"Cuisine is so much more than recipes. It's a lifestyle dedicated to other people." These were the wise words of Santi Santamaria as he addressed an auditorium full of attentive gourmands at the beginning of his eagerly awaited Saturday morning culinary masterclass. The Catalan chef was speaking through his interpreter for the day, Daniel Chavez, who also happens to be Santamaria's right hand man at his Ossiano restaurant in Dubai.
But whether members of the audience had visited his sole Middle East outpost or not, today they were going to get a rare insight into the food that won three Michelin stars for Santamaria's renowned Can Fabes restaurant in Sant Celoni near Barcelona. Santamaria is nothing if not outspoken. Last year, he famously railed against the methods of his fellow Catalan chef Ferran Adria, whose El Bulli restaurant has won countless plaudits for its innovative and idiosyncratic brand of molecular gastronomy. Santamaria's style is far more traditional, and driven by his passion for seasonal ingredients and family values. "It's a way of expressing yourself, showing your feelings to others," he said before he'd even picked up a pan. "Cooking has so much to do with the state of your feelings. If you're happy, you transmit that through your cooking."
With the scene set, the happy master chef began cooking at a typically relaxed pace. "You should never, ever rush cooking," he told us before demonstrating a classic dish from his homeland called escudella catalana. "Every cook has his own unique pot. It says who we are and where we come from," he explained, as into his unique and rather large pot went veal shanks, ribs and spine, along with a lamb leg, a hen and a whole grocery of seasonal vegetables. "Use whatever vegetables you have at home. Whatever is seasonal."
Escudella catalana is a traditional dish that is ideal for the cold winter weather in northern Spain. The ingredients are mixed to form meatballs, while galet pasta is added to the strained stock, which is then added to the meatballs. It's a rustic dish, passed down through generations, and has different interpretations from region to region. It typifies Santamaria's philosophy. All of his food has a connection with the local landscape and the people who live on it, and this serves to imbue his recipes with a distinct personality that's impossible to manufacture artificially. It is this sense of tradition that Santamaria is passionately striving to keep alive while retaining an air of contemporary refinement. "Everything is becoming more technological," he said as the rich aromas filled the air. "One day we'll have robots instead of cooks, then the heart goes out of it. And that is when we spoil the profession. Some cooking has no soul. The best cuisine is when you put your soul into it."
If Santi Santamaria's culinary masterclass was a journey for the soul, that evening's gourmet safari at the Shangri-La Hotel was a voyage through three of the world's great cuisines. Yes, you read that correctly: gourmet safari, though any khaki shorts and pith helmets had been replaced by smart yet casual dining attire. The evening's first port of call was the Shang Palace Chinese restaurant, where the two-star Michelin chef Lee Keung from Hong Kong's Summer Palace provided starters of scrambled egg white with lobster on crispy vermicelli. That was followed by a more traditional stir-fried chicken with bell peppers in black bean sauce. Then the guests were asked to up sticks and set up camp at Hoi An restaurant just a short walk away.
It was at this contemporary Vietnamese restaurant where the main courses were prepared by the resident chef, and a certain star of the future, Kevin Vu. In particular, his stunning Atlantic cod parcel with shiitake mushrooms, dates, ginkgo nuts and grilled sticky rice was well worth switching restaurants for. That was followed up by an excellent dish of grilled lemon grass chicken with a tiny fried quail's egg perched on top of roasted Japanese aubergine.
The third and final leg of our jaunt took us to Pearls and Caviar restaurant, where a Mediterranean treat awaited us. There was a certain familiarity about the Catalan fish and shellfish stew Costa Brava, which yielded some impossibly tender king prawns that were saturated with intense flavour. For dessert, the chocolate truffle fritters burst luxuriously in the mouth to make this particular diner realise what Santi Santamaria's soul food was really all about. And as the instantly recognisable figure of the great Catalan chef entered the restaurant to great applause, I realised that we had come full circle. Cuisine really is so much more than recipes.