The Spanish Sensation
One on one with El Sur Dubai’s very own, Chef Juan Carlos
It was a fine Sunday night when we made our way to Westin Mina Seyahi. I’ve been hearing about El Sur for quite some time, which is why I was particularly intrigued to get to know the culinary genius behind the contemporary Spanish restaurant. We arrived earlier than the agreed time, so we watched the restaurant’s patrons slowly trickle in as we waited for the Salamanca native. Chef Juan Carlos eventually arrived and though he was noticeably shy, he was armed with positive energy and a beaming smile. The night is young and in a few hours the restaurant will be serving its Spanish frequenters, so we didn’t waste any more time.
“When I was young, I liked cooking at home, but I didn’t know that my future would be in the kitchen. But I like it [cooking], it’s my occupation, it’s my drug.” Chef Juan Carlos began.
He continues, “When I started in this industry, I was washing pots and dishes, so I told myself I needed to learn more about the kitchen. At the time, I was actually taking up a different course but I didn’t like it, so I went to a culinary school and studied for 2 years and eventually, I found myself working at good restaurants.”
I went on to ask him about his culinary beginnings to which he replies with a smile, “When I started working in the kitchen and when I started culinary school, I knew that I liked the kitchen too much. So I told myself that after this, I’d like to work in the best restaurants so that I can hone my skills and learn better. I learned how to work with different cuisines because I really liked it.” True enough after graduating; the passionate chef proceeded to work with top restaurants such as three-Michelin-starred El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca among others.
How did he find himself in Dubai, I proceeded to quiz Chef Juan, “I’ve received many offers to move to Dubai but I initially thought it would be difficult since it’s an Arabic country and it’s very different from what I was accustomed to. But then one time, one of the owners convinced me to come and introduced me to Dubai, so I flew in and saw the city and checked out the restaurants. I eventually told myself why not and decided I’ll give it a try. If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back…and now I’ve been living and working in Dubai for 3 years.”
He then tells us about El Sur, the restaurant he’s spearheading, “When we started El Sur, we only had contemporary Spanish cuisines, but people were complaining and looking for Spanish classics like potato omelette, calamari and so on. Eventually, we had to adapt and revise the menu and that’s why we now have two parts on our menu, the traditional and contemporary.”
When asked about his favourite on the menu, he immediately questions why I’m making him choose just one. After a few bargaining, he proceeds to answer “Why one and not two? One is contemporary and one is traditional. For contemporary, it would be the Eggplant with soy honey and requesón. In Spain, the eggplant is just fried and topped with honey and that’s it. However here, after we fry the eggplant, we give it a day to remove all the fat because it comes out really soft and fatty. After that, we infuse it with our soy-honey sauce. It is then baked so the eggplant is crispy on the outside and soft and tasty on the inside. Shortly after, it’s topped with burrata and served. It’s traditional yet at the same time, it’s contemporary. We try to take a dish that’s very traditional in our country and adapt it into the brand. The traditional one would be our Suckling Pig. I just love it!”
We try to take a dish that’s very traditional in our country and adapt it into the brand
We concluded our delightful conversation with a few wise words from Chef Juan. Asked about what he thinks are the qualities one needs to be successful in the industry, he smiles warmly and with grateful eyes he says, “A very important quality is humbleness. If you’re not humble, you can’t work with a team. The most important thing for me is the team, without a team you really won’t achieve anything.” He adds. “Another thing is passion. You have to have a passion for what you do. It’s very important.
What’s your favourite spot in Dubai?
Now I don’t go too much because our baby is just 5 months old – but I like to spend time at the beach and just relax and enjoy.
If you were some sort of food, what would you be?
I have three options – Iberian Ham, Olive Oil and Tomato.
What meal do you like to cook?
Our black rice here at El Sur. It’s cooked using cuttlefish ink and it has calamari and cuttlefish as well.
What’s your comfort food?
Iberian Ham and cheese. I like this type of ham and I really like cheese. I also like anchovies and we have the best ones in Spain! We had anchovies before on the menu but then we had to remove it because they don’t like it. I guess it’s something that people need to learn how to adapt to for them to be able to appreciate it.
Recommendations from the menu?
Classic Spanish potato omelette, Eggplant with soy honey and requesón and Tiradito of sea bream with coriander. For the main course, El Sur black rice with calamari and cuttlefish and our Roasted suckling pig with lemon cream, onion chutney and pok choy.