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Madrid Fusion Manila: Fernando Perez Arellano on Being a Masochist in the Kitchen

May 16, 2016

Did your time in the British Islands influence you in any way? At a very early age I decided to leave my house and make a living by myself, and I wanted to travel and to be able to live on my behalf, and that’s why I went to live in Dublin to make my own living. And I started to work because I needed money as a dishwasher. And then, from there I got in the loop of the catering industry and “chef-ing,” and since then I’ve been stuck here pretty much. [laughs]

Chef, I want to talk to you about ingredients because you’re one of those chefs who value ingredients. Every single chef values ingredients. I take the compliment, thank you very much, but I think if you don’t value ingredients you’re not a chef.

That’s true, but things have changed. Before, in the early 90’s, the big thing was transferring or having imported products. Like many have fish flown from the Mediterranean, you have Kobe beef from Japan flown in, but now it’s going more local. Why do you think that is? What changed in the scene, and why are people moving towards local? Well, I think this is research more than anything. Because I believe like any artistic revolution, I think we are heading more towards bringing cooking to levels of artistry. This does not mean that before it was not artistic, it would be very artistic. But the truth is for many years, the reference for that time was France for sure, hundred percent. And most of the biggest restaurants in France, you would read the menu and it was pretty much similar. They all had the poulet presse, the pigeon de presse. They all had scallops, they all had smoked salmon, they all had foie gras, they all had caviar. It was like all the other three-star restaurants we would have in France, you know. And what came from France was extrapolated to the other countries—most of the 2 or 3 star restaurants in England, in Holland, or in Belgium, in Germany…even the chefs in Spain, they were very French-oriented. In general, even though they all start with their origins and their given traditional recipes, they were also doing—as you said—bringing in the best foie gras from France, the best chocolate. The field was evolving a lot slower. Most of the dishes on the menu would be the same from one season to another in many of the 2 to 3 star restaurants. Very static. But the tendency these days is to evolve, to create. Actually, creativity is everywhere. It’s not only what’s inside the dish, but also what’s outside the dish, the experience. It’s becoming more and more advanced, more and more conceptual. In many ways, you want to tell a story about the experience that you have at the restaurant. And of course there is no story without identity. Identity is found within your surroundings. So, I think, this is the main reason why the research goes towards that. It is also, to preserve those flavors from the past that are so difficult to have in the modern world, because the economy has changed completely, you know. 

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How so? Your main ingredient of a dish has changed, because the type of production that you have has changed. If you look into your market here, most of the fish products are farmed. Of course that’s going to change the flavor, for sure. And more likely the prawns or the mussels, or whatever, does not taste exactly the same as they used to taste a hundred years ago. I think the research goes more and more towards those, let’s say, “virgin” flavors, and trying to look at the essence of it.

There was a time when—well, I guess for chefs, when you were studying to be a chef—it was common practice to want to study with the best chefs. To study. To experience.

Was part of that because of their access to better ingredients? Well, it was in my case. Maybe for some people, it might be. Of course, I’m sure this is something normal. And of course maybe you’ve been doing potato purée for a while, you’d rather be doing a Philippine dish. This is just normal. But I think the real reason why we go and work for the best is because we want to be bitten by the mosquito of perfection, you know what I’m saying? Once you get bitten by this mosquito of perfection, you never drop the disease. It just stays with you for life. Especially when you do things nervously. Or, at least, that’s the way it happened to me. Also, I think there’s a part of it—if you want a future as a chef or if you have the will to be a top chef, there is a bit of masochism involved. Because when you’re an eighteen year-old, nineteen year-old, you decide to skip everything else and jumpstart life.

It’s a big commitment. It’s a big commitment, because it’s hard to enjoy it. You can do it for a couple of months and not enjoy it, but if you’re able to live for 7 years then you can do it. If you enjoy that, you easily leave the masochist behind. [laughs] You know, somehow I don’t feel like I’m a masochist; you find challenges also in enduring pain. You say you enjoy it, but it’s challenging. It’s challenging because everyday you know you’re going through pressure. I believe it’s like when you’re a soldier and you’re going to war. Everyday that you stay alive is a challenge. I think that’s also a little bit what keeps us chefs alive, and what gives us the will to keep on doing this. It’s also, I think, like going to the gym. You’re working out, and then, you know, you say, “Now I can lift this.” But why don’t you lift a little bit more? Or instead of cycling for three hours, why not cycle for five hours? So when you think you have gone through a stage that you probably went through that seemed to be just a phase, after finally walking through that then you get a star—check! You maybe go to another 2 stars and think you have accomplished more, then check! Then you move to 3 stars then this is a little bit of a challenge; adapt your goals and so on. I think your ambitions and your will to achieve your goals become higher and higher all the time.

Just as a last fun question: let’s say you’re given the chance to change McDonald’s, what will you change? If they gave you complete control to do whatever you want with McDonald’s, what will you change? Honestly, you know it’s a fun question, but I don’t have funny answers. [laughs] Trying to look at McDonald’s, I see in terms of gastronomy—of course, everything can improve. I would just close it and open it again. [laughs] I’d make it completely different. Of course, I like the original, but McDonald’s isn’t ever going to be an example of a good restaurant. It is, anyhow, an example of a great business. And I think if I have a challenge right now in my life, it’s not only to be able to succeed in terms of recognition but to succeed in financial terms. Because if there is no success in financial terms, then all of the energies would be nothing. You need human resources.

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