Interview with Sergi Arola

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Sergi Arola: 18 years ago, when I was 12, I began cooking at home with my grandfather. I wanted to become a musician and work in a restaurant to pay for my guitar. It had simple food. I cleaned dishes, chopped, did everything, pretty much.

AB: Did you attend culinary school? Why or why not? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs to day?
SA: Yes, I went to culinary school in Barcelona in 1988. I was not a good student though. I thought that if I went to school I would be a better chef, and that would give me more time for music. I think my compromise with music is important. I write my own lyrics and my own songs. I really like music; it is as important as my cuisine. Music was my first love and can be my last.

AB: Can you talk about your mentors?
SA: In the early ‘90s, I worked at L’Aram in Barcelona for 3 years. The restaurant had crazy creativity, influences from Jacques Maximin, Pierre Gagnaire, and Raymond Blanc. In 1991 I met Pierre Gagnaire and he changed my vision of food. Usually when you are creative, you don’t make money. After meeting Pierre, I felt it was the right direction.

AB: How has your cooking style evolved over the years?
SA: In early 1995, one of Ferrán’s assistants asked me to come work for Ferrán. When I arrived it was incredible. This was the kind of food I wanted to make for the rest of my life. Ferrán showed me two things: to be critical with the different aspects of my new dishes, and to learn how to reflect and respect the different aspects of your business. I’ve learned a lot after 8 years.

AB: Which chefs do you consider to be your peers?
SA: For me, the most important chef is Juan Mari Arzak. He is 65 years old. Ferrán is 43 – he has a couple years to catch up. Ferrán is a genius, but Arzak has 30 years doing the right thing.

AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool and why?
SA: A Thermomix is my most important tool. It can chop and give heat at the same time.

AB: What are some of the most important and lasting trends in the restaurant industry?
SA: The most important breakthrough recently has been working with nitrogen. In terms of lasting trends, the majority of things you see will be lasting. These trends are very serious, they are not fashion. I do believe that the cooking techniques today in Spain will replace the “traditional” techniques to become “classics,” as has happened in the past. Spain is ahead of the pack, but will it stay there? China is going to catch up – there are lots of new things coming from there. However, the government of Spain understands the importance of gastronomy to Spain’s GDP and tourism, so they will invest in Spain’s food culture.

AB: Is there a signature technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
SA: I don’t believe in garnish, and I don’t believe in more than 3 ingredients on the plate at the same time. I don’t invent techniques; Ferrán and Pierre, they are the geniuses. One thing I did do though was that I was the first to believe in the relationship between gastronomy and hotels.

AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
SA: Are you ready to sacrifice? That is all I want to know. I don’t believe in CVs (Curriculi Vitae).

AB: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
SA: Learn to respect the guest – you can never think you are more important than the guest. Behind Ferran, there is a long road to travel. You must learn the job, and you must learn respect.

Experimentation is also very important. Twenty five years ago, Ferrán was struggling. I didn’t go to work for him for money. Young chefs must work hard to understand what the guest wants. When the guest is in your restaurant, try to educate them about new things in your cuisine. Also, without the support of corporations, don’t try to do bizarre things – try to do it with the guest one at a time. Otherwise you won’t make it.

AB: What places do you like for culinary travel?
SA: Thailand and India – they are very different from Spanish taste, and they offer a lot of different things for me to learn.

AB: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
SA: I’m very young, 36 years old, and I have a lot to learn. For the next 15 years, I have to be the same and keep up my performance. This is not the place for sprinters – only long runners. Or maybe I’ll be playing at CBGB, the home of underground rock n’ roll in New York.

   Published: January 2006