India became another outpost for another Michelin star chef last year. Sergi Arola. He tied with Marriott International to bring his namesake restaurant, Arola, to JW Marriott, Mumbai. He has a total of 10 restaurants with his name on them, and he diligently visits them to keep things ship-shape. He comes down to Mumbai too to check how Chef Manuel, his trusted deputy, is holding fort. He was in town to celebrate the restaurant’s first birthday – as part of the celebrations, in store was a glimpse of what the creative genius is up to when he is behind those flames. Chef Arola and Chef Manuel whipped up simple Spanish classics which also happened to be favourites at Arola, Mumbai.
The thing about seeing about an exceptional master at work isn’t about the recipes, but more about the experience and memories he sprinkles the cooking with and the willingness to share those with you. Chef Arola is adept not just at that, but very much in his skin dealing with inquisitive and curious folks asking questions. He seemed happy about them too – perhaps a gauge to his success as a people’s man. Brought up in Spain, but Paris as his base today, Chef Arola defines his restaurant as an experience; he quotes a phrase, “Cuisine is much more than a recipe,” something he found in a French cookbook from the 80s. He goes on to explain that it is a game of senses and all senses need to be part of the game. He gives out some quotable quotes which makes a food lover’s heart happy. “Cuisine is the honest ambassador of a country; tasting local food is the best way to know a nation” and “Tapas is a philosophy and a way of life,” were some of his gems.
The recipes began with the Patatas Bravas, Chef Arola says if you’re opening a bar, you can never go wrong serving these. A Spaniard and a devout promoter of Spanish olive oil – nothing else will do – he starts of by confitting the potatoes; ideally it takes 2 hours but a pre-made batch expedited matters for us. In the meanwhile, he got on with the chopping and dicing. The key ingredients – garlic, pimenton, with tomatoes as the sauce topped with some aioli. Pimenton was when I perked up – I know it’s a smoked red pepper powder and it tasted toasty with a very mild kick at back palate and it very much stood out.
Chef Arola is also a ‘glocal’ chef; another thumbs up for him. Spanish food needs good produce; he says as he elaborates how he found the freshest white and pink prawns on one of his obligatory visits to Mumbai’s fish markets making it unnecessary to pile on the air miles. His next two dishes were prawn based – a prawn based paella style rice and Gambas al Ajillo (garlic prawn) dish. For the rice dish be warned, he uses ONLY Spanish rice Calaspara. And while he works his magic he tells the story of Paella. Turns out Paella as we know it is the gimmicky version conjured up by an entrepreneurial minister in the 1960s. It is originally a poor man’s food from the region of Valencia using ingredients that weren’t of much value. Paddy farmers used the lowest quality of rice, frogs, rabbits and snails from the paddy were the original substitutes for seafood.
Paella apart, Chef Arola demonstrated the perfect way to get crispy garlic slices. The secret is bringing the oil to heating point with the garlic in it and not dunking them in already hot oil, this also a good way to get garlic-flavoured olive oil. The science behind it is that the garlic loses moisture steadily and the oil never reaches a boiling point saving it from being useless. “Never reuse oil used for deep frying; the high heat changes the molecular composition of the oil rendering it healthy,” he says; I will have to remember that one. Chef Arola then uses the aromatic garlic oil for Gambas al Ajillo. A ridiculously simple dish frying garlic, fresh chilli, Pimenton with the prawns till cooked! As he whipped these prawns up he professes his love for the Indian Tandoor; says its best way to cook keeping the flavour of both the Tandoor and the produce intact. This was crucial for him as he had to work with a lot vegetarian versions of classic Spanish dishes to cater to the Indian audiences.
Making a vegetarian Coca was one such experiment which worked brilliantly. The dish is named after the bread which is the base of the dish – dry bread used by sailors. Thanks to the weather in Mumbai it is almost impossible to keep the bread dry. Chef Arola’s solution was to use Naan as a substitute. The dish is pretty much an assembly of roasted vegetables, in this case green asparagus, artichoke hearts, sundried tomato, green and red bell peppers and cheese, atop the bread, cooked briefly in the oven drizzled with olive oil and Aragula leaves. The carnivore version used Duck liver instead of the cheeses.
His last creation was the Crema Catalana a Spanish version of Crème Brulee and a much better counterpart he insists – to which I agree! Citrus flavours of orange and lemon with cinnamon added a subtle extension. Chef Arola’s presentation using Marie biscuits, orange sorbet and used aerated the custard (chiffon) seemed give a new life to the old custard dish. This is his take on a classic, which also describes his culinary style – Jazz. “It is easy to understand and popular but no less Spanish than the classical masters,” he ends.