In this edition of Dished Out, we sample Restaurant Gaig’s Chef’s Menu and meet the man behind it. Neither is an unqualified success, but for very different reasons
Chef Martí Carlos Martínez is no ordinary cook. At the tender age of 33—a mere whippersnapper in a toque—he has already proven himself capable of genius flashes in his five plus years helming Gaig in Stanley Street. The cuisine is Spanish, and more specifically, Catalonian, and it’s a style and culinary ethos that courses through his veins.
For every modern chef these days, however, innovation is key, and it’s not enough to have a redoubtable, specific food spirit. You need to invent and reinvent, embracing tradition and using the tried and trusted as a launch pad before introducing more creativity and a personal spin. While there are far too many restaurants and restaurateurs these days making token gestures at ‘updating’ a well-loved cuisine and being creative merely for the sake of it, Chef Martínez doesn’t seem to fit into this category. He’s grounded, but also ambitious in a very controlled way.
“I do not like to play safe,” he says, as we sit down for a glass of wine ahead of service (I’m the one doing the drinking, obviously). “I like to experiment.” Diners like it too when he gives free rein to his imagination. Despite his relative inexperience, he has a good understanding of ingredients to go with a playful, mischievous spirit.
On Gaig’s Chef’s Menu, one of the starter snacks is a Salmorejo Sandwich, which both looks and tastes delightful. The cold soup has been turned into a sorbet and fills in between two ‘slices’ of tomato water meringue and makes for a heavenly mouthful. It also characterises Martínez’s culinary philosophy.
The fact is that he learnt from the best and has always been hungry for knowledge. On a culinary school field trip he dined at Carles Gaig’s Barcelona restaurant and was so enamoured of the food that he determined then and there to work with one of the best and most innovative chefs in Spain.
Carles Gaig (Chef Carles) managed to find the perfect balance between the traditional and the avant-garde to create a new cuisine style that was very attractive to Chef Martínez. The latter carried the torch to Singapore, but not before studying under Chef Carles and drinking in as much of his experience and expertise as possible.
“Carles is a genius. He has so much knowledge,” he says. “He can take just a few ingredients and create something wonderful.”
He regales me with the story of a cauliflower being cooked for one of Chef Carles’ dishes, with budding chefs and trainees looking on as the cooking time went past 20 minutes, and then 30, heading inexorably towards the 45-minute mark. Who cooks a vegetable for that long? Everyone seemed to be asking. The satisfactory answer is that Carles Gaig did, and while flying in the face of conventional cooking wisdom, he knew exactly what he was doing. Chef Martínez describes him as a “mentor” and it’s clear that he has learnt well.
He was something of a teacher’s pet when working with him, too, but his thirst for knowledge and obvious desire to learn the right techniques from one of the best in the business paid off as the sorcerer recognised the obvious enthusiasm (and talent) of the apprentice and encouraged him along the way.
In Restaurant Gaig’s recently unfurled quasi-degustation menu there’s evidence of everything learnt under Chef Carles’ tutelage, along with a significant nod to an old culinary trope that’s gaining a lot of traction in modern circles—the ‘nose to tail’ food philosophy. In using just about every bit and piece of a suckling pig, Chef Martínez has put together a hugely creative menu that almost invariably hits the mark, except when it doesn’t.
The deep-fried brains with carabinero prawns pass muster before the foie gras terrine and anchovies take centre stage. The combination sounds a little odd, but works brilliantly, and was created by Chef Carles when he was doing his military service and had to make use of whatever was in the stores. Pâté with anchovy was something of a revelation, and Chef Martí is evolving the dish very nicely. It’s when we get to the really meaty bits that the new menu slightly falls down, in my opinion, with a headline act that is just a little too much a tad too late, and can be overwhelming.
The main course features an oven-baked loin, a deep-fried tail, trotters and bones reduced in a jus and other bits and pieces of the suckling pig that under some normal circumstances would have been discarded. It’s very well thought out and almost invariably well executed, but as an ensemble, it’s almost suppuratingly rich and becomes somewhat fulsome far too quickly.
One of the more successful elements in the overall dish is a quirky, fun and very creatively assembled candle made of rendered pork fat and bacon. It’s lit, it melts and creates a luscious dip for some freshly baked bread. On its own it would have been quite delightful, but with all the other stuff going on it was just overkill.
Some people are going to love the whole concept and the big meaty guns. I simply didn’t, but I would still recommend the experience. As I would most of Chef Martínez’s cooking because he’s headed in the right direction despite a self-effacing demeanour and a fairly simple ambition philosophy. “I just want to improve every day,” he says, implying that if this can be achieved he might one day become as good as his mentor, Carles Gaig.
It must be gratifying for him to be the main man at a restaurant that bears his hero’s name, but he realises that he has a long way to go. “If I knew a quarter of what Carles knows, I would be happy today,” he says, reflecting a genuine humility and a respect for the natural order of things.
For me, however, there’s a lot more to this man than his words suggest. “I’m not that complicated,” he says, “and I don’t need things to make me happy. To relax I like to spend time with friends, and I read a lot of cookbooks.”
I suspect that he’s secretly hankering for an opportunity to be truly creative and become liberated from the trammels of working in a restaurant where diners have preconceptions of Spanish cuisine—not imagining that it amounts to anything more than a hill of tapas with a few other items thrown into the mix.
Restaurant Gaig is far from that and perhaps needs to go yet further, but Chef Martínez will bide his time, hone his craft and do what he wants to do when he’s good and ready.
16 Stanley St
Tel: +65 6221 2134