x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Born to cook: Santi Santamaria of the Atlantis Hotel, Dubai

Philippa Kennedy talks to the Michelin-starred chef about his passion for food and his self-taught skills.

Chef Santi Santamaria in the kitchen at his restaurant Ossiano in the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai.
Chef Santi Santamaria in the kitchen at his restaurant Ossiano in the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai.

You can't help loving a man who so clearly loves his food so much. Chef Santi Santamaria pats his stomach with a wry grin. His ample girth bears witness to a lifelong passion for the delights of Catalan cuisine both old and new. He lives it, he thinks it, he dreams it, he writes it and it has made him one of his country's most famous chefs, with three Michelin stars to his name.

"I love to eat and I have suffered for it. As you can see I struggle with my weight and have to worry about cholesterol. If you love to eat it's the risk you take," he laughs as he checks the new menus he has created for First and Business Class passengers of Emirates Airline's new route from Dubai to Madrid that launches in August. We meet at Ossiano at Atlantis in Dubai, where he shows me around the spotless stainless steel kitchens and introduces his team. He switches from Spanish to French and back again, sometimes mixing the two languages, but he does not speak English. His assistant Matteo is on hand to fill in the gaps in but forgive the occasionally quirky translations. It's the way Chef Santi speaks, with lyrical phrasing, expansive gestures, pauses for emphasis, smiles and those wonderful hearty bursts of laughter.

Clearly, the chef who was once called the "enfant terrible" of Spanish cuisine has little time for obfuscation or political correctness. He says what he thinks and often tries to prick the bubbles of culinary snobbery that infuse his profession. A couple of years ago he received a standing ovation at the Madrid Fusion conference when he announced: "We're a gang of frauds who work to distract snobs. The only truth that matters is the product that comes out of the earth, passes through the ovens to the mouth of the eater, and is then defecated."

The whole celebrity chef thing has got out of hand, he believes. It's just too noisy. "It's a big problem because 'la grande cuisine professional' needs calm. Today there's too much media, television, newspapers, magazines surrounding cooking. It's just show business. It's the thing today that you have to have the businessman chef. Being a chef today is like a brand. "In my case, I built the brand myself so that it is consistent. It's who I am rather than a brand." he says.

He is entirely self-taught and as a young man never felt the need to go away to Paris or New York and work his way up through the kitchens of the great culinary wizards. He always knew he had everything he needed at Can Fabes which he opened as his first restaurant in 1981 and decided to wait for the world to come to him, which is exactly what happened, through word of mouth and eventually through the food critics of national newspapers and magazines.

"Besides, I was from a very humble family. The place chose me and wanted me to stay. So the world came to us." Can Fabes began life as an informal bistro but over the years matured into the more sophisticated restaurant it is today, with its three Michelin stars. In 2001, Chef Santi opened another award-winning restaurant, Santceloni, in Madrid that now has two Michelin stars and his first restaurant in Asia at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore is a contemporary restaurant blending of his Catalan roots with the influences of various Asian cuisines. His association with Ossiano began with its opening and last year he created a special tapas menu for the restaurant that looks into the giant aquarium at Atlantis.

Here he offers delicious morsels of simplicity and sophistication like the freshest scallop, prepared with grapefruit and orange oil, sliced delicately and served carpaccio style or a red mullet escabeche, a rich-tasting white fish prepared in a marinade, served over a tantalising onion jam. The shellfish often used in Catalan cuisine can also be found on the menu along with traditional mussels with paprika oil, served with sofrito, a light sauce of garlic, onion and tomatoes in olive oil often used as the base for many dishes in Spanish cuisine. Or there might be fresh cockles marinated with saffron or seared foie gras melted over simmering lentils. It's far removed from the staple tapas bar diet of meatballs in tomato sauce and rubbery calamari.

From the moment he threw his first aubergine on the coals in the hearth as a child, just to see what would happen, he has been fascinated by pure, fresh ingredients, cooked so simply that the true taste comes through first and foremost. It was the start of a lifelong relationship that has seen him take the Spanish cooking of yesteryear with its gazpacho and paella to a new level of excellence on a par with anything you could find in Paris, London or New York.

"I remember the ash in the hearth and I put the aubergines and the peppers and onions straight on to the ash and they cooked in their skins and gave off these wonderful aromas. Then I peeled them and ate them just as they were, cooked in their own juices. "I was the only child, so my parents let me experiment and they would never shoo me out of the kitchen. I come from a family of cooks and the kitchen was where I was happiest. Of course I was happy playing outside with my friends, but I always ended up playing with the food indoors.

"For me each stage was different. When I started I was peeling onions. Then I learned to choose only the best pieces. Then I started to learn how to cook them and to make it tasty and then to present the finished dish. When you reach the presentation stage you aren't going to care any more about the initial product. "Today it's nice to know every step of these processes. I think I started to learn about cooking when I was in my mother's womb. It was genetic. I was born in the same house where my grandparents lived and now my wife and I sleep in the room that they slept in. A lot of my knowledge and philosophy was influenced by family conditions.

"You have to know about the past in order to go to the future and to make it modern. "Simplicity is everything. When I can use one ingredient I don't use two. Other people are more theatrical in the world of cooking. It's very common. These artists are stuck in their pop art world like Andy Warhol. I would rather be Matisse." He says the problem has been created because food is something we all have in common. It's easy to have some sort of an opinion.

"Today when there is nothing else to talk about people talk about food, so everybody is an expert." What people miss in their continuous hunt for "the latest big thing" is the pleasure that the natural taste of well-sourced fresh local produce gives the palate. Chef Santi emphasises that this is part of a chef's job. He or she must know where to look and when. "At Can Fabes we use always seasonal products. Of course you can have any kind of food all the year round thanks to preservatives, but the important thing is the soil and the sun. A tomato tastes very different when it is freshly picked on a sunny day. It will have its own special flavour and all you need is a little olive oil. The cook needs to understand the product and discover it for himself, when and where to find it and at what time of year. There's a very strict relationship between the cook and the produce he chooses, especially in the Mediterranean area," he says, explaining that essentially what he tries to do is "awake emotional memories".

"Almost every day I am cooking. Many times the taste goes to the brain so I'm always thinking about it. The impulse goes to the brain and then you need to rest. When you have a lot of experience you need to think about it to be effective and then you draw upon it like a magician. All the staff around him prepare and he just comes in to put the last touch and wave the magic wand. To cook is to be intuitive. It's a gift and you can't learn it.

"All those years you copy and you watch and you build up experience and this experience is all about memories you make these memories yours.The most important thing in the kitchen is the taste of the food. If you like the food that is it, put very simply. It's what I like to transmit to the guests. I want them to feel about the food what I feel. "Even with fish, they are all different and you need the knowledge of the anatomy to understand the best way to cook it. For example, a sole always has to be cooked on the bone. You can taste the different feeling."

He has no time for gimmicky innovations such as the so-called "techno-emotional cuisine" using chemical additives that produce theatrical foaming and other unnatural special effects, introduced by other chefs including one of his great rivals, Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame. Santamaria once famously attacked him for "putting his diners' health at risk". He dismisses such innovations as "parmesan snow" and chilled sauces that "boil" with dry ice as "media circus acts" and although he has great respect for Adrià, he says these things have "no place in my kitchen". As usual he did not mince his words and accused chefs who use such additives as being like "an athlete who dopes". It caused a storm in culinary circles but Chef Santi is unrepentant.

"Nowadays it seems we all want to be free and do these things but not in my kitchen. Anyway I think all that stuff is over now. I think all that was very gimmicky anyway. I don't feel pressure to do things like that," he says. "I have my own ways in the kitchen. Hygeine is the most important thing. We have different sections for everything and people in charge of each section. "Cooks spend more time cleaning than cooking. In a normal house the most annoying job is cleaning the dishes. In my profession there has to be organisation and discipline.

"We are always washing our hands. When the cook touches the ingredients he has a better feeling about the food. The best touch you can get with the food is with the bare fingers without rubber gloves." He is proud of his Michelin stars and never takes them for granted. "After 25 years you begin to think they are your own stars, but really they are only lent to you. It's like an illusion, a life project and you have to keep working at it. My restaurant at Can Fabes is the heart of everything and if you don't keep up the heart and look after it everything else will die. So I will always keep on trying."