At Chef's Table with Chef Francisco Sanabria - Catalan, Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi

In October 2014 I tried Chef Francisco’s tasting menu. It was my first encounter with his dishes after his appointment at Catalan, Rosewood Hotel Abu Dhabi,  a month earlier. I recall that it was a night of outstanding dishes, but there were two in particular that made an impression that would stay beyond the taste of those dishes. The Oven roasted seabass and the Marinated red deer grabbed my attention because of the subtle use of Japanese flavours. The seabass had a bit of ginger while the red deer shared its plate with daikon ravioli. I felt drawn to Chef because he had taken the bold step to introduce these variations into cuisine that was already challenging diners in Abu Dhabi to step outside their comfort zones and embark on a true culinary awakening in the context of Abu Dhabi. Let’s face it, apart from a handful of restaurants, there is not much that is cutting edge.   

So, when I met him At Chef’s Table a couple weeks ago, I had that context with which to explore him and his dishes. As diners we get so accustomed to seeing chefs in their whites that we forget that they also dress like us mortals, a point driven home when we sit down and he is in denims and a polo shirt.

An amuse bouché, a cold spinach soup with cod is served. Smooth and silky, that spinach soup is beautiful, and as for the cod, befitting of that soup. The cod breaks effortlessly, imbued with a moistness all its own.  Chef starts talking about his dabbling with  law – not what you think!

As a young man, Chef Fran (as he is affectionately known by his colleagues) started studying law. There is a very strong academic and law tradition on his mother’s side of the family. However, one day he came home and told his father and siblings he no longer wished to study law. The allure of the kitchen was to intoxicating for him. His father, easy-going by nature, was fine with the decision, but there was collective sense of trepidation as to what his mother would say. Big surprise though when his mother simply said that if he wanted to do this, he needed to start as soon as possible. A week later he had enrolled at the Santiago De Compostela Centro Superior de Hosteleria de Galicia. And as the cliché goes, the rest is history. His recollections are cut short as a dish is served.

We have tasting portions of Scallops salpicón, and an explosion of colour occurs on the plate. Amidst the tomato, pepper and citrus, the scallops still stand out. It is here again where Chef’s Japanese influence comes to bear on his dishes. It is not just about Japanese spices, it is the subtlety of flavours on the plate. It is now when Chef reveals the source of the Japanese influence I experienced on that visit in October.

It starts after graduation where he took up  a position as an apprentice at a 3 star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian. However, it was when he started working under renowned chef, Carme Ruscalleda, that his approach to cooking would be altered - forever. At San Pau he would learn hone his skills, and when she opened a restaurant in Tokyo, it was Chef Fran who would serve as its consultant, travelling to Tokyo twice a month. More……

Chef reveals something of a core quality that I perceived that October night – he believes that a chef has to take risks. It is about expanding the diner’s culinary perceptions and taste. The Steamed “Percebes” is a metaphor for that philosophy. The idea of barnacles in what many people perceive to be a fine dining restaurant is definitely going to push the boundaries, and I like it. Fine dining should be fun, and what is more fun than using your hands, I think to myself. Served with dashi, a typical Japanese broth,  on the side, I like the pairing…I love the metaphor.

So, when I ask Chef what the hardest part of being a chef is, he answers, it seems as a son, brother and friend. He says there are many sacrifices one has to make, and it is felt keenly when for example, there is a celebration and he cannot be part of it because his schedule is so hectic. It is a long day for a Chef de Cuisine that starts at 10.30 in the morning. But he is philosophical about it.

On the night we are celebrating this season’s specially created, Along the Spanish coastline. Next up we have the  Pan seared prawns. This is a dish that reflects Chef’s respect for combining tastes on the plate, especially contrasts; the Carabinero prawn dish pits soft and crunchy up against each other and also sweet and sour. Pineapple is a simple fruit, but one that is blessed with those contrasts. Chef also enjoys fruit on the plate. It is one his signatures.

Chef Fran is very excited about our next dish, Atlantic Imperial crab “Txangurro”. It is a dish that requires a lot of care and is time consuming. The result, though, makes it all worth it I am sure as he watches me oooh and ahhh. It is a very traditional Basque style dish that he interprets faithfully. Crab meat, mixed with tomato and bread crumbs is served in the shell. This dish again shows chef challenging traditional notions of fine dining. A winner on all fronts. It is during this course that we delve into his visits to Japan and he recounts trips to the legendary Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo where he would wake up at 4am to be there by 5am, get the freshest produce and then indulge in a sushi breakfast. He mentions his appreciation for the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto and his enjoyment of the famed Japanese tea ceremony. I listen with tremendous interest, as he talks about his cultural experiences in weird and wonderful Japan.

As the night winds down, I learn something really quirky and wonderful about him. He is passionate about reading and is able to embed himself between the pages of a book, but only if that book exceeds a 1000 pages, and unless he has another book lined up, he will not read it. Which book, then, has had the biggest impact on him? El Corazón de Piedra Verde by Salvador Madariaga, one of the fine exponents of Spanish historical fiction. Finally, what about movies? He likes any film starring Glen Close or Meryl Streep and mentions “Out of Africa” as one of his favourites.  I nod in approval.

There is gentleness in Chef Fran, a peacefulness, a contentment. I get the sense that there are not many things that faze him. Maybe there is a lot of his father’s laidback attitude towards life that runs through his veins. Maybe it is mother’s support during those life changing decisions he had to me that makes him the quietly self assured man he is. Maybe his ability to navigate a very challenging but amazing culture that is Japan that now manifests itself in some of his dishes. Whichever way you look at it, he has become a metaphor in Rosewood Hotel’s F&B outlets for delicate balance; he is able to treat his beloved Catalonia with the respect it deserves while at the same time guiding guests beyond the perimeters of that which is safe and comfortable, but all of this done in the most unassuming and quiet manner you could imagine.

It is his mentor Carme Ruscalleda who appropriately says "Society is seduced by beauty but food must have a soul, too." And Chef Francisco finds himself in a restaurant, as he was in San Pau, that allows him to reveal the extent to which food has soul. Catalan, the site of his artistry is not only about aesthetics, it is about that very soul with which he imbues his dishes. It takes  a chef with a special depth to take something so abstract and put it onto a plate and to give it soul; Soul, from the chef’s hands, to the plate.

Chef Francisco -
Chef de Cuisine,
Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi
971 2 813 5550