Where does your love of cooking come from? “When I started studying mathematics in university, I had to work during the weekends and the easiest option was to become a cook. I started working for a chef in a bistro that served easy Catalan food and he explained to me who the good chefs are, and what dishes I should eat in their restaurants.
“In the beginning I didn’t have any knowledge and I wanted to know what the big chefs do. The more I learned, the more excited I became. Jean-Louis Neichel taught me the basics when I worked at his [now-closed] restaurant, Neichel, in Barcelona. He is an Alsatian chef who cooks Mediterranean food.”
What happened to your studies? “Mathematics was exciting in a completely different way. But I knew I wasn’t going to be a mathematician all my life. My parents asked, are you sure you want to be a chef? I admitted I didn’t know, but they never stopped me. I never finished that mathematics degree.”
Why didn’t you go to culinary school? “I travelled a lot and learned in the kitchen. I felt I could learn faster by following chefs. In 1999, I went to El Bulli [Ferran Adrià’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Catalonia that closed in 2011] for one season, which was about eight months long. It made a big impression on me. I learned there are no rules, that anything is possible. But I was so young that I needed to learn the basics first.
“Afterwards I went to work for Martín Berasategui [at Lasarte, in Barcelona]. Seventeen years ago he was cooking more traditional dishes in the kitchen, more rustic. I learned a lot being with him for a year.”
What was it like to work in Paris? “I went to Pierre Au Palais Royale [also now closed], a one-Michelin-star restaurant that served classic French dishes. The mentality in that kitchen was very different from a Spanish one. The French were very square.
“On my first day they asked me to make mayonnaise and gave me the raw ingredients. I put them into the Thermomix. Afterwards, they told me to throw it out and start all over – it had to be whisked by hand. It tastes the same, but they insisted it be made by hand. That’s when I understood that you had to follow the rules.”
When did you know you wanted to open your own restaurant? “In the beginning, you have to learn the basics of cooking. And then when you become head chef and run other people’s restaurants, then you think about opening your own. In 2006, my wife [pastry chef Mireia Navarro] and I opened Gresca and we did everything ourselves at first so it was hard work. The concept is called ‘bistronomia’, making good food at a good price, and as a result the restaurant became successful.”
How do you choose your ingredients? “Seasonality is the key. For example, in autumn, there is game, truffles and winter vegetables. In December, there is more game, and fresh asparagus. The season is no longer than two to three months. For us at Gresca it’s not a question of being cheap – we get good sardines, but we don’t need the best lobster, and we don’t use caviar either. We use ingredients like asparagus, spring mushrooms, ceps, chanterelles, morels, sole, turbot, anchovies and white tuna.
“We have a gastro-tasting menu of 12 courses and there’s a bistro wine bar that has an à la carte menu and a more relaxed atmosphere. We also run a restaurant called Rilke that’s classic Catalan dining.”
What do you do when you’re not working? “I’m with my kids – my daughter is four years old and my son is eight. I don’t see them often because I’m working so much but when I spend time with them, I play football with my son and take my daughter to the sea. We live upstairs from the restaurant so I try to have dinner with them every night. I can do that because we open our restaurant at 8.30pm and no one eats before 9pm. Some people have dinner as late as 10.30pm.”
Rafael Peña was recently a guest chef at The Lounge at the Four Seasons Hong Kong.