Culture Trip talks to the world’s most talented chefs about the cities that inspire them and the sights, smells and sensations that drive their approach to food. Oriol Castro, one of the three head chefs behind the two-Michelin-star Disfrutar, carries on the spirit of elBulli – perhaps the world’s most legendary restaurant – in the vibrant Catalan capital, Barcelona.
The clue’s in the name. Disfrutar, named for the Spanish verb ‘to enjoy’, is a riotous dinner, hinged entirely on twisting everything on its head. They subvert every last one of your expectations over what can eventually exceed 30 courses – four-hour culinary odysseys where absolutely nothing can be taken as a given. You can take a bite of what you may think is a mini-baguette, and find you’re eating a meringue made from lobsters; or be presented with a pair of formidable chilli peppers, only for their skin to yield to a rich chocolate ganache. Disfrutar is one of the few restaurants where eating with your eyes is a fairly futile exercise.
Every bite at Disfrutar is the result of rigorous testing, of pushing ingredients to their limits, and hours and hours of careful thought about what we think we know about food. To deconstruct, say, pasta carbonara, or a tomato and basil soup, first you have to understand it as the Disfrutar team do: what are the flavours and textures we associate with this dish, how do the ingredients respond to one temperature or one kind of preparation, and so on. Once this has been unpacked, the Disfrutar team sets about reforming the dishes as clouds of foam, vials of liquid and transparent sheets dusted with intensely flavoured powders.
Led by three chefs from the peerless elBulli – a restaurant so venerated that it once received two million table requests a year – Disfrutar is one of the very best places to sample the innovative, avant-garde food that made Catalonia into a culinary destination. Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas all worked alongside one another in elBulli’s senior creative team, working hand-in-glove with the legendary Albert and Ferran Adrià, the brothers who brought elBulli its success, to keep the restaurant ahead of the pack with their show-stopping postmodern cuisine. Now, as they have struck out on their own in Barcelona, they have been able to hone their own idiosyncratic style, rooted in the lessons they learned under the Adriàs, but readjusted to the thriving tapas culture of Barcelona. Culture Trip spoke to Castro about Disfrutar, its style and how Barcelona shapes everything the chefs put on a plate.
Who are you, and how do you cook?
I’m Oriol Castro, and I run Disfrutar in Barcelona with my two partners, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas. We are all open-minded people; we’re always inquisitive, and on the lookout to learn new flavours and new techniques. And we love to cook creatively – we use different concepts, different products; things you’ve never seen before. Our aim is to amaze and thrill our guests.
What is your city to you?
Barcelona, to me, is the Rambla. If you go there for a leisurely, unhurried stroll, you can really appreciate the diversity of the city and its inhabitants. But it’s also the bustling markets, and the vibrant Gothic Quarter, full of culture and life in its narrow streets. These are must-visits if you want to capture a feel for what Barcelona is and what it means to us.
What is the flavour of your city?
When I think about what the flavour of the city is, I don’t think of one particular taste. Instead, the first idea I have is the very concept of ‘tapas’ – it defines perfectly how we understand our way of eating, how our eating is social and convivial and diverse. It’s a philosophy. But if you pushed me, I’d say one thing – I can’t help but miss the flavour of Iberian ham whenever I’m away from Barcelona.
What is the character of your city?
The people of Barcelona know how lucky we are: we are so, so proud of our traditions and our customs, and what makes us Catalan. We celebrate our heritage, our history and our identity; we’re an amazing city in that way. But we are not carefree; we are passionate about fighting for what we believe in. Right now, our concern is pollution, and the damage it’s doing to the environment. We understand the stakes, as everyone should.
What is your city on a plate?
It would be our Disfrutar olives! They represent what we mean by the philosophy of ‘tapas’, and the character of Barcelona. We are Mediterranean at the end of the day, and this dish is all about pure, unrestrained Mediterranean flavour. At first sight, our olives seem normal, but at Disfrutar, nothing is as it seems. We won’t spoil the surprise – you should come to the restaurant to discover what this true taste of Barcelona is.