15th December 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Mónica R Goya
15th December 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Mónica R Goya
We haven’t come here to eat at Casa Marcial, though we do end up staying for lunch at the restaurant and staggering out, extremely well-fed, at 6pm. Rather, we’ve come to visit Nacho and his sister Esther, also a renowned chef, at Nacho’s house next door. A modern steel-and-glass construction, it towers slightly incongruously over the old farmhouse where Nacho, Esther and their two sisters grew up and which now contains the restaurant. Whereas the kitchen downstairs is as well-equipped as you’d imagine a two-Michelin-star operation to be, Nacho’s kitchen upstairs is as spare as a bachelor pad – for reasons that will soon become clear.
After we say our hellos in the restaurant’s cosy reception area, Nacho and Esther invite us upstairs to cook some hake for lunch, pinching some key ingredients from Casa Marcial’s kitchen along the way. They are warm, welcoming hosts who, despite crazy work schedules, give generously of their time, but there’s a hitch. Their English is almost as limited as my Spanish, so we have to communicate through third parties. Even though Dolo, their personal assistant, provides excellent translation from start to finish, we’ve decided to present this interview in a slightly different way. Let’s begin with that descent over the mountains…
To add to the drama of our arrival at Casa Marcial, the weather has taken an apocalyptic turn. Usually it’s still warm and sunny in Asturias at this time of the year (mid-September), but on this visit we are beset by low temperatures and driving rain. Our photographer Mónica, who grew up in Asturias, is horrified by this turn of events but I argue that the heavy mist cloaking the mountains only deepens the romance of the landscape.
As we wind our way down to the village, we notice some chickens running around in the field and Monica tells me about a local specialty called pitu caleya. “Pitu is chicken in Asturian, caleya means old path. It means the chickens that are wild, running around in open space.” We get to try a version of this dish later on in the restaurant.
Aside from Nacho’s house, which he built seven years ago, La Salgar doesn’t look like it’s changed a great deal in the past half-century. It’s less a village, more a few farmhouses dotted around a T-junction, with the restaurant very much at its centre. We park up above and scurry through the rain to Nacho’s front door. The chef himself beckons us in and leads us down to the restaurant. Once we’re settled in the reception, with coffees on the way, he excuses himself to take care of some work details.
To say Nacho is busy is an understatement. As well as running the kitchen at Casa Marcial, he darts between the family’s other restaurants in Asturias – La Salgar in Gijón, which is Esther’s baby, and the more informal Gloria restaurants in Gijón and Oviedo. He is also the executive chef of Iberica, a chain of Spanish restaurants in London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow, which requires him to make regular trips to the UK.
Twenty minutes later, he reappears with Esther and they invite us upstairs, confessing as they lead us through the restaurant kitchen that they haven’t yet figured out what to cook. We pause to watch a well-drilled team of chefs preparing various things, including a big pan of pitu caleya, for lunch. By the time we exit the kitchen by its upper door, the problem has been solved: Esther has appropriated an impressive (and very fresh) hake from the storeroom and Nacho follows her up with a tray of ingredients to make a hake salad.
About 20 centimetres separate the back door of Casa Marcial’s kitchen from the front door of Nacho’s house – the lines between work and home life here are extremely thin. We climb the floating wooden stairs and step into a big open living space with high windows overlooking the valley. There are large cream-coloured sofas and a glass dining table and, along the left-hand wall, a modern kitchen that looks like it hasn’t seen much use over the years.
Nacho: My daughter goes to school in Oviedo, so I have a flat in the city and spend a few nights there. Also my wife has a restaurant near here [El Molín de Mingo in Peruyes] that serves more traditional food, and we have a house there as well. And sometimes my mother who lives down the road calls and says, “It’s been long since I’ve seen you, I’ve made something really nice for dinner, come over” – and I’ll go and stay there for the night. So I’m always moving around. I live nowhere and everywhere.
He and Esther get to work on the hake salad. They spend a lot of time fiddling with the induction hob, which is controlled by a jazzy digital panel. When we observe how hi-tech it looks, Nacho laughs and says it’s crap and he doesn’t have a clue how to work it. Whenever he’s staying here, he tends to cook and eat downstairs in the restaurant.
Nacho: No, in the one next door, where the restaurant is. The room where you were having a coffee, that’s 350 years old.
Nacho: In 1993. Before that, it was a bar with food. Our parents cooked in the family kitchen, using whatever they had in the house. It was a small place and they did that for a long time.
Here, as Nacho and Esther puzzle over the digital hob, Dolo takes over the story. She tells us that Nacho wanted to be a chef from a young age and was always in the kitchen his mother and sisters. One day when he was 14 and they’d run out of food for the customers, he came up with a torto1 dish with scrambled egg on top. It was a big hit and a version of it can still be found on the Casa Marcial menu today.
You’d smoke and cure ham and put it in tins of pig fat, so you have ham for the whole year. We’d eat it in small amounts, because it was a precious thing
At 14, he left school and went to apprentice at a restaurant in Gijón called Casa Victor, where, Dolo tells us, he worked a lot with fish – something he didn’t have much experience with at home. This area is very mountainous, she explains, whereas Casa Victor was very close to the beach.
This seems funny to us, because you can see the sea from here. It doesn’t seem far away at all.
“I know!” Dolo exclaims. “But the food here is very localised. And when they were growing up, the roads were so complicated that even 12km was a huge deal. So they grew up eating a lot of meat and stuff – and when Nacho went to Casa Victor he learned a great deal about fish. And Esther learned a great deal about fish as well, because she married a fisherman from a coastal area. So they are very specialist in fish now.”
After many years at Casa Victor, Nacho decided to open his own restaurant and do it here, in the village where they were born – in the very house where they were born. That was in 1993. In 1999, they got their first Michelin star.
By now, they have figured out the hob and Nacho is cutting up the hake while Esther prepares the hake essence, which is made using the head and spine of the fish.
Nacho: Our parents were farmers. In 60% of cases, we ate what we grew, so a lot of vegetables from the garden. We ate fabada – the most famous dish from Asturias is the fava bean stew. And we grew pigs – it was very typical in Asturias to have pigs in your house. You kill a pig and you have meat for the whole year.
Nacho: No, more like two big pigs. We would make chorizo with pepper and garlic. Here the stews were very important, so you’d put chorizo and morcilla [blood sausage] in almost all the stews. You’d smoke and cure ham and put it in tins of pig fat, so you have ham for the whole year. We’d eat it in small amounts, because it was a precious thing. It was only 20 to 25 years ago that we got fridges and freezers in these rural areas.
You go to restaurants and they say, we grow everything here in the garden. But you see they have three plant pots and 160 people for dinner every day. “So how do you do it?”
Nacho: In our house maybe the first freezer was 35 years ago. It was a lot more intelligent way of living back then. No mobile phones. You actually had time to live.
Nacho: There’s no time. Back then you could take siestas. There wasn’t much money but you had more time to enjoy it [laughs].
Nacho: Yes. Always. I’m super-busy now, always pissed off [laughs]. But this year I’m going to consolidate – no new openings. I’m going to try to recover some peace.
Esther: Yeah yeah sure. I don’t believe it.
Nacho: Nobody’s noticing, but I’m taking steps in that direction. I’m going to have a calm year. This process is going very quickly, even though Esther doesn’t notice.
Esther: I’m the same. I need to calm down more, because I’m older than him. I’m very energetic, but as you get older you feel more tired.
Nacho: That’s completely true.
Esther: But I think it’s going to get more busy, not less.
Dolo interjects with a few words of explanation. “Esther is like a mother for everything at the restaurant,” she says. “As soon as Nacho has a great idea and starts doing something big, all of the siblings have to get involved.”
Dolo: Exactly. They’ll say, “Oh no, we’re not going to do that this year”, but he always convinces them. And then suddenly it’s happening and Esther has jumped into it.
Esther: I always helped my mother in the kitchen, but it’s not like I was cooking all the time.
Nacho: Esther is a perfectionist. When she does something, she does it perfectly. She has very good taste as well. Every time she goes into one of the restaurants, she finds errors everywhere. Then she touches a few things and everything is perfect. In the kitchen, she’s the same. She’s the one who perfects everything.
Esther: Nacho is more creative, more impulsive. He has the capacity of doing things right now, in the moment.
Nacho: Esther will put them into place.
There is a lull in the rain and we gaze out at the big walnut tree overhanging the balcony. Beyond, in a small garden, an old man is collecting apples. That’s Marcial, Dolo tells us – Nacho and Esther’s father, from whom the restaurant takes its name.
Nacho: They don’t have official roles, but they do little things that really help. My father comes to the restaurant twice a day.
Esther: He is a great supervisor. He still helps in the vegetable garden. Also he gets into the kitchen and sees how the chefs are cutting the meat. “You have no idea, you have to cut it like this.” He checks the knives and everything. Supervising how the chefs do the food. He is still the boss.
Lunch is ready. Even though they haven’t been able to cook the various elements of the hake salad with restaurant-kitchen precision, it looks very appealing indeed. They plate up the salad like they do downstairs, Esther adding little symmetrical blobs of liquefied lettuce and hollandaise to the plate, Nacho placing the fish carefully between them and adding lettuce leaves and the hake essence on top and some dried hake roe on either side.
Nacho: In Spain there is a lot of innovation and technology, thanks to chefs like [Ferran] Adria. And sometimes they try to do too much, they overdo it, it’s a bit superficial. This is not a criticism, it’s an observation – and I include myself in this. Sometimes we go too far in an attempt to do something new… Another thing about restaurants, you go there and they say, we grow everything here in the garden. But you see they have three plant pots and 160 people for dinner every day. “So how do you do it?”
Here, our location is already a statement. The essence of my way of cooking has already been rooted here: childhood memories, the area, the garden that our parents had when they were younger – that’s what I try to reflect. And we’re trying not to do the superficial, ornamental food. These things are able to evoke feelings in people, because you’re here, you’re eating inside our old family home… Sometimes you have to let the dish do the talking. If it’s good, you’re going to see it in the food.
Our location is already a statement. The essence of my way of cooking has already been rooted here: childhood memories, the area, the garden that our parents had when they were younger – that’s what I try to reflect
The food that we’re eating is very good indeed. Esther explains that you can find a version of this hake salad on every menú del día in Asturias. At Casa Marcial, they use most of the same ingredients but treat and present them differently, making sure that the produce is as good as it can possibly be. It’s a very versatile dish, Nacho adds: you can eat it cold or warm.
At the end of the meal, Nacho gets a phone call – it’s someone at Iberica in London – and excuses himself again. He decamps to the sofa and speaks rapidly in Spanish. His oldest sister Olga appears briefly at the top of the stairs and rolls her eyes at Nacho. “He’s always on the phone,” she complains, before disappearing back downstairs. For a moment longer we sit at the table enjoying the sound of the rain.
Esther: My husband [laughs]. At Christmas eve, family parties or whatever.
Esther: The thing is, he’s more used to cooking at home, whereas we’re more used to cooking in restaurants. We’re not used to getting around home kitchens, we always feel like there’s something missing. And he knows that we are not very picky. We want to rest, eat nicely, and he cooks well enough.
Esther: Not really. It’s impossible – I’m never at home. Always running around. Here, at the two Gloria restaurants, and then catering, which we also do. I wake up at maybe 8 or 9 in the morning, and at 2am I’m still in the kitchens. It’s never less than 12 hours a day, never.
There’s no escape! I’m going to be a chef all my life. With a cane, going around the kitchen asking chefs, “What are you doing now?”
Esther: [laughs] Every moment of the day.
Esther: It’s for passion, not to make money. When we just had this place, we wanted to bring this sort of food to the city, so we opened La Salgar. But then La Salgar is quite gastronomic, so we opened Gloria in Oviedo, so that we could do the more traditional cooking without so much pressure. It went very well so we opened another one in Gijón. The catering was to bring the food to events, and that went well so…
Esther: Yes. But we like the diversity. Here, you do one kind of cooking, then you go to Gloria and you are doing tortilla or something very simple. It’s good for the mind.
Esther: Yes, two sons. The older one, who is 16, is very good at cooking – he wants to be a chef as well. I’m trying to dissuade him, Nacho’s like, no let him do it.
Esther: I explained very clearly what this profession is like. He says, you don’t have to explain because I see it every day. I tried to convince him to study something else, and after that, if he still wants to cook, he can do it. But he seems completely convinced about the idea and I’m supporting him – I’m happy that he’s passionate about it. Also, I think he’s going to have more opportunity than we did – culinary schools, restaurants to work in, opportunities to travel and see other things. We couldn’t do those things when we were starting out.
Esther: Sometimes he works here during the summer. The only thing I hate about this, I feel I’m going to be in the kitchen till I’m 90. When it’s time for me to retire, I’ll have to help him. There’s no escape! I’m going to be a chef all her life. With a cane, going around the kitchen asking chefs, “What are you doing now?”
Nacho ends his call. We clear the table and head back downstairs. It appears that the hake salad was only an appetiser: even though it’s well after 3pm, we are expected for lunch in the restaurant. First we sit in the reception and they send us some really exceptional Serrano ham croquetas…
Then we are ushered into the dining room and the lunch – a succession of attractive, surprising, strikingly flavoured dishes – begins. This is by no means a typical meal for this region. The food is playful, challenging and, despite the familiarity of the main ingredients, radically different from what you’ll find in any other restaurant in the area. But nor does it seem dislocated. On the contrary, it feels like the Manzanos and their team are engaged in a deep conversation with the landscape around them and the sea beyond, which is now, despite winding, precarious roads over a mist-bound mountain, very much within reach. The clams with clam water, parsley juice and seaweed emulsion are a standout, though we also love the dark, intense pitu caleya served on a bed of decadent saffron rice.
When lunch is over, we find Esther and her sisters out in the reception enjoying a moment of respite before dinner service begins. Nacho has already gone – he headed off half an hour ago to take care of some business in Oviedo. This is the price of expanding into other cities, other countries, while trying to maintain the perfectionism of your original endeavour: no time to relax. Here’s hoping that Nacho’s plans to consolidate, to recover some peace in the year ahead, come to fruition – and that the whole family can get some rest.
Casa Marcial is at Calle La Salgar, s/n, 33549 Arriondas, Parres, Asturias. For more info on Nacho and Esther’s restaurants, go to www.casamarcial.com, www.lasalgar.es, www.estasengloria.com and www.ibericarestaurants.com
Follow Esther: Twitter
Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen
Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider
Ryan Chetiyawardana – The cocktail pioneer devises an elaborate pairing menu, explains the deceptively simple idea behind his bars, confesses a major food aversion and recalls his favourite ever meal