Author: Almudena Muyo /©ICEX
Translation: Hawys Pritchard/©ICEX
Sincere, honest, flavor-driven, creative, surprising….: that just about sums up Paco Pérez’s style of cooking. Backed up by his tenet that “everyone should do what he knows in his heart he really ought to be doing, and not deny his principles”, it has earned him three Michelin stars: two for the Miramar, his trademark restaurant in Llançá (Girona, eastern Spain), and another for the Enoteca, located within the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. His laid-back manner belies a packed schedule, which also includes running the restaurant of the Hotel Mirror, again in Barcelona.
The tramontana strikes again. I seem to be doomed. It’s enough for me to go anywhere near the Ampurdan coast for this dismal north wind to start blowing. My visit to the Hotel Restaurante Miramar in Llançá (Girona, eastern Spain) is no exception. I’m here to discover the key features of the Paco Pérez approach to cooking, but the tramontana is no respecter of such missions, and the bout of bad weather that this unpleasant inland wind typically carries along with it is stirring up the waters of this stretch of the Mediterranean.
Against this backdrop, Paco Pérez’s affability beams out in contrast. A ‘self-made’ chef with a low-key approach to life, he avoids the circuit of media events, conferences, and hoo-ha generally. We sit on the covered terrace of his restaurant looking out over the sea, and chat about his (nearly) twenty years at the helm of a gastronomic enterprise (running the Miramar, and acting as advisor to two restaurants-within-hotels in Barcelona – Enoteca in the Arts, and the Mirror) that has earned him three Michelin stars, two for the Miramar and one for Enoteca.
Paco not only directs the teams; he cooks, too. ”I’m a cook. I cook every day”, he says. His passionate interest in food and cooking dates back to early childhood; while still at primary school he used to love slipping into the kitchen to watch what was going on and then try to imitate what he saw. Later, his pursuit of what was clearly a vocation began withtaking a job in a little tapas bar owned by his family, starting off as a waiter and then graduating to the kitchen: “That experience of dealing with the public was key. Being in direct contact with the customers means that you can observe how they react to various tastes and smells - vital information that doesn’t reach you when you’re behind the scenes in the kitchen”.
His schooldays over, he set about becoming a member of the food world, spending several training periods in France on placements with Michel Guérard (one of the progenitors of Nouvelle Cuisine) until he was called up to do his (then obligatory) military service back in Spain. This was when Montse appeared on the scene, turning what would have been just a temporary interruption into a permanent one. “While I was doing the mili in Madrid , a friend told me that his parents, who ran a little hostal (boarding house) near the beach in Llançà, needed help over the Easter period. I decided to give them a hand and spend my holidays there”.
And there he stayed. The original plan return to France to continue his training dissolved in the face of his desire to remain with Montse, sister of the friend who had introduced him to the Miramar, for whom he had fallen in a big way. However, he continued studying and acquiring skills and know-how, and soon after made contact with Ferrán Adriá . Indeed, it was at elBulli that he came to understand the nature of his attitude to cooking, “….an approach to food that involves the senses – you take in the look of it, the smell, the feel, then you eat it, taste it, experience the pleasure of it and retain it in your memory”. Many have described his style of cooking as ‘elBulliesque’, which he takes as a compliment: “To me, cooking in the style of elBulli involves being consistent, creative, humble and hard-working, so I’m delighted if it’s true”.
In those days, the Miramar was a little sea-side boarding house: except for having expanded in size, it had changed little since1939 when Grandma Julia used sleep on the beach so that her bedroom could be let to visitors. Paco and Montse decided to take over what was essentially a small-scale hotel-cum-restaurant; “ Unfortunately, however, we lost my father-in-law in ’97. Taking it on was quite a risky thing to do: our intention was to turn it into a good restaurant and, with that in mind, we decided to invest in doing up the kitchen and to stay open all year round.
Bear in mind that Llançà isn’t on the way to anywhere significant, it’s a destination in its own right – a little town of around 4,000 inhabitants, with very pronounced seasonal differences in the weather and very long winters and short summers. We decided to capitalize on that, making a feature of the variation: we kept the six rooms with beach views, opened up the dining room so that it gave onto the promenade, and extended the kitchen to make the most of the seaside light”, Paco recalls.
By 2006, his style of cooking “…sincere, honest, flavor-driven, creative and – I believe - surprising”, to quote Paco himself, had won him his first Michelin star. “Getting the star changed things in that it attracted more custom, but the real upheaval came in 2009 when they awarded us the first Michelin star for the Enoteca, and then again last year when we got the second for the Miramar. The rhythm of work has accelerated hugely, but the lovely thing is that our customers keep coming just as often as before, now joined by new ones who come to find out what we’re all about”.
The thrill of it all
Miramar menus are, after all, designed to be exciting –a no-holds-barred approach where sole and john dory feature alongside the most outré tapas. Quail’s egg tempura served with soy sauce and sake is a wonderful example: as you bite into the delicate tempura batter, the rich egg-yolk is released into your mouth, where it fuses in perfect harmony with the soy sauce and sake. Razor clams in Thai broth is another….
Paco works a combination of the avant garde and the traditional; the degustation menu is totally avant garde, but the main menu will feature dishes designed to showcase a particular product and others that exhibit his mastery of technique. Espardeñas ibéricas a la brasa (griddled Iberian sea cucumbers) , for example, are presented under a transparent glass dome containing a miniature fog of trapped smoke from burning vine-shoots which, when the dome is lifted off at table, the diner experiences as a heady whiff which just whets the appetite for the delicious sea cucumber to come… and all within sight of the Mediterranean. Even the tramontana failed to undermine the magic when I was served this dish.
Eating at the Miramar is undeniably an intriguing – and often very beautiful - sensory experience that stimulates response at an emotional level. Wild morel mushrooms (Morchella vulgaris) with cream and powdered foie ice-cream is a representative dish (and one that has acquired classic status, Paco tells me) for the way in which the powerful flavor and amazing texture of the morels combine with the cold of the chilled powdered foie in a fabulous fusion that seems to stimulate all one’s taste-buds at once.
Paco Pérez ‘s mastery of technique is impressive, and he deploys it in the service of a style of cuisine in which synthesis is a watchword, and products of topmost quality are showcased. It finds its most quintessential expression in the degustation menu: “It’s cooking the way we feel it ought to be; food that’s exciting in the true sense of the word”.