“You can tell a lot about a prime minister by their food foibles”

Chef Julio González de Buitrago spent more than 30 years cooking for six Spanish prime ministers Now that he is retiring, he has decided to divulge a few culinary state secrets in a memoir

Julio González de Buitrago in the kitchen of La Contraseña bar in Madrid.
Julio González de Buitrago in the kitchen of La Contraseña bar in Madrid.samuel sánchez

On the evening of February 23, 1981, Julio González de Buitrago Reviejo was at work, preparing dinner as the head chef in the kitchens of the Moncloa Palace, the official residence of the prime minister of Spain.

The evening dragged on and the food got colder as he and his colleagues listened to the radio in the hope of finding out more news about the military coup that had been launched earlier that day, when Civil Guard Colonel Antonio Tejero seized control of Congress.

At 9.30pm González de Buitrago decided to go home, but was stopped from leaving by two civil guards at the main gate.

“I thought, that’s it. Finished. This is the end of a nice little number,” he says, remembering the events of that traumatic night, which could have ended Spain’s nascent democracy. But of course the coup failed, and he would remain in his job for the next 32 years, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for six prime ministers and their families and guests, official and otherwise.

González de Buitrago, or Julio as he has always been known to his employers, got the job after leaving the family farm in a village in Toledo province to seek his fortune in the capital. In 1977, he got a job helping out in the kitchens of the Moncloa Palace, until, a couple of years later, his brother-in-law, who was a driver at the palace, secured him an interview for the top spot: “I made a couple of very mediocre crêpes,” he says modestly.

“You can tell a lot about a leader by their food foibles,” he says, explaining why, as he retires at the age of 69, he has just published the memoir La cocina de La Moncloa (or, La Moncloa kitchen), a journey through four decades of politics and a compendium of prime ministerial recipes.

Adolfo Suárez liked a vegetable soup at night – but only because his wife insisted on it”

He says Spain’s first democratically elected prime minister after the death of General Franco, Adolfo Suárez, who died in March, was a light eater: “He didn’t have much of an appetite, but he was always smiling. He did like to have a bowl of vegetable soup at night; mind you, that was only because his wife insisted on it.”

Three weeks before the failed coup attempt, on the evening of January 29, González de Buitrago says there had been a lot of coming and going, with television cameras and journalists setting up in the rooms above the kitchens. As he was preparing dinner, around 7.40pm, one of the staff burst in saying: “The prime minister is standing down!” “It took us all by surprise, and we were all very sad, because we all respected and liked him,” he says.

On other “delicate” occasions, the general rule was “light things.” That would be the case on election night, or after an ETA terrorist attack. “The Hipercor bombing, in 1987, or the kidnapping of Miguel Ángel Blanco [a Popular Party local councilor who was murdered by ETA in 1997] – these were times when the prime minister was having a difficult time, and you know that he’s not going to sit down to eat properly, so we prepared soups, vegetables, things that are easy to digest during a tense time,” explains González de Buitrago.

Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, Suárez’s successor, “didn’t eat much, but you couldn’t go wrong with some pasta and a little butter with grated parmesan; he was a serious man, very dry, but then he could suddenly surprise you with a humorous comment.”

Aznar’s wife wanted impossible omelets: runny inside, but with crispy potatoes”

Spain’s third post-Transition prime minister, Felipe González, was apparently wont to take over the kitchen to prepare bream baked in sea salt. “He loved a tuna-and-tomato sandwich when he was watching a soccer game; shrimp didn’t agree with him. He was a very down-to-Earth man, and he learned to eat properly during his time in office.”

González de Buitrago says the Socialist Party leader won over many of his guests at difficult times, such as when US President Ronald Reagan visited while Spain was negotiating membership of NATO. Similarly, he served up top-notch food for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the talks that would lead to Spain’s entry into the European Union, as well as establishing a firm friendship with French President François Mitterand over the dinner table.

José María Aznar, who occupied the Moncloa Palace between 1996 and 2004, forbade fried potatoes, and was strict about meal times, although he insisted on Häagen-Dazs coffee-flavored ice cream at dinner and lunch. “It became a matter of state,” says González de Buitrago. He also imposed more formality: “When he arrived with his family, we all had to line up in the hall; the previous prime ministers had all gotten to know us by coming down to see us,” he says. Aznar also changed suppliers, ordering from El Corte Inglés department store, says González de Buitrago: “He was a friend of Isidoro Álvarez,” the owner of the department store.

We prepared soups, vegetables, easy to digest things at times of tension”

It’s clear from the book that Julio’s favorite prime minister is the country’s least-known, and shortest-serving, Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo, who was in office from February 1981 to December 1982, when Felipe González was swept to power in a landslide victory. It’s equally clear that the chef’s least-favorite premier is José María Aznar, and particularly his wife, Ana Botella, now the mayor of Madrid. “She took forever to decide on the day’s menu, meaning that we had to work flat out to be in time to serve lunch at 2pm,” he says. “She wanted these Spanish omelets that were impossible: they had to have crispy potatoes, but the inside had to be runny; there wasn’t a single day when you got the impression that she was happy with what we had prepared.”

María del Pilar Ibáñez-Martín, Calvo-Sotelo’s widow, encouraged González de Buitrago to write the book, and says she appreciated his cooking from the get go. “When we first moved in, we realized that some days the food was fantastic, and on others it was not so good,” she explains. “I soon realized that Julio was a very good cook, so I asked him if he was brave enough to take charge of all meals, including the catering for banquets, and official meetings, which was done by the Ritz. He said he was, and we saved ourselves quite a bit of money.” She also adds that she personally took charge of the operations to clean the kitchen up, which she describes as like an army canteen, and rid it of cockroaches: “It was my kitchen, so I had to take care of things.”

He says that José Luis Zapatero, who occupied the Moncloa Palace between 2004 and 2011, was fond of fried almonds, was “a straightforward man, sincere and agreeable,” and that he cancelled the contract with El Corte Inglés, going back to ordering from Madrid’s Central Market: “which was much cheaper.” He says the family’s choices were somewhat Spartan, given that Zapatero’s daughters were on a strict diet.

When Mariano Rajoy moved in, in early 2012, Julio was in the process of retiring. “I came out to meet him and his wife Elvira, and learned that he doesn’t like onions or garlic much.”

Julio has cooked for six prime ministers, and kept his position thanks to a love for his profession, and what he describes as “a certain discretion.” The first time he set foot in the Moncloa Palace, in 1977, it was a historic time: just one floor above the kitchen, the Moncloa Pacts were being signed – the very foundations upon which Spain’s Transition was to be built.

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