Víctor Bonet: "When you love to cook, the dishes taste like home"
[Barcelona, 1984. Chef de S·Marí. Since 2017 he has been creating a fusion of Catalan gastronomy’s traditional recipes with flavours and tastes from all over the world, using local produce. Vegetables, fruit and salads are grown by his bosses less than a kilometre away from the restaurant].
You were your grandmother’s kitchen help.
She always had some job for me. Even when I was very small, she got me to knead the dough. My grandfather, who was great at cakes and puddings, prepared the Christmas canapés. I used to help him and now I make the same appetisers for the New Year’s Eve dinner.
A lifelong cook.
I have loved cooking since I was small. I used to gaze at the TV when Arguiñano came on when his programmes were first broadcast. I worked in other things, but it was never the same. I get tired and leave. But that doesn’t happen with cooking
Among the places that best define Barcelona’s neighbourhoods are its markets. Did you go shopping with the grownups?
Every weekend, as my mother had to work, she would take me to the grandparents’, and I went food shopping with them. My grandmother taught me how to choose. You know those mountains of peaches for example? My grandmother would choose two or three and explain to me why they were the ones to buy.
Which market did you go to?
To the Abaceria Central, in Passeig Sant Joan. That market had such an incredible smell.
Did you have any favourite stall in particular?
The fish stalls. We used to buy from a shop that was called Nois de Badalona. They had super fresh fish. They had a boat and went out fishing themselves. Also, the olive stalls.
I was going to mention those. Olives and frozen salt cod. Those stalls are classics in Barcelona’s markets.
My granny would always buy a hundred grams of olives for me, and I used to eat them as we shopped.
Those memories have helped to shape your cooking, but how did you decide to take up this trade professionally?
I became a father at a very young age, I was twenty-one. So, I began out of need. My ex-wife’s grandmother knew a girl who was a restaurant manager. And so I got a job there. However, before that, when I was sixteen, my parents split up and I went to live with my older brother. I hadn’t finished my studies when I started work washing dishes in an Argentine restaurant known as Los Asadores. I was getting 90,000 pesetas for twelve hours work there, and I realised that the kitchen hand was getting 160,000 for a job that I was well able to do. Six months later, they made me kitchen hand. Three or four months after that, I had learnt what to do and I was beginning to cast my eyes in the grill chef’s direction.
You’ve always had ants in your pants.
I’ve always been like that, I had no cookery studies. Not even the most basic skills, I got along by learning from the best of the cooks that I worked with. If you don’t keep an open mind, you stagnate. You need to learn different styles. Cooking changes so much between cultures, ethnicities and different countries. There are no limits, you set the boundaries yourself. In our last week of service in 2021 we had fajitas on our daily set menu. Fajitas as dish of the day? And why not? They were delicious.
That journey you can take without leaving Barcelona. That is what is great about a gastronomic capital. You have so many places to choose from.
You know, at one time I travelled the length and breadth of the Barcelona coast to learn how to prepare rice dishes, but later I began working in the Tragaluz group and it was the chef Evaristo Triano who really taught me how to cook rice properly.
What is the difference between the rice dishes of the Maresme or the Costa Brava and those prepared in Sant Antoni?
In Catalonia if you make a rice dish with lobster, red prawn and clams those are the ingredients you use to make the fumet. You don’t make a stock with rock fish. Here the broth is boiled directly while there they make a sofrito first, frying the vegetables and they don’t use colourants either. It is a different way of cooking rice, although both are good.
You began as a dishwasher and now you are a chef. Having worked on each step of the way in the process, what do you think is the key to a successful service?
Attitude and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm and attitude will get you everywhere. And a lot of organization. Of everything. If I make the food well, but in the dining room they don’t really understand the work involved, then it is pointless. And it works the other way round. For it to be a success, everything has to work. Together. It involves the efforts of a lot of people.
From the outside looking in, it seems nothing short of a small miracle.
It’s a question of doing your bit well, and your colleague doing their part well also. [A kitchen) is a set of cogs and wheels in motion.
How did you arrive in Ibiza?
My marriage ended. I was a bit burnt out in Barcelona and I don’t know if that is why, but I was looking at an advert in InfoJobs and I saw an ad for Hostal Mari. “Wanted: a chef for Mediterranean cuisine…”. I called, and Marga [Ramón] answered and the following week I was here being interviewed by Toni and Maria [Marí]. We got on very well, and we began with the S·Marí project. We connected as if we had known each other forever. It’s curious because my first surname is Bonet and the second Torres.
You could be a native of Sant Antoni.
Yes! There’s a boxer in Ibiza with the same name as me but we’re not related [he laughs].
What was it like transferring your background of Catalan cuisine to Sant Antoni? There are some points in common between the two cuisines, but as we have mentioned, in the case of rice dishes other things are quite different.
Toni and Maria did not want a restaurant with traditional Ibizan cuisine. There are several businesses like that in Sant Antoni and they are very good at what they do. I got a vote of confidence when I presented them with a menu proposal. There were dishes that we have made here in recent years. I don’t know if it is the vanguard… [he thinks a few seconds] it is the way I do things, it’s my cuisine.
What marks them out is perhaps the homemade touch of many of the dishes. Even the more elaborate creations that look like they would be hard to make at home.
Exactly. And that homemade touch that you get when you do your best (he snaps his fingers] so that it comes out right. You have to do what you love in life, and what I like to do is cook. When I cook, I don’t think about anything, I forget my problems.
The salmon or meat tartare is one of the best things to try at S·Marí. How important are cold dishes in a menu? They look easy to make, but…
Cold dishes are not just salads. The cold store is quite complicated: you have to work with good recipes and know how to handle a top-quality product, it should be fresh that day. A supermarket tomato is not the same as one grown in the Marí family’s market garden. Here we don’t peel or cut a tomato but leave it until it is ready for a service. We prepare it in the moment. Maybe we take a bit longer, but the aromas and the taste of any vegetable are lost if you cut or chop them prior to cooking or serving.
Did you ever imagine that you would be cooking vegetables grown little more than a kilometre away from the restaurant?
[he laughs] I don’t think so! And now look, all the important chefs have their vegetable gardens and greenhouses. Having your own produce is a huge advantage for any restaurant.
Do the seasons for different fruit, vegetables and salad greens determine which dishes and suggestions you will have on the menu? Are the vegetable garden and the restaurant connected?
You are totally conditioned by it, but in a good way. You have to use what’s produced in the garden or it will be wasted. Every dish has its moment.
How do you create a menu? Do you sit down one day at the end of the season and ideas come out of the blue? or do you work on it from day to day?
When I am cooking a dish, I usually think that some of those ingredients would go really well in another recipe. Do you know what I mean?
With the remains of a dish…
Yes! It’s like an automatic mechanism. I have lots of dishes in my head and they just emerge. That is why I can think up a daily set menu in two minutes. Or a dinner for a group of ten people. In the eight months of our last season, we have maybe repeated the same dish three times. no more than that! Five starters and five main courses that we serve on the menu. And there are quite a few weeks in a period of eight months, right?
In Spain when you have a set menu you are used to having a different meal every day of the week. What you do, as you have explained, is keep the same menu from Tuesday to Friday with a lot of variety. Does this way of working mean that the same dish comes out better as each day passes?
Yes, you tweak things here and there. If you have been practising all week it is hard not to get a recipe just right by Friday. Now this rest period is good for rethinking the menu. I am working on a winter menu and one for the summer because you don’t feel like eating the same thing at different times of the year.
Which local products have surprised you since you arrived in Sant Antoni?
Here, as you skip the middleman, everything has more flavour. Beginning with fish. The roja is an amazing fish and it struck me because in Barcelona, the cap-roig, which is the same family, is scarcely used, possibly for fish stock at the most. It is not eaten.
This summer you made a very free version of the borrida de rajada which is a typical Ibizan recipe but one that it is difficult to find.
I tried Maria’s and I loved it. I thought that rajada was a fish that had great potential, among other things because it makes a kind of pil pil puree when you cook it. I make it à la meunière with capers. We tried it out, we were taking bites out of it, and it just got better and better. I want to continue introducing other fish to our menu, those that you find in the Ibizan fishmongers.’
Did it help to have a cook like Maria at the restaurant to appreciate local flavours?
It really did. I had no idea when I arrived, and all the advice she gives me is important for working with produce and kilometre zero recipes. In the Restaurant we served a frita de polp with matchstick potatoes and roast pepper chutney and it worked quite well.
Is there a dish that you included on the menu and saw that the customer likes it, one that they really enjoy eating?
Well, for example, we prepare the octopus with aji or chili. The tastes and products of Latin American cuisine are fascinating.
How do you see the restaurant business in Sant Antoni? Has it developed in the five years that you have been here?
A lot. It was already really good and now it is better. During this time, for example, Es Gerret has opened, and it has a really cool and interesting vibe. It is essential for Sant Antoni to remain the gastronomic centre of the island. Here, tourism is not just a lot of partying. Many tourists come to eat and to eat well.
Do they ask you in Barcelona about what is cooking here?
The truth is they do. Above all, the typical dishes of the island. There is a considerable lack of knowledge elsewhere about our cuisine. Sobrasada is well known and ensaimadas but not a lot more. I’m talking about all those fish that we have mentioned with chef friends in Barcelona, and they are amazed.
Fishermen say the more bones a fish has…
… the better it tastes. Not all fish is going to be neat fillets without bones.
You said before that you are entirely self-taught, but did you have references to look up to? Who are they?
Look, I’m currently interested in Dabiz Muñoz. He takes quite a lot of risks. To get it right you need to be really good. Some of the things he mixes are pretty scary. Anyone else would cock it up and yet he produces marvels. I was very interested at the time in Ferran Adriá when he started the El Bulli phenomenon. And of course, the Rocas’ cuisine is incredible. But that is another level. They are the élite.
The memory of your grandmother.
That is what started me off on this path.
From memories of my own grandmother, I think that there was that generation of women who had a certain way of behaving in the kitchen. A kind of special flow we would say today.
When you were with them, time stood still. You spent three hours preparing a dish and you didn’t think of anything else. “Beat those egg whites and if you can’t do it by yourself only ask your grandfather for help” she would say to me. And I remember seeing her stirring the Crema Catalana with sticks when she had finished it. “Granny, what are you doing?” “Nothing really, it comes out better like that”. Later I understood that what she was doing was lowering the temperature. By hand. What I now do with a machine, she did by hand while watching television.
What is the biggest compliment you can give a chef?
Something simple is sufficient; once someone left us a comment on Trip Advisor which simply said: “SPECTACULAR”. In capitals. But those who like eating and who appreciate your work deserve the compliments. Look, I have that tattooed here [he indicates his right arm with a tattoo depicting a kitchen knife with a ribbon round it that bears the legend]: “A pleasure for me to cook for you”. I had it done in the first restaurant where I worked as a chef. It was in Somorrostro and some Russians told me after a service that my cooking for them had been a pleasure. This was my response [he displays his tattoo once more].
And to end: Which restaurant outside the island would you send your Sant Antoni friends to?
A few years ago, I was amazed by a family eatery run by a lady from Cordoba in Gran Via in Barcelona. I don’t know if it is still there. I worked there for two months, filling in for someone, and it made such an impression on me. Do you know the recipe for pig cheek that we do in S·Marí? It’s from there: good home cooked food.
And which restaurant in Sant Antoni would you like to sit down in with friends from Barcelona when they come to visit? Apart from S·Marí, of course.
Es Tragón, Es Ventall, Es Gerret… There are so many and what is good about them is that the different kitchens don’t overlap. I come from a city where there is a good restaurant on every corner and that competition is a bonus, it helps us.