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Calm Under Pressure
Cooking in a restaurant can be a stressful affair, what with sharp knives, hot stoves and picky and impatient diners with their long list of allergies.
You would think that cooking at El Celler de Can Roca is much worse, especially when there are high standards to maintain, food critics and Michelin guide inspectors to please. After all, the acclaimed restaurant in Girona Spain was No. 2 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016, No. 1 on the list in 2015, and has three Michelin stars.
But the restaurant's chef de cuisine Nacho Baucells says it is a different story. "Sure, the pressure is there, but everyone works silently. There is no shouting," says the 31-year-old. "Everyone is passionate, fully focused on what we do, and we all get along and work as a team." The kitchen team hang out together, even after service hours.
The 30-year-old restaurant is run by the three Roca brothers - Joan, Josep and Jordi.
Chef Baucells was in Singapore recently for a four-hands dinner with Esquina's head chef Carlos Montobbio, to celebrate Esquina's fifth anniversary.
The two chefs met at the Hofmann School of Hospitality in Barcelona 12 years ago.
Chef Baucells says he was a lousy student academically, but he enjoyed cooking with his mother and grandmother, and excelled at culinary school. "I enjoy being in the kitchen, and making people happy with my food."
Other Michelin-starred restaurants he has worked at include El Recó de Can Fabes with the late chef Santi Santamaria, and Sergi Arola Gastro. Both restaurants have since closed.
He first joined El Celler de Can Roca as an apprentice in 2008, before working his way up to chef de cuisine.
"The sense of family is very strong in the kitchen," says Chef Baucells. "Chef Joan is like my father, and his mother like my grandmother." He speaks fondly of Chef Joan, saying that "he is a good boss, he is calm, in control and always feels confident. His confidence rubs off on the team."
At work, Chef Baucells has the freedom to be creative, which comes in handy when he has to think on his feet.
He cites an example of how he had to instantly come up with a new dish at Esquina's anniversary dinner, when he only knew of a diner's allergy at the last minute. He created a dish which included sea urchin on baby spinach leaf and mayonnaise with mussel water. It may not sound like much, but the balance of flavours impressed Chef Montobbio, who was amazed that a new dish could be created "in less than half a minute, especially when we didn't have anything else prepared."
This is Chef Baucell's second visit to Singapore. His first was in 2015 as part of his honeymoon. Having visited the usual tourist attractions on the last visit, this time, Chef Montobbio took him on a gastronomic tour. They went to the wet market at Chinatown Complex, dined at Restaurant Andre, Super Peking Duck and New Ubin Seafood. "The most fun dining experience was at New Ubin Seafood, where I got to do the lo hei," he quips.
Asked what it takes to be good at his job, Chef Baucells says, it is not just knowing how to cook. "But you need to know how to manage staff, be responsible and to be consistent."
He doesn't rule out opening his own restaurant one day, but for now, he has no idea when or where. "It is every chef's dream to have a restaurant of his own," he says.
Foie Gras With Ratafia Liqueur, Dried Plum & Walnut
170g raw foie gras
4g port wine
4g white vermouth
4g Ratafia liqueur
1.5g fine salt
0.5g black peppercorn
1 loaf, approximately 60 x 30cm, spice bread/
8.5g chopped walnuts
3.5g icing sugar
Oil, for frying
170ml Ratafia liqueur
42ml chicken stock
Edible chocolate spray
Chopped dried plums
For foie gras mixture
1. Gently but thoroughly devein foie gras. In a large vacuum bag, combine foie gras, port wine, vermouth, 4g Ratafia liqueur, salt and black peppercorn and mix well. Seal the bag and marinate the mixture for at least two hours in the fridge.
2. Preheat the oven to 65 degrees Celsius and cook the foie gras mixture for 35 minutes. Once cooked, remove from oven and blend it with a hand blender until it becomes a smooth paste. Cool the mixture in the fridge.
3. Fill rectangular moulds, approximately 5 x 2.5cm each with foie gras mixture. Freeze the filled moulds for two hours. Once frozen, remove foie gras and spray the top with chocolate until fully covered. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For Spice bread Tuile
Freeze bread. Once frozen, slice bread into 1mm thick. Place the bread slices on a sheet pan and bake for five minutes at 170 degrees Celsius.
For Caramelised walnuts
Combine water, sugar and chopped walnuts in a pot and simmer for two hours. Drain the water. Remove walnuts and coat them with icing sugar. Fry the coated walnuts in oil at 160 degrees Celsius until golden brown. Cool the walnuts at room temperature on a sheet pan with baking paper.
For Ratafia Glaze
Pour 170ml Ratafia liquor into a large stock pot and bring to a simmer over a low flame. Once the liquor has reduced to half, pour in chicken stock and allow the mixture to reduce for 10 more minutes. When the mixture reaches the consistency of a thick syrup, remove pot from flame and allow to cool at room temperature. Transfer glaze into spouted condiment bottle and store in fridge for at least six hours.
To plate (one portion)
1 pc spice bread tuile
1pc foie gras
1 pc caramelised walnut
1pc chopped plum
Lay the spice bread tuile on serving plate and gently place the chocolate coated foie gras atop the tuile. Garnish with two drops of Ratafia glaze. Place a piece of walnut on one drop of glaze and a piece of chopped plum on the other.