish capital.
In spite of the prestige he earned at La Broche, a chef like Sergi Arola never feels satisfied. He always needs something new and, in another attempt to prove his authenticity, he decided to make a career change. He left his friends and colleagues at La Broche and, with Sara Fort, opened up Sergi Arola Gastro in February 2008. This is a small restaurant, with just a few tables for four (and one for six) and four fixed menus, among them the Gastro menu and the Cheese-lover's Menu. Just a few months later Arola Gastro received two Michelin stars.
A few months after opening Arola Gastro, Arola set out on a new adventure, this time outside Spain. Through an agreement with the Ritz-Carlton chain (which was behind the Arola Arts in Barcelona), Arola started managing the kitchen of a restaurant bearing his name in the Lugo Penha Longa Hotel, close to Sintra in Portugal. Another project in 2008 was his collaboration with the Haciendas de España hotel chain, a member of the Arco business group, which runs operations in places with strong wine-making connections. In June 2008, Sergi Arola took charge of the restaurants called The Durius River Café, in several of the Haciendas de España establishments. This is a concept based on avant-garde cuisine, using natural ingredients (many of them from the Duero river basin) at affordable prices.
In August 2009 came the announcement of a new, international Sergi Arola project to be launched in September, the Arola 23 restaurant at the Hotel Tivoli Sao Paulo Mofarrej. So now Brazil, and its modern city of Sao Paolo, is enjoying the culinary creativity of this Catalonian chef.
October 14th marked a new era for Spanish flavors in the capital of Chile, as The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Santiago celebrated the opening of Chef Sergi Arola’s newest restaurant venture, Arola Chile, the second Latin American project of this renowned Spanish chef.
“We made a bet on Arola because his style and reputation make him a perfect choice for a gastronomic alliance with our property,” affirmed to www.foodsfromspain.com Carolina Voullième, Director of Sales & Marketing of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Santiago.
Do you want more? Sergio Arola launched in 2012 a new project far from home, this time in Mumbai. His gourmet venture, Arola Restaurant & Bar, officially opened for business at the JW Marriott Mumbai.