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An institution in the region of Murcia, Spain, Restaurante Los Churrascos has created some of the finest dishes in the area for almost 40 years. With a host of accolades including a past Michelin star, chef-proprietor José María, tells us why he loves the kitchen and shares his best business advice and favorite recipes.
How did you come to love food and cooking?
I was the youngest of six brothers and one sister and would always help my mom in the kitchen. While my mother and father were at work, I would assist with the shopping and cook for my siblings.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I would gather at weekends and spend time in the countryside; I was always the person chosen to cook for us all. So I’ve been cooking for many years, since I was a child.
When did you become a chef and how did Los Churrascos come about?
When I was 20 years old, I went into military service for 18 months. When I was released, I got my first kitchen job in a hotel in Águilas, in the south west of Murcia, where I was hired as a helper.
I was always interested in cooking and wanted to learn more about it. I was actually getting ready to go to Mallorca to do so, but then I met my girlfriend. Because of this, I ended up staying local and working in a number of restaurants around the Mar Menor and La Manga area as a butcher for around seven years. As I enjoyed cooking so much, I would make deals with the chefs where I would help them prepare their meat in exchange for them teaching me how to cook the signature dishes of their restaurant.
I did quite a bit of traveling to learn more about food and cooking, including visits to the Basque region and Germany, as well as other places across Europe. I knew I wanted my own restaurant and in 1977, some friends and I got together and opened Los Churrascos. It used to be an animal stable; we’ve done around 40 refurbishments in that time. It’s very much a family-run enterprise. I have six children and they all work in the business, as well as my wife and one of my grandchildren.
What are your thoughts on the local produce?
Why look elsewhere when what we grow in the region is so great? We have to use it and support it.
What is your favorite ingredient?
It has to be cod. We had a period of recipe testing once and came up with 24 different cod dishes within ten days. We even put it in a flan with raspberry coulis.
Carlos Herrera is a famous radio personality who ate here in August. He had the bacalao fresco con tomate (fresh cod with tomato) and loved it so much that he shared it on his social media channels. Within a few minutes, around 70,000 people had interacted with it.
About 25 years ago, no one got that excited about cod. It wasn’t that well known and it was something the poor would eat. People didn’t know how to cook it well; they would only salt it and cook it with tomato, beans or potato. Before, recipes were very basic.
But things have changed and now people cook cod with so many things—vegetables, other types of seafood, honey—there are over 120 different types of cod dishes. Now, along with the likes of paella and tortilla, cod is very popular and a universal dish.
What’s the secret to running a successful restaurant for almost 40 years?
It takes a lot of time and hard work, and you always need to use high quality produce. The most important thing to me is that my customers feel more comfortable here than even at home. They can talk, they’ll hug you; husbands don’t argue with their wives here.
There isn’t one single dish that made the restaurant famous. We achieved our fame using high quality ingredients and by providing great service in everything we do. It’s also down to the variety of food we provide our customers, from exclusive and expensive products, to regional and traditional dishes.
What do you love most about cooking?
I have three loves: my wife, my family, and the kitchen. When I’m in the kitchen, I don’t think about anything else. It’s my hobby and my distraction. If it’s been a bad day, I’ll go into the kitchen and I’m in my own world.
What business advice would you give to a budding restaurateur?
They have to be prepared to put the time in, and they need to love their job. I myself never had a teacher, but I do teach students now. Many who have come to work here have gone on to own their own restaurants.
How you treat the people is also very important. Los Churrascos is very personal; I will come out and ask how the customers are, recommend food to them, ask how the food was. We provide a very personal service, and that is important too.
Chef José María was kind enough to share a special Los Churrascos recipe with us for our readers to prepare and enjoy at home.
Warm cod salad with seasonal Murcian artichokes
Ingredients (makes 4 portions):
800g fresh cod
200g white onion, diced
200g leeks, diced
200g tomatoes, peeled and diced
200g courgettes, peeled and diced
400g globe artichokes, outer leaves peeled, heart diced
350g good quality olive oil
Salt to taste
Heat a saucepan and add 100g of the olive oil. Sauté all the vegetables over a low heat for 20 minutes until softened.
Meanwhile, pour the remaining olive oil into another pan and cook the cod on a very low heat for 15 minutes, allowing the oil to heat up with the cod. Season the fish with salt.
Once everything is cooked, strain the contents of both pans, reserving the oil used to cook the cod. Place the vegetables on a plate, and arrange the fish on top.
Pass the reserved cod oil through a fine sieve back into the pan it was cooked in, and stir over a low heat in order for the oil to emulsify with the cod fat. This will create al pil-pil sauce. Once the sauce has thickened, drizzle it over the dish and decorate with artichoke slices to finish.