Acclaimed chefs search for plan B

The crisis is forcing top restaurants to look for new ways to woo customers

Chef Xavier Pellicer with one of his dishes at the Barraca restaurant in Barcelona.
Chef Xavier Pellicer with one of his dishes at the Barraca restaurant in Barcelona.BARRACA

Spain’s economic crisis has impacted on nearly all aspects of life, not least fine dining. The sector is experiencing a considerable decline — not in quality, but in its prices.

With customers tightening their belts, the market for upmarket dining experiences is inevitably shrinking and some of the country’s top chefs are having to rethink their approach.

One such restaurateur is Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca, considered by some to be the best restaurant in the world. “It is clear that we have lived beyond our means in many respects,” he says, explaining his new venture, Roca Bar, located in the Hotel Omm in Barcelona.

There customers can sample the “Celler philosophy” at a more crisis-friendly price. The menu features so-called rocadillos, baguettes filled with such delights as smoked eel with teriyaki or oxtail in red wine, as well as offerings such as fried sardines with lemon and basil, and artichoke chips.

This is just one example of how star chefs are adapting their repertoire to new clientele. “This is the moment to strengthen the middle-class restaurants,” opines fellow chef Fermí Puig.

Insisting that the changes do not spell the end of haute cuisine, he explains the problems facing high-end establishments. “Has anyone ever heard an elite chef say their restaurant was a good business? No, because it isn’t. Otherwise they would have to be even more expensive. Starting with the rent, everything is very expensive in a luxury restaurant.”

It is clear that we have lived beyond our means"

That is why expectations have to be adjusted. “The economic times make us rationalize costs and offer the diner new proposals adjusted to reality,” says Fina Puigdevall, chef at Les Cols in Olot. “It is imperative that we don’t lower the quality, work more and earn less.”

As well as their tasting menus, this month Les Cols is offering “a star dinner watching the stars.” The evening offers a delightful meal accompanied by an expert astronomer who will give a talk on the skies. Dishes play with cultures and textures, and include fresh egg with mayonnaise and tuna, ribs with melon, and a wealth of dishes from the volcanic hills of La Garrotxa.

“The goal of these dinners [...] is to recover the pleasure of picnicking on the banks of the river in the countryside, in the middle of nature, enjoying the stars of both the gastronomic and cosmic universes,” says Puigdevall.

Also making changes is Xavier Pellicer, who was the heart and soul of Can Fabes until he quit last January. Pellicer now works as gastronomic advisor to the seaside restaurant Barraca in La Barceloneta, which is owned by organic food chain Wokimarket’s proprietor, Guido Weinberg.

The menu that Pellicer has designed consists of rice dishes and a cod recipe given to him by his mother-in-law. “They are simple concepts, like organic vegetable paella,” he says.

Albert Adrià, formerly of the now-closed world-famous elBulli restaurant, is another chef who has had to diversify his business because of the crisis. He is currently embarking on a new project, under the name BCN 5.0, together with his brother Ferran, and Juan Carlos, Borja and Pedro Iglesias.

“The customer is changing and you have to look for new formulas, a balance between what you pay and what they give you,” he explains.

Adrià has opened a number of establishments that focus on tapas, with more opening soon. These include 41º, a high-end cocktail and snack bar; Tickets, which serves creative tapas; Pakta, offering Japanese-Peruvian fusion fare; and Yauarcán, which will open soon to dish up Mexican food.

“The cuisine is more modern than at elBulli,” claims Adrià, although he acknowledges that inevitably the spirit of elBulli continues in what they serve.

Foodies should not despair. Quality dining is definitely not dead. Oriol Castro of Compartir in Cadaqués has the final word. “Haute cuisine cannot end,” he says. “The general level of our food is rising. There are incredible offerings.”

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