Liquid nitrogen and Michelin stars. The importance of tomatoes.
WORDS POLA ESGUERRA DEL MONTE | PHOTOGRAPHY CHRIS GALLEGOS
Once upon a time, there lived The Little Chef, and this Little Chef refused to think out of the box. Instead, he placed his creativity inside one. His avant-garde 10-course tasting menu is a stack of cards placed in a box that has three holes on each of its walls. The lid shows a drawing of a planet with a rose, and the title Principito, or “prince”—an allusion to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella and pièce de résistance, The Little Prince.
The Little Chef, identified by an inscription on the box as “Dani García,” is a charmingly stocky man a few insignificant inches shorter than his contemporaries, but their equal in achievements. His own little planet, an eponymous restaurant, holds two bright Michelin Stars. These stars, though tiny and mostly symbolic, are of great interest to grown-ups, who were willing to pay more than PHP10,000 to sample Mr. García’s culinary masterpiece when he landed in the Philippines this April for Madrid Fusión Manila 2016.
During his stay, The Little Chef pulled out all the stops when he created a theatrical dinner at the New World Manila Bay Hotel. That dinner began with a box. But unlike the original tale, there was no sheep peeking through the holes. Instead, there was stack of round-edged cards, each carrying a peculiar name for a dish, as in:
Yellow gazpacho with nitro tomato
“Nitro tomato?” the curious grown-ups wondered. Liquid nitrogen—a colorless and extremely cold diatomic liquid at exactly -303ºF—began forming a white smoke in the tense air. In this fluid chemical, The Little Chef dipped a tomato consommé wrapped in clear foil. After pulling up the smoky, newly frozen cream-colored mound, he immersed it in a metallic scarlet mixture of tomato juice, coloring and vegetable gelatin which clung to the mousse like a fondant. To make it resemble an actual juicy berry, a faux stem was placed on top. Yellow gazpacho, cooled with the same chemical, was poured on the plate. It was strange, but delicious.
At the bottom of all the cards was a white piece of cardboard, which secured underneath it a delicate piece of chocolate. Written on the two surfaces of card and cacao were parts of a verse, which, when put together, read: “Essence is invisible to the eyes… but an essential part of cuisine.”
The Little Chef hails from Marbella, a city in southern Spain situated on the Mediterranean Sea. Warm and sunny, it gained the reputation of being a destination for rich and famous tourists—Spain’s answer to France’s glamorous St. Tropez.
In this, temperate playground of yacht-riding, bikini-clad adults, The Little Chef dreamed of playing with liquid nitrogen, which he discovered through a television show featuring French chef Michel Bras. A creative chef credited with inventing molten chocolate cake, Bras was making ice cream with liquid nitrogen when Mr. García caught him on TV. “I started testing and trying, and saw incredible opportunities,” The Little Chef recalled of this discovery, foreseeing “the future of the freezing industry.” The only bad part about it, he frowned, is its price.
He justifies costs by prioritizing creativity and scientific techniques. Realize his vision for “Dinner with the Stars” required bringing in Ifugao rice, local squid, fish from overseas, local oxtail and local beef; the purchase of new machines, which rung in at about half a million; and Php11,000-worth of liquid nitrogen, which would be used for three of the dishes.
A few days after the dinner, the still sleep-deprived New World Manila Bay Hotel executive chef James Williams, who assisted during that service: “We had a long day!” “Day” is an understatement since preparations began two months prior to the actual event, when Mr. Williams began liaising with The Little Chef’s right hand, Santiago Guerrero, a half-Filipino chef de cuisine. “A lot of ingredients flown in from Europe like the truffles, were coming in last minute,” Mr. Williams narrated, adding that those truffles cost about Php70,000.
“My goodness. What an issue,” he recalled, chuckling. The truffles were just one item on a long list of complications. “We just couldn’t organize,” the executive chef continued. “They imported a machine from Hong Kong, struggled, and then we got another one, but had a problem with the attachments. We couldn’t get the liquid nitrogen in because it had to come from a depressurized hose. And they didn’t have the hose. You had to buy them overseas.” Luckily, his friend who had been the chef of Shangri-La for 11 years had access to one, ending the search for the depressurized hose.
At that time of “Dinner with the Stars,” Mr. Williams had been installed at New World Manila Bay Hotel for only two months. He was eager to take on the rather bewildering project since he himself had dined at The Dani García restaurant in Spain. “It’s not a dinner,” he said about his gastronomic experience. “It’s a story.” And it is this story that New World Manila Bay Hotel sought to recreate.
Before even thinking about purchasing ingredients that were not available locally, the first thing placed on the shopping list was an audio-visual (AV) room that would come at a price of about Php500,000. A film producer was hired to populate wall-to-wall LED screens with scenes of the ocean, fire, and the beach. These scenes served as ambient cues during the dinner: the ocean went with tuna; when the jamon was being set on fire, the entire AV table was also “on fire.” The beach harked to Marbella, The Little Chef’s home, which he proudly talked about.
The dinner was done for two batches in two nights, with about 95 guests, including the who’s who in Philippine society. For this crowd, only the best would do. Tomatoes, which played a major role in this menu, had to be a specific kind. According to Mr. Williams, tomatoes are different wherever you are in the world, and as such, affect the outcome.
In the culinary world, the difference between success and disaster can rest on the easily bruised skin of a squishy fruit. “That’s where the two Michelin stars come in,” said Mr. Williams. Aside from pronouncing which tomatoes were fit to be used, The Little Chef also had the final say on each dish. “He tastes it, then decides that it needs more vinegar, sugar, olive oil, or it’s not creamy enough. And it was him finishing everything. He had three chefs over and they were all in the kitchen all the time. And he didn’t want to be out of the restaurant, he had to be in the kitchen cooking while we were serving it.” As for the hotel staff, who all had no previous experience of working with a Michelin chef, their boss Mr. Williams proudly said: “They thrived.”
‘COOKING IS MAGIC’
“For me, this is the magic of the kitchen: that you can create a dish with your hands.” — Chef Dani Garcia
The Little Chef went onstage at the SMX Convention Center to speak to more than a thousand congress delegates—a thousand gastronomic enthusiasts who were all ears as he talked about his craft. This kind of attention is “something new,” he said as he sat himself down in the backstage lounge, after his stint under the spotlight. “When I decided to be a chef, it was not a very special profession,” he said, leaning back as he recalled the last forty years of his life. “When I was a child, I remember perfectly saying to my friends, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer,’ then ‘I’m going to be a businessman,’ until finally, at 17, ‘No, I want to be a chef.’”
At 17, The Little Chef decided that he did not want to enter the university. “I didn’t like to stay in with books for hours and hours and hours. But I cooked at home with my mother and grandmother,” he said about his female-dominated “hobby.” After he found an article on a new cooking school in the local newspaper, he declared that he wanted to go to that school instead. His mother pleaded: “No, please, no…” But The Little Chef insisted on his dream. “For me, cooking is magic,” he said. “From one, two, or three ingredients, something special can be created. For me, this is the magic of the kitchen: that you can create a dish with your hands,” he said. “Because really, it’s very artisanal work.”
A NEW STORY
Once upon a time, The Little Chef encountered Rafael García Santos, a respected food critic in Spain, whose renown gives him license to call the French-made Michelin Guide “one of the worst in the world.” After sampling some dishes that The Little Chef created, Mr. García Santos put down his fork, looked the young chef in the eye, and said: “You need to take all your books, throw them away, go to a house and think without books.” This moment changed The Little Chef’s life. “It’s the reason we can create our cuisine,” he explained.
Distancing himself from books made The Little Chef into what he has become today: an award-winning chef whose restaurant has become a holy grail of gastronomy in Marbella. At this point in his career, he can disregard Mr. García Santos’s advice, which served him well in his youth. “Now, I read books. I love books. I buy a lot of kinds of books,” The Little Chef said. “Now, it’s different. I am 40 and I have a clear way. Now, I can be inspired by a book but I can change that to be more like myself.” He’s making up for lost time by dedicating his restaurant year to one story for an entire year. Before creating the menu based on The Little Prince, he did an Alice in Wonderland-inspired one: Cocinacontradición, which included a dish of eel shavings on a savory mousse (it resembled pencil shavings).
“When I start to think about the menu, I have to make sure that our brainstorming starts with ‘Once upon a time,’” he said as he thought of his creative team back in Marbella. “When I began this tradition, I thought that we can do stories because of the ‘once upon a time.’ Likewise for me, this signals a new era in my career. It’s a new story for me, it’s a new life, it’s my new own restaurant.” And, in this endeavor, “I want to do something shocking.”
When he decides on the story, the team gathers all available material, whether text or film. Then comes the most excruciating part: thinking about what to create. “We feel the pressure and standard to create, but we want to take our time to be creative,” he said.
Fueling this creativity is curiosity, and The Little Chef acknowledges that his staff always ask questions. “‘Why this meat?,’ ‘why this temperature?,’ this is the reason why we go to university people. To science people,” he narrated. Liquid nitrogen, for example, was one of the tools that they had to consult with experts about first.
But, underneath all the theatrics lies the most essential part of his cuisine, as he said: “You can create a wonderful and beautiful dish, and a beautiful show around the dish, but if you eat and it does not have a good flavor, then it’s not very special after all.” In the same way, underneath the white uniform of a hailed culinary talent lies a simple soul. “I’m a child, you know,” The Little Chef, Dani García said. “Like everybody.”
“I think that everybody has a child inside,” he added. “The most important thing you realize when you grow up, maybe, is that all the books for children really are adult stories.” He is “a very simple man,” he claimed, who loves family, work, the beach, tennis, and television. “Normally, I don’t know what people think about these things, but I eat at home very normal food like everybody. I love the small things in life.” Lit by the Manila Bay sunset, Mr. García was in a musing mood. “It’s very difficult to forget who you are. Everyone that creates, especially in the gastronomic world, has to maintain the little child inside,” he said. “I’m a child, you know,” he repeated, “like everybody.”