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'I'm trying to capture how people would cook if no-one was watching'

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'I'm trying to capture how people would cook if no-one was watching'
Photo: Joel Serra.
11:59 CET+01:00
For this week's My Spanish Career, The Local chats to Joel Serra, a former Masterchef contestant whose crowdfunded cookbook is set to shake up Spanish cuisine.
What brought you to Barcelona?

Barcelona was originally a temporary escape from my 8-8 consulting job at KPMG in Melbourne to study a Masters in Refugee Law at Universidad Pompeu Fabra (I had ambitions to work for the UN). But after graduating, and with most of my worldly possessions still in Australia, I decided to give-in to the gastronomic temptations of the city and follow my true passion: food, and its power to unite and connect.

I founded Papa Serra, a food experience and lifestyle brand hosting market tours, cooking classes, private dinners and other gastronomic events. During this adventure, EatWith Founder Guy Michlin got in touch and asked me to join him in bringing EatWith (an online platform of alternative dining experiences) to the world. I joined the startup and am now Director of Global Community overseeing chefs in over 100 cities around the world.

Whilst this has been my professional focus for the last three years, personally I continued to grow the brand Papa Serra (the name of my Catalan great grandfather) and have been writing and producing a cookbook with a photographer friend.

What is Papalosophy and why did you choose that name?

Papalosophy is a cookbook I have been working on for the last two years that is for anyone that loves food and photography in equally radical measures. It is a 200 page feast that combines modern and creative recipes with some amazing photos that represent Barcelona and Spanish food in all its delicious glory. It also tells the story of how I ended up in Spain and how the experiences over my life influenced my food and cooking philosophy. With my photographic partner in the project, we attempted to bend the definition of a cookbook and created something that would be as appreciated both in and out of the kitchen.

The name was my attempt at mashing together my real belief that through our daily actions each of us creates their own philosophy, together with my alter-ego, Papa Serra.

How would you describe your cooking style?

I don't have any formal training outside of brief stints in restaurants, and Masterchef doesn't count right? So I cook instinctually, reinventing the techniques the pros use (without the training or equipment) and relying on my taste and experience. But I've been making it up for the last 10 years, and hosting multi-course dinner parties for groups as big as 25 on my rooftop supper club so it is beginning to feel like this style may indeed be valid.

Deep down, I'm trying to capture how people would cook if no-one was watching – we'd have fun and make it up until it tastes good. My style is definitely Mediterranean but with plenty of world influences and healthy – as much as I'd like to be the Anthony Bourdain bad boy chef I never will be, and can't even claim one tattoo. I live clean and cook clean.

How has your Catalan background and growing up in Tasmania influenced your cooking?

My grandparents were Swiss/Spanish on one side and New Zealand/Irish on the other side. So my upbringing was diverse and multicultural. And while my mother didn't have an affinity to the kitchen, she did make sure the Mediterranean flavours of olive oil, tomatoes, almonds, and fresh produce formed the basis of my childhood.

Actually, Tasmania influenced my cooking and outlook on life more than I would have imagined when I left. I grew up on a farm in Richmond with parents that made sure what we ate was as close to the natural state as possible - we grew our own fruit and vegetables, had daily eggs from hens and even milk from goats. 

Tasmania has a raw/wild quality that is completely unique and I've tried to keep that feeling when I cook in Barcelona. I spend weekends foraging for wild mushrooms, herbs and berries, embarking on fishing trips to catch local seafood and even learning how to skin rabbits. And when I cook, it is food that, like Tasmania, is more savage than it is refined.

Tell us a bit about making the cookbook? How did the cooking and shooting process go?

I started writing the recipes when I was living in London (it was my form of escape) and upon moving back to Barcelona, crossed paths with photographer Aldo Chacon, we immediately found a common creative groove and spent several months plotting a book that would showcase our creativity and uncontrollable passion for food in all its delicious glory.

With the recipes written and tested, we began the mammoth task of cooking and shooting almost 80 recipes in my apartment(s) (I moved three times in the space of 18 months because I just love the relaxing experience of moving houses). As we were both holding down demanding full-time jobs, we spent weekends and late nights together in the kitchen cooking, styling and shooting every dish over and over again.

Pictures of pretty plates are everywhere and we wanted to offer something new to the food publishing space. We are incredibly proud of the finished product and think Papalosophy will be an amazing resource for the foodie as well as anyone that loves to be inspired by high-end photography.

Why raise money through Kickstarter rather than the usual publishing approach?

We initially aimed to find a publisher but being my first entrance into the cookbook market and without a celebrity profile, it proved impossible. We decided to self-publish Papalosophy on Kickstarter (a crowd-funding website) as it meant we would have complete control over design, branding and content - and also allowed us to fast-track the process. We are aiming to raise enough money to break even on the first print run. I also really respect the Kickstarter mentality that requires you to inspire people with your story rather than simply sell your product. By ‘backing' Papalosophy for €25 you will receive a signed copy of the book by February 2016 (postage included in the price). Once available on Amazon later in 2016, the price of the book will be €40+ so now is the time to get a copy!

Can you give us an example of one or two of your own special creations that will appear in the cookbook?

I was inspired to write Papalosophy by a lifetime spent seeking authentic flavors and creative preparations, with influences from my Catalan family, world travels and an obsessive study of the world of gastronomy and nutrition. The book includes Spanish and Catalan classics like Fideua with Squid Ink Allioli, Pulpo Gallego and Leche Merengada, as well as creations like Membrillo-Roasted Pumpkin with Almond Cream, Green Gazpacho with Sumac Yogurt, and Saffron-Pulled Chicken with Blackened Corn. I aimed to capture my interpretation of Spanish cuisine in 80 easy-to-follow recipes that don't require any special techniques or equipment, just plenty of enthusiasm and love.

What are the main differences between living and working in Melbourne and Barcelona?

I get asked this question a lot and still find it hard to put into words. Life in Melbourne is amazing (it's consistently in the top 5 cities on quality of life indices) with high salaries, access to housing, nature, art and culture, sport and an amazing food culture. But it is lacking something undefinable. I think the history, culture, and geography of Barcelona gives it a soul that many ‘new' cities are lacking. I appreciate the history of the place, the fact traditions are real, the passions people live their lives by, the Mediterranean appreciation for what is important in life, a climate that forces you to get dressed and leave the house, being able to access most of Europe for a cheap, albeit unpleasant, flight, and I won't even start on the food. Barcelona inspires me every day simply by walking though it, cycling through it's surrounding mountains, or swimming in its, these days clean and empty, sea, at this stage I can't imagine myself ever leaving.

How easy is it to start your own business/embark on this kind of creative endeavor in Spain?

I started Papa Serra as a 'lean startup'. I taught myself to build a basic website, marketing, branding then on Loquo, found someone willing to rent their beautiful apartment to me for half a day for me to use as my cooking space where I would host tastings, cooking classes and private dinners.  That was the ‘lean' beginning and since then I have made things a bit more formal (which I wouldn't say was easy!) I think anyone with an idea should treat it like a startup and test it in the real world (even if you have to be a bit of a pirate about it).

You can check out Papa Serra here and the Papalosophy Kickstarter page here

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