About halfway through a meal at El Cenador de Amós, the three-Michelin starred restaurant in the Cantabria region of northern Spain some diners around the table may recoil at what appears in front of them. The meat section, served in three is focused on duck. One element is billed as duck heart on the menu and arrives placed in the middle of the plate with blood dramatically splattered across it. Some lick their lips, others are alarmed by the seemingly primal look of the dish.
As it turns out the ‘heart’ is made of duck liver pate, the ‘blood’ is beetroot juice and the element of surprise is symbolic of chef Jesús Sanchez playful personality. Anybody following Sanchez on social media will know the mischievous nature to his posts and videos, featuring a refreshing lack of self-importance.
This is a chef who, 30 years after opening his restaurant, still takes joy from his trade. A chef at the peak of his powers – three decades on from moving into the handsome old mansion building in the tiny village of Villaverde de Pontones with a population of less than 500, keeping his awards and accolades to one sheet of paper is a challenge.
The first Michelin star came just a year after opening in the early 1990s, the second followed in 2016 and the third finally came in 2019. El Cenador de Amós also holds the Michelin Green Star for sustainability, three suns from the Repsol guide, the top distinction within Spanish gastronomy. On a personal level he has been named chef of the year, by various authorities over the years.
Most recently he was handed the gong for digital chef of the year by the foodservice congress HIP in Spain, a nod to those engaging Instagram posts.
From modesty to Michelin
When Sanchez and his wife Marina took over the building they didn’t set out with grand ambitions. “This is a project launched by a young couple, my wife and I, who wanted to be entrepreneurs and we started out with humility,” he says., “Every year since the restaurant has been transformed slightly.”
Marina, who takes charge of the dining room, is from Santander, the region’s capital city., met when Sanchez went to Cantabria for stages a change of scenery after working in restaurants around Spain and in France.
By chance they heard of the available building in the village, which already had a restaurant and they decided to give it a go. Initially renting, they bought the house and undertook a big renovation in 2006.
“Looking back now, it does seem like time has flown, but a lot of things have happened in those 30 years and the best thing is that we still have the enthusiasm and the joy for what we do,” he says.
If Spain today is known the world over as a destination of gastronomy, one that people travel to just to eat, to visit the restaurants they read about in magazines and on the Netflix series Chef ’s Table, in 1993 Spain was on the cusp of something great, but it was early days.
“We opened during the Gulf crisis, it was a difficult time for the world,” he recalls. It was also a time of movement in Spain’s culinary world; elbulli didn’t have three Michelin stars yet. Madrid Fusión gastronomy congress had not been conceived. There were great restaurants in Madrid and in the Basque Country, but it wasn’t yet the buzzing gastronomic hub it later became.
“It was a good moment to start – it was just before that big revolution of gastronomy that was about to kick off,” says Sanchez.
El Cenador de Amós opened as a modest place with one hope: “We just wanted people to come and eat in our restaurant,” he laughs. In the early days the kitchen served cod as its specialty; the most expensive item on the menu was foie gras, which he had learned to cook to perfection in France. Michelin stars could not be further from his mind.
“When I arrived in Cantabria it was absolutely unthinkable that the region would one day have a three-star restaurant,” he says.
But of course, the star came quickly, within 18 months of opening. It was perhaps with this more nuanced picture of what could be in the back of his mind that the team undertook major reforms to the building, which transformed the operation completely.
“In 2014 we started thinking about working for that second star. We saw that it was possible. We told everybody that was the focus, and it came in 2016,” he says. “Of course, the natural step then was to say, ‘let’s go for the third’, though you never really know what it takes, what you have to do to get it, but we did it.”
Choosing the right path
Growing up Sanchez always had plans to become a chef. As an only child his parents had hoped he might head down a career path with more prospects. “I was their only son and they wanted to make sure that I went for a job that would be good for me. They encouraged me to become a doctor or a lawyer, but in the end, they too saw that this was the right way for me,” he says.
After attending cooking school in Madrid, he worked in restaurants around his country and spent time in France too. Among the learning experiences, the Ritz Hotel in Madrid was key. Two head chefs, one Spanish and one French steered the kitchen and shaped the young Sanchez. “The Spanish chef was a specialist in the big classic hotel dishes and the French chef was a disciple of Paul Bocuse and brought his ideas from Nouvelle Cuisine,” he says. “The experience helped to crystallize who I wanted to be as a chef.”
His menu in El Cenador de Amós is testament to those influences. “If you analyze the menu, you will see that there is Basque influence, some French influence, and others, such as Japanese, from my travels,” he explains. “But the essence is that we want to showcase the flavors of this place, Cantabria. That is very important.”
He may not be from Cantabria, but he has made himself a local. Originally from the nearby northern region of Navarra, famous for its high-quality legumes and vegetables, Sanchez has been welcomed by local tradesmen, fishermen and growers as if he was one of them.
In the kitchen, local produce is revered and served with pride – the famous anchovy from Santoña, served traditionally in butter, the beef from the Tudanca cattle, indigenous to the region, and the butter from nationally recognized dairies are mainstays. The aim, he says, is for the diner to see the surrounding region in the dishes.
Between the second and the third star he fulfilled a long-held dream to open a bakery on the upstairs of the restaurant. Growing up in a family of bakers – both his uncle and his cousin baked bread – he was keen to start his own bakery that would supply bread fresh to the tables downstairs in the dining room.
As it turned out, it was a sound investment that helped keep the business afloat during the pandemic, struck shortly after they received the third star. “It was all we could do in the pandemic; people bought our bread for delivery and supported us during the periods of lockdown.”
The time after the pandemic has seen the restaurant take its place among the great restaurants of the country. International guests – once an unusual sight in the dining room – are now frequent. If one litmus test of a great restaurant is that customers keep coming back, another is a menu where dishes from 10, 15 even 20 years back still make an appearance. Sanchez lists some of the signature dishes that remain – the deconstructed Spanish potato omelette, his version of Russian salad (another Spanish classic) today appear in the snack section of the meal.
“The essence of what we do is the same, the flavor, the depth remain, but we have evolved. We have more techniques, better presentation, we spend more time on the creative process,” he says.
Time and space to create
As an innately creative person – he is also recognized as a skilled photographer – he embraces the opportunity to spend more time on ideas and creating new concepts. “I cook less now, I don’t spend much time in the kitchen, but I enjoy the creative work, testing dishes,” he says.
He is certainly putting this time and space to be creative and come up with new ideas and concepts to good use. In the winter of 2020, he opened another restaurant in Madrid, Amós, inside the Rosewood Hotel. And the year before that, he launched Santander Foodie, a gastronomic festival to showcase and share the culinary traditions and the produce of Cantabria. This spirit of sharing is symptomatic of the culinary panorama that was swept in by Ferrán Adriá and elbulli and the movement of change that came with it – a spirit that persists today.
“It’s special – the friendships between chefs, the understanding that we all have the same trade and we like to share,” he says. “We are open about our recipes. Don’t forget we came from a world where it was the opposite. Spain’s gastronomic world is a success story.” The same can be said for El Cenador de Amós.