An Evening with Spain’s Top Chef, María José San Román

An Evening with Spain’s Top Chef, María José San Román

It is two hours before I’m to meet Chef María José San Román at her Michelin-starred restaurant, Monastrell, when she calls. “Would you meet in the foyer now for a quick restaurant tour before our dinner later?” she asks apologetically, explaining that the Spain versus Portugal soccer game will begin shortly and she must meet up with her daughter at a party.

Downstairs, in the lobby of the Hospes Amerigo, wafts of splendid kitchen aromas override the mayhem ensuing outside on Calle de Rafael Altamira– a mix of car exhaust, honking and soccer fans running to catch the kick-off.

My attention turns away from the street and onto the entrance’s wall, where chef superstars’ images hang– close friend Chef José Andrés and French actor and restaurateur Gerard Depardieu are just a few of the notables. Hanging with these famous luminaries is nothing new for this world-class Spanish chef, whose entre into the restaurant business started with investments in several of Spain’s famed eateries. Graduating from investor to owner, San Román now runs six of her own acclaimed restaurants in Alicante.

While leaving for her party, she hands me an address to her latest venture, La Taberna Del Gourmet– an upscale delicatessen-meets-wine-bar just around the corner. Grabbing a seat at the boisterous gastro bar — better known to global foodies as the best tapas bar in Spain — I sample small plates of baked goat cheese with herbs and honey paired with white sangria, and Santa Pola Bay squid grilled to perfection.

After the game enthusiastic crowds pour into the streets while I make my way back into Monastrell. San Román, now attired in chef jacket and toque, is settled into where she’s most comfortable, the kitchen. In between succulent pumpkin lasagna with sage, paired with Trico wine and a phenomenal brioche sandwich of squid with caramelized onion emulsion, we both get a reprieve — me, from gorging on impeccable gourmand, and San Román, with a break from her magnificent cookery.

When I ask her about being a woman restaurateur amid Spain’s male dominated restaurant world, she replies, “It’s an advantage and it is changing,” while opening a book about Spanish chefs from the Alicante region. Pointing out her own chapter, plus five other chapters on female chefs, she notes, “Not bad, six females among thirteen chefs in total.”

She chooses to cook what she feels, and for tonight’s meal puts her spin on traditional Valencian classics. “Never follow the rules,” she smiles, “and when I create something, I have to make sure it’s executed, because trees don’t always let you see the forest.” San Román trusts her team implicitly and luckily for me, this allows her to spend time at my table sharing restaurant tales, family photos and her new luxury toy, the iPad.

Quickly whipping back and forth between foodie images, and talking with San Romána about her trips to Jordan and the White House where she took to the podium to support Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign, I sit quietly listening and savoring my last course–arroz con leche y manzana caramelizada.

Turning back to her iPad, San Román asks if I’d like to see something “incredible,” and pulls up a piano keyboard app. While cooking up a tune as her fingers pluck at the screen, I can’t help but ask her one last question. “Is this how you have fun as the kitchen boils down at the end of an evening?”

Still tapping the digital keyboard, she looks up smiling. “I don’t ever feel like I’m ‘working,’ the best fun in life is now, and it’s amazing!”

Original Story posted on Exclusive Resorts.

Photo: Diana Edelman