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Talking with Tapas Aficionado: Chef Carles Abellan

As the tapas revolution has taken roots in restaurants across the world, there are many, many chefs who claim to be tapas aficionados. Only one chef however, has immersed himself in the culinary history of tapas in his Spanish city, in order to recreate the exact dishes residents ate in past centuries. This chef is Carles Abellan.

A native of Barcelona, Abellan has six different restaurants, each with its own unique concept of cooking, and all of which contain tapas bars. The Catalan chef is passionate about this style of eating and his most upscale tapas restaurant, Comerc 24, located in the hip Barcelona neighborhood of the Born, has received a Michelin star.

It’s at his restaurant, Bravo, however, where the cuisine of Barcelona is served. The menu at this restaurant in the sail-shaped W Hotel by the beach is updated each season and, at the moment, it includes recipes from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Like Fideos a la Cazuela, or noodles casseroled, from a 15th-century recipe and Canelones ‘Casa Fonda” a la barcelonesa, that includes cannelloni that were popular during the 17th and 18th centuries and served at restaurants called fondas.

To tapar in Spanish means to cover and these small plates originated when sherry drinkers used slices of bread or meat to cover their glasses to prevent flies from entering their drinks. To tapear is a Spanish verb that means to go from bar to bar eating small dishes and drinking instead of having an entire meal. (This practice is rooted in southern Spain.)

In the recent past, however, the idea of tapas and eating small plates has been revolutionized and Abellan is one chef at the forefront of the group experimenting in this area. 

That wasn't always the case however. Unlike some other chefs, in his childhood Abellan was not fascinated by restaurants and during his teenage years he says he preferred girls to cooking. When he decided to study tourism and hospitality, his family was not thrilled because it meant that he needed to work in order to pay for his studies. He started out at well-known Barcelona fish restaurant, El Pescadors, then moving on Odissea, and finally ending up at the Hotel Melia, making breakfast, during his third year of school.

The Melia is where Abellan met Christian Escriba, who would later become a star pastry chef, as well as other up and coming chefs. Together, they constituted “the group of young chefs,” as the media dubbed them, and through this group Abellan also met Ferran Adria. That same year, during Holy Week, Abellan went to work at El Bulli for a short internship and a new universe opened up for him. This new universe was one he wanted to discover further and in which he wanted to immerse himself and, at that moment, a fifteen-year working relationship with Ferran Adria began, which included seven years in the kitchen at El Bulli.

In the end, it's the hard work that draws Abellan back into the kitchen. He acknowledges that the “millions of hours” that must be invested by those wishing to reach the highest levels of the culinary profession is the aspect of his work that he likes the least. On the other hand, he states that the creative aspect of the profession is what he enjoys the most. 

In 2014, Abellan will be basking in both those joys, opening three new restaurants: the Taberna Suculent, a yet-unnamed bar in the popular Boqueria market, and a replica of Tapas 24, one of his Barcelona restaurants, in Montreal. Prepare to be dazzled and delighted if you are lucky enough to find yourself in Barcelona – and soon Montreal – to sample his creations!

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