In profile: Quique Dacosta

A self-taught chef with 12 restaurants under his belt and accolades in abundance, Quique Dacosta tells Tina Nielsen he’s looking forward to seeing the spotlight of the global gastronomic world turn to his home city in Spain

Quique Dacosta has great expectations for 2023. Speaking on the phone from Valencia on the Mediterranean coast of Spain at the start of the new year, he talks of hopes and plans, as the world takes another decisive step on from the pandemic that has blighted the hospitality sector, including his own restaurants in Spain and beyond.

While moving on from under the shadow of the past few years, this one will be marked by challenges on all fronts, Dacosta points to three areas of focus in particular. First up, launching the new season at his eponymous three-Michelin-star restaurant in Denia, outside Alicante, south of Valencia. “For me 2023 is intrinsically linked with 2022 as a post-Covid period, they are years of rebirth and hope,” he says. “Every season is a new opening; everything is affected, from the menu and staff training to crockery and new equipment. Most of all it is about ensuring that every person who sits at a table in Quique Dacosta restaurant has the best possible experience.”

He is also working on a new book – his sixth – due to be published this year and the third pillar that will keep him busy is the role he expects to play when the 2023 edition of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is celebrated in his city of Valencia this summer, a momentous event that is eagerly anticipated by all in the Mediterranean city.

“It is obviously a great opportunity to enter the list but more importantly I look forward to hosting journalists and chefs from all over the world who come here to experience Valencia. This will be a very big occasion for me,” he says.

Ripe for discovery

It will be a big moment for Dacosta – and for the city. Often overlooked as a gastronomic destination, Valencia has been through something of a transformation in the past 20 years. In 2021 the wider region of Valencia was the one to be awarded most new stars in the Michelin guide to Spain and Portugal and the restaurant panorama continues to welcome new arrivals at all levels of dining. Today, there are six restaurants with one star while two, including one of Dacosta’s – El Poblet – hold two.

It’s about time the world discovers this area, according to Dacosta. “For me, the region of Valencia is among the most interesting in all of Spain,” he says. 

“If I think of traditional cuisine, the one we have inherited, which is based in the terroir there is a vast natural larder and a huge recipe archive,” he says. “Valencia was never really a tourist destination, but with the trend of everybody travelling the world, people have  discovered the city and there has been a proliferation of new restaurants.”

Dacosta was awarded the title of best Spanish chef in 2000 and in the 20 plus years since many things have happened in the city of Valencia. Young chefs – many who have come out of the kitchens of Dacosta – have opened their own restaurants and little by little people 
have started to see the region through a more gastronomic lens as more ambitious restaurants projects have appeared on the scene. 

Outside of Spain, few people see the wealth of Valencia’s cuisine, instead focusing on the ubiquitous rice dish everybody seems to know. Unsurprising, according to Dacosta. “Sure, if you think of Valencia, you are likely to think of paella,” he says. “But equally, if you ask a Spanish person about Peruvian food, they might highlight ceviche. It’s normal.”

Restless chef

Today, in addition to his flagship Denia restaurant, which was awarded its third Michelin star in 2013, he has four restaurants in Valencia: Vuelve Carolina, Llisa Negra, Mercatbar and El Poblet. In Madrid he has another six concepts within the Mandarin Oriental Ritz hotel that reopened after massive development works in 2019. Finally, there is Arros QD in London. It is a lot to manage.

“I am a restless chef, so I feel lucky to have different concepts and business models to work with, from the fine dining of Quique Dacosta to 
the more traditional cooking in Mercatbar. For me this is all about managing different business models, stimulating creativity in every one of the restaurants,” he says.

With so many projects to juggle how does he see his role in the group? Where does the chef end and the manager take over? “I have always filled both roles; of course, I am a chef, but I am an entrepreneurial chef and I have different concepts working with big teams and I enjoy that part of the human side. I understand some chefs do not enjoy the management side, but I do. We are all different and we all carve our own role,” he says. “It is like football. If that is your passion there are many ways you can be a part of it, as a player, a manager, a referee or a spectator even.”

El Poblet, which was his first own restaurant is now managed by younger generations who have started their own project there. “It is a restaurant that I celebrate a lot; it is run by chefs who have come through my restaurant and are now managing their own project; the menu, wine and service is nothing to do with me,” he says. “It has a different DNA to mine.”

Finding a home

As an entirely self-taught chef, with no formal training, he started young in hospitality when he was employed as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant as a teenager. “I got a job to make myself financially independent; my family never went hungry, but we were humble and by earning my own money I could take some pressure off my parents,” he explains. “I had no way of knowing that I would feel at home in that world, but I did. I liked what I saw.”

He quickly made it his objective to open his own restaurant. “I just saw that the restaurant would be a great place to earn my living, cooking and hosting guests. I just enjoyed the atmosphere in a restaurant.”

After the experience in the Italian trattoria, he moved on to learn in other places, including a tapas bar and a German brewery bar before setting out on his own. “I have achieved my objective but instead of one I have 12 restaurants,” he laughs. Along the way, he says, he has read every cookery book there is and absorbed knowledge from friends in the famously collegial Spanish chef industry.

He cites chefs including Pedro Subijana, Andoni Aduriz, Martin Berasetegui and Ferrán Adriá – all major figures on the culinary map of Spain – as influences. “These are my contemporaries, but I also follow the younger generations; exciting chefs such as Dabiz Muñoz and Diego Guerrerro. These younger professionals show me a different perspective and they renew me to a point,” he explains. 

His cooking is best described, he says, as one based in territory. “My cooking is essentially rooted in where I am. When I am in Valencia it is an opportunity to communicate what we have here. Because what we have is different from what they have in other places.,” he says.

“That’s the first part. Second, my style has always been to progress and investigate, innovate and create new dishes. Every time a new diner comes from anywhere in the world, it is a chance for me to tell them where they are,” he says.

This sense of location is crucial, the cuisine must reflect the place. “It is easy for us to make a ceviche: with a prawn, a citric and a bit of spice, but guests don’t travel to Denia to eat ceviche,” he says. “It is key for me to convey the flavors that I can interpret to give a cultural reference point to the diner; where in the world you are and what the area around Valencia can offer, where it coms from and where it is heading.”

And sun-soaked Valencia, surrounded by vast lands of vegetable growing – the so-called garden of Valencia, hectares of vegetables and fruit in the area surrounding the city and the Albufera freshwater lakes, busy with rice plantations south of the city center, offers a compelling proposition to any chef wishing to represent their city and region on the plate.

This principle of putting product first applies equally to his Madrid restaurants. “In Madrid I also want to reflect the available larder, but the larder changes, the produce is different, and the culinary traditions are too,” he explains. 

He opened his London restaurant Arros QD in 2019 offering the British market a taste of Valencian rice dishes, chiefly paella, arguably Spain’s most famous culinary offering to the world. Though everybody will know the popular rice dish, few understand what makes a good paella. Dacosta’s London launch is one attempt to change this, “I always thought that we, as fine dining chefs with a platform, have a unique opportunity to share a narrative of our culinary heritage and take the cuisine to the world, beyond our borders,” he says.

“I am not arrogant, I haven’t gone to London to teach people how to eat paella, but we obviously take an authentic approach, cooking them over open fire as it is traditionally done. More than anything this is about me caring for our traditions and showing the best of Valencia outside our country.”

In this momentous year, the world is about to find out what Valencia and its chefs, including Dacosta, are all about.

Tina Nielsen

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