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‘Pica Pica’ is how Sergi Arola wants his Spanish cuisine to be celebrated


The celebrated chef Sergi Arola is the fiery living and busily cooking Spanish phenomenon. He explains to Bhisham Mansukhani why ‘Pica Pica is an important philosophy and how he hopes he’s done enough to save Spanish cuisine in India from the same hybrid fate of Chinese and Italian cuisines.

1. What is your idea and approach to Spanish cuisine?

My approach is strictly subjective; I wouldn’t call it either classical or modern. It doesn’t fit into a particular category. It is undoubtedly inspired by Spanish cuisine but has an international outlook.

Take for instance the ‘Pica Pica’ style that is the predominant theme for Arola Mumbai. It translates as ‘sharing’ and the style entails serving up tapas and other dishes in platters for guests to share. It’s a Spanish term but very much a contemporary international concept, what with community tables all the rage these days.

I strongly believe Spanish cuisine is meant to be enjoyed by those who eat as well as cook it. That’s the only philosophy that matters. I’ve no intention to complicate or intellectualise the cuisine nor would I do it if I didn’t enjoy it.

The most important relationship is with the guest and understanding his palate. What we have brought to India and elsewhere is simple approachable Spanish cuisine, not molecular and certainly not pretentious.

2. How do you think Spanish cuisine is received here and specifically your restaurant at the JW Marriott, Mumbai?

As perhaps the first to introduce authentic Spanish food here, I think it’s been a good two years of reception from guests as well as one with some striking learnings. Given that it’s well known that Spanish food lays great emphasis on the quality of produce, it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to think that a lot of the ingredients for the Mumbai restaurant might have been imported from Spain. During one of the early days, a popular gourmand complimented us on the quality of the tomatoes she took to be Spanish when in fact they were Indian tomatoes drizzled with olive oil rather than spicy gravy.

Indians and Spanish have a lot of common cultural food traits – it brings families together. But one fundamental difference is that Indians are big on spices while in Spain we’re all about the product.

We see ourselves as pioneers of Spanish cuisine using Indian products rather than Indianising Spanish cuisine. And I certainly hope we’ve done enough to prevent Spanish cuisine from slipping into the abyss of being unrecognisably altered the way Chinese and to an extent Italian food has been in India.


3. How has the perception of the chef has changed and how do you respond to critics of chefs that don’t spend enough time in the kitchen?

A chef has always been integral to a restaurant or for that matter, a chef community is crucial to the present fate of the cuisine that it is an exponent of a cuisine. For instance, 20% of Spain’s GDP is reliant on food and by extension its chefs.

This sudden limelight on the chef doesn’t take away from the fact that the he does an extremely important job. It’s grossly unfair too, to presume that a chef who might not spend a lot of time in the kitchen isn’t good enough anymore. After a point, we are what we cook; it’s not longer the number of hours or dishes. We have a good sense of that irrespective of how the media and others might call it. Ferrán Adrià is better than any chef who might inhabit a kitchen round the clock all year.

4. What’s next on your India adventure?

Arola Mumbai has a clear identity on which we continue to build, but the basic approach remains the same – simple Spanish food served in a community style. Its distinction is its extensive gin bar that has comparatively more focus than my other restaurants. We change the menu twice yearly and Manuel Olveira (Resident chef) has been here since the beginning. I’m there when the hotel needs me to come in though it’s at least four times a year. At this point, there are no plans to open another Arola restaurant in India but those plans could change in the future.

5. You have been coming here since 2012. What’s your foodie picks?

I love the Thakkar Thali restaurant. It’s one of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in the world. Another of my picks is Khan E Khaas because I love North Indian style barbeque dishes like the Galouti Kebab and the assortment of Indian breads.

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