Santi Santamaria, chef of El Racó de Can Fabes outside of Barcelona. died today in Singapore. The first chef in Catalonia to earn three Michelin stars, he was known for adapting Catalan flavors to French techniques. But his greatest fame may rest with the very public attack he launched on his fellow Catalan chef Ferran Adrià of elBulli, at a time the latter was being hailed as the best chef in the world.
Santamaria came relatively late to the profession. Born in 1957, he studied to be an industrial engineer, and never received formal training as a chef. That didn't stop him in 1981, however, from opening a simple tavern in the Catalan farmhouse where he, his father, and his grandfather had all been born. At first, Santamaria contented himself stewing white sausage with beans for 395-peseta meals. But as he gradually learned about Juan Mari Arzak's new Basque cooking and France's nouvelle cuisine, his own dishes became more sophisticated. At a time when Spanish cuisine was known for little more than gazpacho and paella, Santamaria began receiving acclaim for elevating the flavors of his beloved Catalan countryside by wedding them to the techniques of nouvelle cuisine. He earned his first Michelin star in 1988.
He would go on to open successful restaurants in Madrid, Barcelona, and Dubai, and eventually earn a total of seven Michelin stars. But Spain's culinary fortunes were pointing in a different direction. As chefs like Arzak and Adria began to experiment wildly with cuisine's possibilities, Spain became known for an avant-garde style of cooking that had few precedents. "In terms of creativity and breaking new ground, he didn't have an impact," says Pau Arenos, food writer for the Barcelona newspaper El Periodico. "He never really understood techno-emotional cuisine. He was never comfortable with it."
That discomfort first rose to the surface at the 2007 edition of Madrid Fusion, an international chefs conference. Speaking earthy truth to gastronomic power, Santamaria used his presentation to lambast his audience for "snobbery" and reminded them that "all good meals end with a good shit."
But it was in 2008 that he really provoked a scandal. Receiving a prize in May for his new book, The Kitchen Laid Bare, Santamaria took the opportunity to criticize fellow chefs for "legitimating forms of cooking that distance them from the traditional." Calling on Spain's health minister, who was seated in the audience, to protect the unknowing public against the use of the additives sometimes used in haute cuisine to achieve spectacular effects, he railed against "cooking with chemicals like methylcellulose whose consumption could be dangerous." And in case anyone missed the reference to elBulli's famous chef, he named names. "I have an enormous conceptual and ethical divorce with Ferran; he and his team are going in a direction contrary to my principles."
Within days, the national and international press alike were chortling over the "War of the Stovetops." The European chefs' organization, Eurotoques, issued a statement expressing its indignation at Santamaria's "act of aggression." Madrid chef Sergi Arola accused Santamaria of mounting a personal vendetta "out of envy." Andoni Luis Aduriz, of the two-starred Mugaritz, told the New York Times, "Santi is the Hugo Chavez of gastronomy. He loves to spark controversy with his populist talk." Adriá himself worried the injury that Santamaria's comments would do to Spanish cuisine's reputation abroad.
Spanish cuisine survived the trauma. Santamaria, however, did not for long. He went in a way befitting a great chef: while eating lunch in one of his own restaurants in Singapore. Restaurant manager Ruben Mallat said it may have been brought about by a heart attack or embolism, though the cause has yet to be determined. Aduriz lamented his passing. "Despite all the discrepancies and differences we had, today is a sad day for Spanish cuisine."