Behind the swinging wooden doors of the kitchen at Els Casals a group of people work together to create success. Bystanders might call the group a staff or a workforce but in reality each individual is a part of the Els Casals family. Some of the younger faces are like extended family members that generally visit around the holidays. They are students gaining experience in the culinary industry so that they can graduate and figure out where they want to go from there. Most of them stay for at least 6 months, they see seasons change, absorb knowledge like a sponge, become inspired and return home with a fondness for Sagas.
Other faces are the core of the family; the faces that were there when it all began or at least soon after. These faces parley to find new ways to make progress without losing their view, all the while molding the newcomers. Then you have me, I fall somewhere outside of the family format but fit in nonetheless. I felt at home instantly and did not want to leave. Each day I was there I learned something or saw something new. I consider all of those I met in Els Casals friends.
Oriol Rovira is the mastermind behind Els Casals. He is known as the pork man due to his experience working with the animal, the amount of cooking he does with the meat and how much he likes to eat pork. At home if you are lucky you might catch him animating stuffed animals with his kids, playing guitar, sipping a late night coffee or juggling fruit. His living room table presents books about tattoos and poetry whereas his dining room table is used for dining and poker. He whistles ALL the time (I sometimes felt like I was in a Disney movie). Not one to shy away from work, he is the definition of a busybody. He bounces from stove top to sink to desk in a blur of motions that can make the untrained eye dizzy.
His sister Carme greeted me almost every morning and we would chat about our cultural differences. His wonderful kids attempted to teach me a tongue twister in Catalan that just created uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Many of the students welcomed me with open arms but gave me a hard time for being a woman in the kitchen (something I expected them to do anyway). Juan, Pera, Marcal, Jabi and Alesh were all nice. Alesh liked trying to get under my skin. Pera and Marcal kept to themselves a bit more, but were very fun. Jabi and Juan, the Vasco and the Valenciano, were very keen to exchange different culinary experiences and points of view.
Jordi is the sausage guy; he spends part of the week at the processing plant and the other part of the week at the restaurant. He knows his stuff. David, Tony and Juan are the wait staff. David is the Maitre’D and Oriol enjoys having heated discussions with him. I once witnessed David get on his knees in the middle of the kitchen defending his point of view on a mushroom to Oriol! Juan was my favorite of the 3; he usually made lunchtime and dinnertime coffee and always had a smile unless I tried to take his picture. Juan was a sweetheart. Maria helps with the administrative aspects and does a wonderful job. She was very kind and helpful to me with anything and everything I needed.
Xavi and Xavi are the chefs 90% of the time. Oriol is away often and between the two of them they keep the kitchen in order and running smoothly. Both of them have worked in this industry for years and are still thirsty for knowledge. They did not hesitate to teach me what they knew and treat me like part of the family. Joan is a special guy, he usually mans the meat station and he is stellar in what he does. He assisted Oriol at the festival in 2010 when I met him and he seemed to be a shy kid. 2 years later, he oozes confidence and skill. He taught me how to debone an entire pig! I enjoyed every minute I was able to spend with Joan, particularly when showing him card games and then winning.
Last but not least there is Aya Higuchi. She is mesmerizing. Her dedication, focus and skill is unparalleled by anyone I have met. Originally from Japan, she studied in Barcelona and now Aya is the pastry chef at Els Casals. She develops seasonal recipes and brings together Japanese finesse, Catalan culture and high dining in a way that leaves you speechless. She is a perfectionist and watching her work is a true pleasure. Interesting enough she has disagreements with Oriol due to being untraditional sometimes with flavor pairings or recipe replications. I personally enjoyed everything that came out of her kitchen and was honored each time she let me assist her. I miss her caquinyolis, mandarin pumpkin sorbet and panellets immensely.
Some members of the Els Casals family come and go; new faces replace the students who return home, but Els Casals is a richer place with each new countenance the passes through those swinging doors. For now I leave you with the Catalan tongue twister taught to me by the Rovira clan:“Un carro carregat de rocs va per la carretera de Casserres.” Say that 5 times fast!