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'I want to be known as a gonzo chef'

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'I want to be known as a gonzo chef'
Joel Serra moved to Spain after stints with the Australian Government and consulting with KPMG. Photo: Aldo Chacon
11:15 CET+01:00
Chef, entrepreneur, Pilates instructor: meet Barcelona-based New Zealander Joel Serra — a man with many pots on the stove.

He is young, creative and adventurous. Joel Serra, also known as Papa Serra Jr, is one of those people that think a comfortable life isn't always enough.

Inspired by his Catalan roots, one day he decided to leave his desk and move to a creative kitchen in sunny Barcelona. Since then he hasn't stopped inspiring the public through travel, food and cultural experiences. That’ s probably why we can feel free to call Joel a gonzo chef. After interviewing him I can only wait for one thing:  to try one of his amazing and full sensory dishes.

Tell us a bit about your previous background. How does someone who used to wear a suit every day end up cooking in Barcelona?

I graduated in economics and journalism then spent my 20s working in economic policy for the Australian government first and then strategy consulting at KPMG. But a comfortable life wasn't enough; I needed to feel like I was making a real and positive impact. So I decided to take a year out and do a Masters in Refugee Policy in Barcelona (I had dreams of working for the United Nations).

After graduating I spent a year working in London at a think tank before realizing I needed to be back in sunny Spain satisfying my innate creativity, always expressed in the kitchen (from when I baked cakes as a ten-year-old through to my days on Australian Masterchef and then running my own supper club in Melbourne). So I bought myself a big knife, started a website and opened a cooking school and food experience company. It was an instant hit among travelers looking for a fun and exciting way to get to know Barcelona’s delicious underbelly.

Through Papa Serra, my Catalan great-grandfather, Guy Michlin (founder of EatWith) got in touch and shared his vision, one which I shared and have spent the last two years turning into reality.

There are so many layers of Joel: chef, entrepreneur, writer, Pilates instructor, which one comes first?

Just as Hunter S. Thompson was known as a gonzo journalist, I would love to be known as a gonzo chef. Let me explain: I’ll never be a real chef: I refuse to wear whites or an apron when I cook, I want to have a social life, I don’t do enough hard drugs and I haven’t even got a tattoo. But I will be a chef in my own definition of the word (where the entrepreneurial side comes in) creating dinner parties, custom food events and writing about life from the kitchen.

A gonzo chef is someone that irreverently carries out a profession without paying heed to what is generally expected of the role, hence my desire to be creative in and out of the kitchen. And the Pilates, that’s to try and turn the tables on the saying: "Never trust a skinny chef". 

Tell us about Papa Serra and "Papalosophy”.

Papalosophy is a cookbook I have been working on for the last 12 months with a photographer friend. It is half original Spanish recipes inspired by my Catalan roots and half a fine art pictorial journey through Barcelona. We are looking for a publisher and aim to be on Amazon and in sympathetic bookshops by early 2015.

Papa Serra was never a chef, but I have a powerful memory of him doing some basic things in the kitchen, like making Spanish 'allioli'. It - like him - was simple, powerful and somehow became my inspiration. I try to carry those qualities through life in and out of the kitchen.

I took my food obsession and together with my entrepreneurial qualities created Papa Serra creating gastronomic experiences for food lovers from all around the world. I also kept up a blog and knew some piece of literature was in me — and so I started creating Papalosophy.

Papalosophy is a cookbook that combines original recipes with personal stories and rock photography shot by Aldo Chacon, one of my best friends and the other half of the Papalosophy team.

It is both 'lick-the-page' recipes as well as blow-your-mind fine art photos. It also tells the story of how a wild blonde New Zealand kid found himself in the centre of one of the world’s gastronomic hubs armed with an equally sharp knife and wit.

We are hoping to publish early next year and you can follow the progress on any social media [FacebookInstagram and Twitter]. Or come along to one of my weekly dinners if you are in Barcelona!

You are also the Global Community manager for EatWith.com, currently available in over 20 countries. What is this project about?

It was through Papa Serra that I crossed paths with EatWith co-founder Guy Michlin. He tried to book a spot in my class but I famously turned him down because I was full up. He persisted and when we finally connected over Skype it was clear we shared the same vision about changing the global dining landscape. I joined the team before we were online and set up EatWith Barcelona — currently the number one market around the world. I now head up Global Community and working hard to spread EatWith around the world while the plates are hot.

EatWith is an online platform that lets people book dinners in private chefs' homes around the world and we are quickly changing the world of food, for chefs and diners. We are a small (but amazing) team that has worked hard to grow the community to some 500 home chefs in over 100 cities. It’s humbling to think that every night around the world, people are enjoying some amazing food experiences and making new connections – the feedback we get from chefs and guests in incredible. We have a long way to go but we are on the right track to change the world and ensure people eat better and eat together more often.

What’s your favourite restaurant in Spain?

It has to be a really tiny tapas bar I took my father to in Granada called Los Diamantes. He was visiting from Tasmania (Australia) and literally flipped out at the energy, the flavours and the experience of drinking cold beers on the street as the kitchen pumped out thousands of amazing tapas. In Barcelona I had one really amazing experience at Nikkei, my favourite home restaurant in Gràcia where he prepares Japanese menus with an atmosphere that makes you feel like you could be sipping sake in a cool bar in Tokyo.

Who are your “food heroes”?

For me, the spark that set me on the road to living a life where food was front and centre was Anthony Bourdain, the chef who penned Kitchen Confidential in 2007 and revealed the dirty secrets that every restaurant should be proud of – sex, drugs and rock and roll.

What really turned him into a star though was No Reservations, the show that married food and travel by following the chain-smoking gourmand around the world. He’ll always be the man that proved not every chef has to wear whites and keep his station clean.

Other heroes include Michelle Roux Jr (who taught me to keep it simple and that chefs can run marathons), Marco Pierre White (the dark, cool and untouchable Godfather of chefs), and Ratatouille (the animated rat who told us that "Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great".)

What is that traditional Spanish dish that you never get tired of? And the most creative dish you have ever designed?

Given it is winter at the moment; I can’t get enough of 'suquet de peix', a hearty Catalan fish stew that sticks to your bones and is rich with smoked pimento, a flavour that for me truly represents Spain.

At a big food event in Tel Aviv in 2013, I cooked with three other chefs for a crowd of 200 and prepared what would become my signature dish. It involves ajo blanco (white almond gazpacho) studded with green grapes and the bite of Middle Eastern sumac. This sits next to a Romesco cream scattered with toasted almonds and pomegranate. And then there is juicy Catalan spinach, rich with pine nuts and sweet with onions and raisins topped finally with sea bass crusted in saffron salt.

Joel’ s signature dish/ Photo: Courtesy of Joel Serra

You have lived in different countries and different continents. How would you describe the food scene in Spain?

When I’m growing, foraging, cooking or eating food in Spain, I get so incredibly excited. There is a deep simplicity in Spanish food punctuated by the crazy madness of Gaudi and Dali, and the modernism of people like Ferran Adria and the Roca brothers.

In a few words, Spanish food is the world’s most complete cuisine. The possibilities are endless and I will never tire of eating my way around this amazing country.

What are your plans for 2015?

A friend sent me a photo the other day that said 2014 was a warm-up and 2015 is game time, and this definitely holds true for my 2015. I’m going to be publishing Papalosophy, making EatWith even more global and more delicious and start teaching Pilates again. Aside from that, I want to return to the world of triathlons, start to learn Catalan and travel more. There is a German word that describes exactly how I feel about 2015, 'Vorfreude': joyful anticipation of things to come.

Marta López is a Spanish journalist based in London. 

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