‘Els Casals’, in case you have not already looked it up in a Catalan dictionary, translates into English as ‘The Houses’. A name that is quite fitting I believe, because although it is a Michelin star establishment with a focus on high dining, every single dish has a very home-cooked vibe to it. The kitchen itself was a curious little world with a flavor all its own. Most kitchens around the world share many common traits such as a large male presence within the staff, high pressure environments, a workflow that enables dishes to be made and served as well as a certain hierarchy that is often better understood through observation than explanation.
The Els Casals kitchen however had something that felt more like a variable chain of command if you will. An order was received and called out by the man in charge; the person in charge of the station where it was to be prepared would respond with “Oido, Chef.” and get to work. Of course there was a chef keeping an eye on everyone and every dish, but each dish to leave the kitchen was equally important in the eyes of everyone working. So even though momentary, the man making the salad is offered help by any other cook with a free hand so that it becomes a team effort and no man is left alone to get the dish up and ready to be served.
“Copying is not creating.” Oriol’s kitchen perspective is clean and clear. He designs dishes with a cultural reference that are presented in an attractively organized disorder. Oriol was very present in the kitchen during my visit, but he also travels a lot and his second-in-commands must often rise to the occasion when he walks out the door. They do a great job I might add. Among his staff, Oriol is known for his temper, albeit not a quick temper, when it flares it makes all newcomers understand why his nickname is Chef Furiol.
Unlike many other restaurants and chefs with Michelin stars, Oriol mostly stays away from what is popularly known as ‘molecular gastronomy‘. The influence of the movement can be seen on some of the dishes and plating techniques but the menu mercifully lacks the usually staggering amount of foams, spherifications, gels and airs common in other high-end European restaurants. When I asked him why he is so unconcerned with following trends on his menu he explained: “In cooking there are absolutes and subjective matters. Between black and white there are over 200 shades of grey. Molecular cuisine is either a 10 or a 0. Everything else can be a 10 or an 8, 7, 7.5… I would rather be a 10 cooking what I do best than a 0 trying to be something I am not.”
From one minute to the next something new is always happening in the Els Casals kitchen. Throughout the day neighbors and locals let themselves in through the back door and drop off a multitude of fresh ingredients. It is almost like a kitchen version of Santa Claus and little kiddie cooks find mushrooms by the back door one minute or fresh cheeses on the steps the next. Believe it or not I walked into the back kitchen mid-morning once and found a boar on the work table, left there for someone to break it down for the menu.
So many new ingredients passed through my hands and many kindly passed my lips, allowing me to expand my culinary boundaries even further. For the first time, I tasted Lemon Verbena, locally known as Maria Luisa, a beautifully versatile leaf whose flavor combinations are likely endless. One evening the cooks taught me how to roast calçots (a type of scallion or green onion) and make romesco sauce; I could eat that combination for days! Mushroom season introduced me to many varieties I had never seen or eaten before:
- Llanega Negra (hygrophorus limacinus, a.k.a. olive wax cap) It becomes slimy when it touches water, must be peeled and smells of bitter almonds.
- Fredolic (tricholoma terreum, a.k.a. grey knight) It has an earthy aroma and a slightly floury taste
- Rovellons (lactarius deliciosus, a.k.a. saffron milkcap) This tricky little mushroom is easily confused with other varieties, the test is to snip a bit off the stem and check that the sap or “milk” is an orange/red color.
- Camagroc (cantharellus lutescens, a.k.a. yellow foot) This mushroom is very delicate in flavor and texture, beautiful to look at and is taste has a slightly fruity nuance.
- Trompeta de la Mort (craterellus cornucopioides, a.k.a. black trumpet) Its ominous name is due to the fact that it is usually harvested around the Day of the Dead. The flavor of this particular toadstool is deep and earthy; curiously it intensifies if the mushroom is dried.
- Orella de Gat (helvella lacunosa, a.k.a. slate grey saddle) Very odd-looking, this mushroom could easily be from outer space!
- Llengua de Bou (hydnum repandum, a.k.a. wood hedgehog) This funky variety is spiky underneath which justifies its multitude of nicknames worldwide. It is hardy and holds up to longer cooking methods and has a curiously sour undertone.
It was hard for this girl not to start a love affair with the Els Casals kitchen. The wide variety of pork dishes alone made my inner cowgirl do a quick Texas two-step! Pork cracklings with cured ham slices, pancetta stuffed porchetta, cochinillo cooked in pork lard, sobrasada (a paprika seasoned pork sausage) with honey…ummm….yes, please! The menu clearly states for all diners to see that many of the dishes are not offered with the usual “your choice” of anything but “our way”. Take my word for it, trust their way; they know what they are doing.
One of my favorite meals though was a casual dinner for two I had with Oriol one evening. We chatted in the kitchen as he pulled out ingredients and put together a dish of potatoes seared in pork fat with red mullet covered in trout roe. On our way to the table he selected a wine bottle that married perfectly with our meal. As soon as there was space on my plate or in my glass, his eyes in tune with his mouth asked “Més?” for which the only appropriate response is always “Si, siusplau.”
Fins aviat, Els Casals.