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FOOD

How celebrity chefs destroy classic Spanish dishes

Many are the foreign chefs who have raised ire with their takes on paella, tortilla and other specialties

Er, where’s the rice?

Jamón, sangría, paella and tapas – the symbols that represent Spanish cuisine abroad, at least at the amateur level. And thanks to Spanish chef José Andrés’ efforts to educate audiences, some people also know how to identify and prepare fabada (a bean stew), arroz con leche (rice pudding) and bacalao al pil-pil (cod with olive oil, garlic and chili).

Meanwhile, the sudden ubiquity of chorizo across the globe has sent overseas chefs bonkers, coming up with things like chorizo meatballs, chicken and chorizo paté, chorizo pizza and even chorizo jam, complete with a label bearing the words “Oink. Olé.” And all of it marketed as “Spanish.”

Jamie Oliver has made Spanglish food a personal trademark and enthusiastically adds chorizo to pretty much everything

But that’s okay, because Spaniards also do horrible things to foreign dishes, such as using cream in spaghetti carbonara. It’s normal for home cooks to play fast and loose with international dishes. Sometimes you just can’t find the correct recipe, or you might tailor a dish to fit your tastes or whatever you happen to have in the fridge at that particular moment.

But a professional chef is another story – especially the media-savvy ones. You might expect individuals with specialized training, experience, fame and travel time under their belts to know that real carbonara uses no cream and that paellas are made in paella dishes.

But no.

“Spain is different and its cooking is whatever I want it to be,” they seem to think. But it’s one thing to be creative and loosely base your dishes on some foreign idea or product (they call this “fusion” nowadays), and quite another to pretend you know exactly how to make A, then come up with Z.

Here we review some of the more appalling examples of how celebrity chefs from other countries have altered Spanish cuisine. At the same time, however, we should also remember the upside of all this: that our cooking is now renowned enough to be subjected to the same kind of torment as the cuisines of Italy, Mexico and countless other suffering nations.

Paella

Gordon Ramsay, a chef with a total of 14 Michelin stars and umpteen TV cooking shows, teaches an Englishwoman how to make a paella. Without even venturing into a detailed discussion of what, exactly, constitutes a paella – an issue that raises passions in Valencia – you should be warned that what follows does not even deserve to fall into the category of “rice with stuff in it.”

In best Kitchen Nightmares style, Ramsay awes the poor lady with his perfect “I-know-what-I’m-doing” pose. Then he launches into making a “paella” with (what else?) chorizo, chicken, shrimp, squid and clams. He then jazzes it up with a generous squirt of sherry, as well as a few chili peppers – because it’s never too late to confuse Spain with Mexico.

Video: Gordon Ramsay whips up a paella.

But perhaps the worst part is the fact that he prepares this concoction in a frying pan, and it comes out so runny that he is forced to serve it with a ladle. Yum yum. But that’s all right, because the unhappy woman’s family is delighted, and blown away by the exoticism of it all.

John Torode, an Australian-born celebrity chef, restaurateur and host of the UK version of Masterchef, also claims to know a lot about paella. Cooking to the sound of Spanish guitar chords, he makes his paella in a sauté pan. Moved by the spirit of his inner Spaniard, he stir-fries onion, garlic, turmeric and paprika, then adds the rice, the broth and, instead of just leaving it be, stirs everything vigorously, lest the flavors should not gel completely together.

In all fairness, Torode should be credited for using beans in his paella, which might not have been of the bajoqueta or garrofó variety, but which will still earn him brownie points with Valencian viewers. But then he botches it by sautéeing cod to decorate the paella, which he also tops with shrimp, mussels and the classic – and utterly useless – lemon quarters.

Then, when the rice is done, he shakes it up passionately one more time, because he knows that a good paella needs to be mushy and that the rice grains should be crushed. This is what his unappetizing eyesore looked like at the end of it.

Video: John Torode’s take on the classic rice dish.

Marco Pierre White also rises to the paella challenge. Ramsay’s mentor, the enfant terrible of British cuisine and once the youngest holder of three Michelin stars, White has a video of his paella creation. But we dare not put it up here, because he states that he had the best paella of his life in northern Spain, and Valencians are going to have a stroke when they hear that. Let’s just reveal that he adds a more-than-generous helping of white wine to his rice, and enough paprika to stop a moving train.

Fideuá

David Chang, lord and master of the Momofuku restaurants, made a fideuá using instant noodles in season one of The Mind of a Chef (available on Netflix). “Now I will make a very famous Spanish dish: noodles,” he asserts before frying a cartload of chorizo with clams and mussels, then adding broken-up noodles and chicken broth. To top it all off, he sprinkles paprika generously, adds a couple of spoonfuls of alioli (an oil and garlic sauce), and voilá.

The fact is, it’s a good idea to use instant ramen noodles in this way – but to call it a fideuá goes beyond the limits of decency.

The poor guy did look a little alarmed even as he perpetrated the dish, so we can forgive him. That, and the fact that his show is worth it if only to hear him sing in the company of celebrity Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak in San Sebastián.

Spanish omelet

The tortilla de patatas, or Spanish omelet, is so simple – just oil, potatoes, whole eggs and, depending on preference, onion – that it has been subjected to all kinds of cruel treatment at the hands of cooks who believe that it needs something more. Either they add chorizo, vegetables and herbs without blushing, or they cook it in the microwave or oven rather than a frying pan, as well as committing a thousand other evil things besides.

Unquestionably, the most psychedelic version of tortilla was made by the very famous (in his country) Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor. Using a minimal amount of oil, he stir-fries onion, chilies and green pepper with a few boiled potatoes.

Video: Taking on the Spanish omelet.

The saddest part of all is that he uses five egg whites and one single yolk for the tortilla. Not content with this, he then sticks it in the oven for no fewer than 20 minutes at 180ºC. Ouch.

Jamie Oliver has made Spanglish food something of a personal trademark. He enthusiastically adds chorizo to pretty much everything, and his odd “Made in Spain” combinations make for a good laugh for any Spaniard watching his program. Oliver cooks this way because he is a free spirit and because that’s the way he feels like cooking – not because he lacks experience in Spain.

Yes, Jamie, it looks like a tortilla, but a Mexican, not a Spanish one.

Olé, paella, pata negra, Serrano ham! It’s all so psychotropic that it is a pleasure to hear him speak Spanish. His highly personal tortilla de patatas is another one of Oliver’s specialties, like this “open Spanish tortilla” with potatoes, “chouriso,” onion, parsley and tomato.

Gazpacho

Jamie has also traveled through Andalusia where he had the nerve to make his own version of gazpacho. His ingredients were correct: tomato, cucumber, pepper, vinegar, olive oil and bread. But the end result was visibly questionable. His gazpacho had a sad hue as a result of the small amount of tomatoes he used, and bloodthirsty Spaniards tore him to pieces for it on YouTube.

Video: Jamie Oliver has a go at gazpacho.

Fortunately, Oliver’s FoodTube now has someone named Omar Allibhoy, a Spanish cook who knows both how to make a decent “tortilla de patatas” and how to explain it in English. At this rate, between him, Mario Batali, Claudia Roden and a few other evangelists, we’re soon not going to have any cause for complaint.

Good thing we also have some truly deplorable paellas in Spain to moan about.

English version by Susana Urra.