ONE of the oft-mentioned reasons why it is almost harder to get Spanish chefs to work overseas than it is to get a table at El Bulli is that they are so enamoured of their own home and produce that there is hardly any incentive for them to give it all up.
When you talk to Carles Gaig, proponent of classical Catalan cooking at his one Michelin star Barcelona restaurant Gaig, you can see how true it is. Like all red-blooded Spanish salt-of-the-earth types, cooking is not so much about eating but a way of life that is as crucial to their being as the blood that runs through their veins.
Speaking at gunfire speed through an interpreter, he explains that 'the kitchen of a country is like a landscape - the food represents the country'. In other words, the identity of the country is manifested in its food, and no more so than in Catalonia which is blessed with the best of both land and sea, spawning the term mar y muntanya, aka surf 'n turf, but a whole lot more classy.
It is this philosophy that keeps Gaig (pronounced 'gah-idge') true to his roots without going the way of avant garde Spanish chefs led by El Bulli's Ferran Adria. While his younger colleagues are embracing high technology with sci-fi machines and techniques like spherification, the only new-fangled technology that Gaig has adopted is that of low-temperature cooking - a technique in which an ingredient is cooked at a consistently low temperature for hours that results in a melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Gaig, 59, hails from a long tradition of chefs - all of them women, and he is the first male in the family to go into the business. Hence, his recipes have all been handed down through the years, but which he has adapted to provide a modern and lighter approach. A traditional dish being served during his current stint at Swissotel Stamford's Jaan restaurant is a cannelloni with truffle cream - cannelloni is usually made with a lot of meat but in Gaig's version he uses less and enhances the flavours with truffles. It was delicious, albeit still heavy by our standards.
Besides being defined by its local produce and its French influences due to its proximity to the border, Catalan cuisine is characterised through three common cooking methods, namely, sofrito, suquet and romesco sauce.
Sofrito is the base for Catalan cooking - comprising chopped onion, tomato and sometimes garlic; sofrito is cooked over a slow fire for several hours until you get a thick caramelised mixture to which you add whatever ingredients and stock to create a multitude of dishes from beef stew to rice (arroz).
Suquet, in turn, is a rich, strong seafood stock that is almost bisque-like and used for seafood stews. On the menu, a lobster suquet made its appearance - plump shellfish in an intensely flavoured soupy gravy that was also tasty. And, finally, romesco sauce is a typical Catalan dip or pesto made by pounding almonds, garlic, parsley, toasted bread and olive oil, or a variation - it's used as a condiment or as a thickener for stews to give extra flavour as well.
Despite his efforts, Gaig readily agreed that it's near impossible to replicate the Catalan dining experience here, due to the lack of produce. Much of his cooking is dependent on the variety of produce he can find back home, so while the food prepared at restaurant Jaan passed muster, the intrinsic taste of heart and hearth just were not there.
'All the very good food - it's very hard to travel,' says Gaig. 'It's a bit like Chinese food in Europe, where you cannot find a very good Chinese restaurant there.'
As it turned out, Gaig was one of the most popular chefs of the WGS - his cooking class was full and Jaan has been very busy during the promotion.
It could well point to the rise in popularity of Spanish cuisine among well-travelled Singaporeans and tourists.
So while avant garde Spanish fare may be the cuisine du jour of travelling gourmets, the appetite for traditional cooking remains strong, simply because, 'unlike modern cooking, which Spaniards do not eat every day, traditional food can be eaten every day', says Gaig.
He sees avant garde cooking as a fashion which he is not interested in following, he says. He also noted that in Barcelona, 'a lot of young chefs are closing down their modern restaurants because people don't go'.
Interestingly, he says he is seeing more young people at his own restaurant, where they feast on his house specialty - stewed veal head which he does not allow anyone else to cook besides him. 'People are very conscious of the quality of the product,' he says.
Ultimately, it all boils down to good food, which is something the good chef himself enjoys.
'Good jabugo (ham), good manzanilla (Spanish sherry), and you touch the sky,' says the indefatigable Catalonian with a grin that lights up his face.