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Food by VICE

Working with Ferran Adrià Taught Me Not to Be an Idiot

The intensity, the attention to detail; you’re not afraid of anything after that. Many of the new generation of chefs don’t know how to work hard. They’ve been cooking for two years and think they’re a chef de patisserie already.

by Diego Jacquet
May 12 2015, 10:00am

Diego Jacquet is chef patron of the Malevo Group of Argentinian restaurants. Having cooked all over Europe and in the US, he opened his first restaurant, Casa Malevo, in London in 2010 and presents a festival of nomad Argentine cuisine this month. One of Jacquet's formative experiences as a young chef was a six-month stint at the legendary elBulli in Catalonia, Spain, where his work ethic and attitude towards food were shaped by Ferran Adrià.

A place like elBulli will change you forever. When I started cooking in 1994, there were only a handful of famous chefs in Buenos Aires—fast, skilful guys but they had no technique, no knowledge. There was one library where you could get all the best cookbooks: Gordon Ramsay's Passion for Flavour, Raymond Blanc's first book [Recipes from Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons]. I remember when I got [Marco Pierre White's] White Heat. Amazing. That was it. I wanted to cook abroad, in Europe.

In order to cook in Europe you had to send letters to places and offer to work for free. This was in 1998, so way before emails. I got a job at a very traditional place in San Sebastián, but I wanted to cook at Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, that was my dream.

I got the number of Oscar Cabellero, an Argentine food critic based in Paris from a contact back home. A telephone number was one of the most valuable things you could take with you to Europe. I called him and told him my plans. He asked if I could speak French. When I told him no, he said he wouldn't recommend Ducasse, because if you didn't speak French they would keep you in a corner peeling potatoes and artichokes for six months: you wouldn't cook, you wouldn't understand anything, and you'd suffer.

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He told me about a Spanish chef he was working on a book with, who had just been awarded his third Michelin star. He said his name was Ferran Adrià and in three or four years time he was going to be a god and change food forever. When you're 22, you don't care so I called him. I had to pretend to be Oscar at first, otherwise he wouldn't know who I was. I told him I wanted to cook with him and he said he had two questions for me: how long could I commit to (he could offer free food and accommodation for six months, but no pay) and when could I start? I jumped on a train the following week and that was it.

The level of professionalism stays with you. We prepared lunch and dinner then (in the last decade or so before it closed, they just did dinner) working from 7.30 AM to 1 AM the following morning. The intensity, the attention to detail; you're not afraid of anything after that. I learned the value of hard work. Many of the new generation of chefs don't know how to work hard. They've been cooking for two years and think they're a chef de patisserie already.

I told Ferran Adrià I wanted to cook with him and he said he had two questions for me: how long could I commit to and when could I start? I jumped on a train the following week and that was it.

I learned how to be a leader. You can push very, very hard but you need to be fair. There's no need to be a douchebag or an arsehole. I keep that in mind with every decision that I make now I'm a business owner. The way you treat your employees is important. I know everybody by name, what they do, what their families do, who's married, and who's pregnant. I want to know you. You spend 60 to 70 hours cooking in my restaurant; it's fucking personal. You give me that much of your life, I have to care. They appreciate it.

When I started cooking in Argentina, it was cool to look to Europe, we didn't consider our own traditions. Now, a lot of chefs of my generation are going back. We're very nostalgic people. These guys are key to the transformation of the food scene in Buenos Aires. They're not only opening top restaurants and producing great food, but they're teaching and training the new generation.

When I quit my comfortable job as an executive head chef at The Zetter Hotel in London in 2009 to open Malevo, I spent four months travelling around Argentina. My wife thought I was nuts. I went to all the provinces, met all the producers. People were so passionate. I was eating for four months. I couldn't believe the quality of the produce. I fell in love: citrus fruit, papaya, melons, watermelons, yerba, saffron, nuts, beef, lamb, and wild boar. River trout, wild sea bass, langoustine, sea scallops, amazing king crab, and razor clams.

Each area has its own personality. Argentine cuisine is massively influenced by immigration from Europe from the mid 1800s onwards. There's a strong German influence up in the north in Misiones and Corrientes. In Patagonia you'll find preserves, cures, and smokes because of the Scandinavians.

Further south in Patagonia near the mountains there's a small but very proud Welsh community. I went to high school down there, with the Underwoods and the Williams. There are many famous Welsh teahouses; they're a tourist attraction. They make black cake, custard pies, cheeses, breads, and jams.

I spent four months travelling around Argentina. My wife thought I was nuts. I went to all the provinces, met all the producers. People were so passionate. I was eating for four months.

In Buenos Aires it's mainly Spanish and Italian influences. Pizza and pasta are big, then obviously suckling pig, all the hams and salamis. We have a culture of using the whole pig and the way of eating and sharing is very Spanish.

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People assume that if you go to a BBQ in Argentina, they're going to give you a 500 gram sirloin steak. That's far from true. It's like a tapas thing. First you're going to have sweetbreads, chorizo, black pudding, and some kidneys. Then you start with different parts of the cow: the ribs and the flank. It's the way we grill that's very particular, slowly, moving the coals, controlling the fire.

No one in the world does it like us.

As told to Tom Jenkins.