Tasmania Born Spaniard Cooks His Way Around The Globe, Joel Serra Interview
From crunching numbers in a tie and suit in Tasmania, to preparing exciting cuisine in Barcelona, Joel Serra, entrepreneur and cookbook author didn’t only swap professions but shifted culture. According to his motto “Food is not what you cook, but what you make others taste” he is taking a modern and fresh approach to traditional Spanish dishes. Next stop is none other than Berlin to share his craft in a private dinner populated by one of his many projects Eat With of which he is a Global Community Manager. He recently published a unique cook book and took some time to answer some of Mr. Eatler’s dumbass questions.
Mr. EATLER:You are a New Zealander and found your roots back to Spain, when you drink beer, do you feel the sudden urge to brawl or do you take a siesta?
JOEL: Even worse than being born in NZ, I grew up in Tasmania, where they used to send the worst of Australia’s convicts! Alcohol and drinking habits are one of the clearest windows through which to spot cultural differences; in Australia, beer comes in big frothing glasses with blokes pretending the bar is an extension of the footy field, while in Barcelona beer comes in cañitas (half glasses that guarantee it’s frosty to the last gulp), usually in a sunny plaza and pretending i’m in a Woody Allen film link Vicky Cristina Barcelona. So yes, these days it’s more about siesta-ing than swinging fists 😉
Mr. E: But actually, how do you think these two cultures interact with each other when it comes to your culinary creations?
JOEL: My grandmother is Catalan and my mother grew up between Spain and Switzerland, so my childhood was marinated in olive oil and I always dreamt about living in Barcelona (the ’92 Olympics were a watershed moment for the city and I’m sure inspired thousands). I can honestly say that Australia, and Melbourne in particular, is my top food city in the world right now, but I missed that cultural reference point. I understood that even the best food and most spectacular restaurants need a story, which is why I’ll always choose a rough Spanish bar for fried calamari and patatas bravas over the more refined and curated food expat Spanish chefs might be serving in the best food cities around the world. I think the biggest influence on my cooking was my wild upbringing on an almost self-sufficient farm. Everything about my food is natural – there are no tricks to my cooking (partly because I don’t know most of them) and I really rely on combining herbs, spices and other natural flavours, in order to produce food that is new and exciting, while at the same time familiar and comforting.
Mr. E:Your new book, Joel Serra’s Modern Spanish Kitchen has elements surrealistic photography, Spanish cuisine, and story telling, what is your advice in striking the balance between the visual and taste elements?
JOEL: I have always been inspired by surreal minds like that of Dali, Gaudi and Magritte, and it’s hard not to avoid a little bit of crazy in everything you do living in the throbbing creativity Barcelona serves up every day. My favorite art books aren’t just about the painting, and when I listen to music it’s not just about the song, so when I decided to write a cookbook I knew it had to be about more than the food. I think any creative draws on the experiences they’ve accumulated in life (people, places, emotions, ideas) to inform their work. You can’t limit yourself to a discipline or defined outcome, but must let it evolve naturally. This is why Dali designed furniture, Einstein tried his hands at anatomy and Kanye makes sneakers (I wish that last one was a joke). But in general, creative projects shouldn’t have a defined outcome, and that’s how I produced this cookbook, whose recipes are only part of the story.
Mr. E: Do you consider the chefs in general as being more craftsman or more artists? How about yourself?
JOEL: Cooking serves so many functions and needs, but can safely be divided into food designed to either sustain, or entertain. I don’t make friends a thick fish stew on a cold night to entertain, and neither do I book a seat at Cellar Can Roca because I’m hungry. Anyone that cooks, no matter their level, is participating in a craft by transforming a set of ingredients into a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. The artistic element of cooking kicks in when you begin to consider the five senses, although taste must remain the most important. Chefs that consider how to spark emotions and memories in their diners and surprise them by activating the eyes, ears, nose and touch can call themselves artists. I cook to sustain friends, family and myself, but when I decide to invite anyone outside this circle to the table, I think I owe it to them to produce my delicious version of art. Most of us choose to eat out for some element of show, even McDonald’s offers that in the way the food is prepared and presented and the memories and emotions a cheeseburger evokes, and I hope chefs will continue to respect the privilege of satisfying diners’ need for that culinary escape.
Mr. E: What is the most important thing for you about preparing food?
JOEL: I think everyone has to find their flow, that activity when you completely disconnect from the sometimes heavy reality of life and ever so briefly, lose yourself. It might be playing (or listening) to music, dancing, art, gardening or, as is the case for me, cooking (and sport). The most important thing for me when cooking is to never lose that zen-like feeling of flow. So whether I am cooking for 50 at a popup in a foreign country, or preparing a mid-week dinner for two, I really immerse myself in the act and I hope that pleasure translates on the plate. So no matter who is eating your food and in what context, you really have to appreciate and enjoy the honor you’ve been granted in feeding them, an honor that used to only be entrusted to our mothers.
Mr. E: When did you know you had the power of cooking?
JOEL: Even though these days I am much more about savory flavors, I first got hooked on cooking, making cakes when I was around 10 years old. My mother cooked to sustain our family, and we all know cakes are more about pleasure than nutrition! So I appreciated that magic element and spent weekends preparing cream-filled sponge cakes, fruit-filled custard tarts, and my trademark multi-layered dobos torte. Some 10 years later living in Melbourne, I decided to turn my apartment into a supper club and that was when my imagination really ran wild (I didn’t charge for a seat at the table so I could do pretty much anything I felt like in the kitchen). At these dinners I saw the power of food to connect people and inspire conversation and an exchange of ideas that only people sharing a good meal (and multiple bottles of wine) can reach. From that point on, my power with food has not been to impress with technical wizardry or dramatic and artistic plating, but by creating an experience that allows people to connect with each other (and themselves) in new and meaningful ways.
Mr. E:You’re coming to spend some time in Berlin, are there any plans for you to build something more long term here? Would you consider it?
JOEL: I’ve been to Berlin a few times and it’s one of the few cities around the world that I consider truly global because of the mix of cultures, ideas and demographics (Barcelona, London, Paris, Melbourne, Toronto and New York are the others). These cities are hotbeds of creativity in all fields, and I am particularly aware of its impact when it comes to food. I’m the Head of Global Community at VizEat and EatWith, inspiring home cooks and private chefs to convert their passion into an entrepreneurial activity, so I’ll be in Berlin to meet with this fast-growing community. And of course I’ll be cooking, testing a few new concepts with some of Berlin’s top food creatives. I know that whatever I create and cook in Barcelona, only needs a few tweaks before serving up the spectacle in Berlin so I’m sure I’ll be back to cook again several times over the coming year.
Mr. E:What is the cuisine you are most fascinated by, other than Spanish of course?
JOEL: Other than Spanish, which formed the basis of my palette (cut me and I bleed olive oil), I think food from the Levant region (having personally visited Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Jordan) has been the most influential in my kitchen. The way they master the power of herbs and spices fascinates me and is the reason my suitcase is laden with spices like Sumac, Za’atar and Baharat on every visit to this exotic part of the world. And then Mexican, because I have to agree with Vice Munchie’s Action Bronson when he says, ‘f*ck, that’s delicious”.
Mr. E:Who is your idol?
JOEL: My creative side was activated when I read gonzo Hunter S Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, where he smashed the traditional boundaries of journalism (which I was studying at the time) and lived to such extremes that I couldn’t help being inspired by such pure gluttony for life. My food idols come in the form of Jose Andres (the Spanish chef that ‘made it’ in the USA while still maintaining his integrity and authentic passion for cooking real food and making people happy), Jamie Oliver (the original celebrity chef that proved that rustic simplicity can still be sexy), and of course every foodie’s crush Anthony Bourdain (the rockstar that made food and travel one in the same for so many of us).
Mr. E:What is your favorite restaurant?
JOEL: My most memorable meal was on my first adult visit to Spain in my early 20s at a greasy cafe traveling between Barcelona and Valencia; grilled squid, garlicky allioli, french fries and cold beer, a meal that is now the stuff of dreams. That’s the kind of restaurant experience that sticks in my memories. But in the last year I was lucky enough to find myself at groundbreaking places like Silo Restaurant in Brighton, Ama Laxei in Athens, Spiler in Budapest and Bana in Tel Aviv. At Bana, chef Dan Arvatz made magic with vegetables and used restraint and simplicity to transform common ingredients into something entirely new. In Berlin I’m looking forward to trying Lokal and Wild Things, along with some of the city’s most exciting home restaurants and supper clubs.
Mr. E: Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mr. Eatler?
JOEL: I guess I’d like to offer my voice of hope amidst the current nationalistic fear-driven tendencies, like we’ve seen in the recent US election, Brexit, the changing political landscape in Germany and the current constitutional crisis in Catalonia. In the kitchen, no-one owns a flavour, a combination or even an entire food group (is pasta Italian or Asian?) I steadfastly believe that we can only evolve as a society (not just economically) when cultures and ideas clash (as happens every day in kitchens around the world). I hope chefs (and people in general) can continue celebrating what makes our cuisine or country special, but remain open and curious by what the rest of the world has to offer.
Damn, why is it that the Kiwis are so goddamn sexy with their Kiwiness?… Stop stealing all of our girlfriends with your looks, and like… your words and stuff. Anyway, once you stop feeling bad about yourself for not being more like Joel you can learn how to be more like Joel on his muy impressivo site Papalosophy. Mr. Eatler will keep you up to date on future Serra news.