Balearic cuisine, although it’s somewhat unknown, has spectacular products that make us proud, but also representative who bet every day to make our gastronomy known. One of these great ambassadors is José Cortés García, president of ASCAIB, executive chef of the Diablito Restaurant in Mallorca and Abu Dhabi and winner and finalist in multiple culinary championships in Spain.
Today we have the pleasure to present the interview we conducted with José Cortés García:
MM: José, tell us, when did you start cooking? What motivated you to become a cook?
JC: It’s a very simple story. When I was 13 years old, my parents separated, and I stayed with my father. We didn’t know how to cook, and I had to learn a lot. My mother taught me; I immediately got a taste for it. At the age of 14, I was already cooking everything.
Then, when I was 18 years old, I started working in various restaurants. And although after many years I have attended a Hospitality School (not without many jokes about it), the truth is that, in my beginnings, I didn’t prestigious restaurants, so being self-taught helped me then. I have always challenged myself, it’s what gives me motivation.
MM: Is that one of the qualities that a good cook should have?
JC: The trade of cook is vocational. A cook must have a vocation because this job requires a lot of discipline, effort and work. You must dedicate many hours, so you must be passionate about what you do. For me, cooking is living, this is my motto.
In my case, I have been a chef for more than 25 years and I know that I am going to retire from this. Cooking is like life; it’s continuous learning. There’s so much product, so many techniques and ways to innovate that it’s an exciting world for me. You also must learn about traditional gastronomy, because without it there is no innovation.
In the kitchen you will always be learning, recycling, you will always have to perfect your recipes, otherwise, you will take steps back and you may even get bored. I understand that vocation is something that can be taken over time.
In my case, I had an impasse when I was 25, in which I wanted to quit cooking. Then I started studying and I got access to the University for those over 25 and I studied Law for one year. However, I had the opportunity to work at Diablito and that’s when I continued my career as a cook, rising to supervisor, chef de cuisine and executive chef and accepting new gastronomic challenges.
MM: In fact, your career is full of them. For example, in Diablito, you have been working for many years, and you even get to open one in Abu Dhabi, isn’t it?
JC: In fact, I have been in Diablito for 20 years and people can’t believe it. Today is kind of crazy to be working in the same place for so many years. The fact our restaurant can be considered very appealing, with its very differentiating concept, made it possible to become a franchise.
In 2000 we had great growth and that made it possible for us to have up to 15 restaurants on the mainland. Sadly, with the 2008 crisis, only those restaurants from Mallorca survived.
However, 6 years ago, my boss was asked to start up a Diablito in Abu Dhabi, in the Yas Marina area with the Formula 1 circuit, very exclusive and spectacular. After visiting the place, he was delighted and, since he is very adventurous, he told me to get ready to travel.
As I have mentioned, the challenges motivate me and, in addition, it seemed an honour that they chose us for it. Today Abu Dhabi’s Diablito is one of the best restaurants we have, and we are proud of its track record despite the crises.
MM: And continuing with the theme of challenges, you have also participated in a multitude of gastronomic competitions, isn’t it?
JC: Right! In 2015 there is a turning point in my career when I win Oleotapa’s and that encourages me to participate in more competitions. That year I was also proposed to represent the Balearic Islands at the Bocuse d’Or, the best international gastronomic contest, and despite the high level of the contenders, I accepted the challenge.
Together with my assistant, Ricardo Rossi, we had a very dignified competition, in which we wanted to use a lot of Balearic products (olive oil, sobrasada, black pork), and in which we were finalists even with the limited resources that we had.
Participating there motivated me to continue presenting recipes in a competition circuit. They seemed to know me more in the mainland than here in Mallorca. At Madrid Fusión 2018 I won the third prize for the best signature sandwich in Spain with a lamb sandwich. Since then, I have been a finalist in more national competitions, making it compatible with my career in Diablito and with the ASCAIB association of which I am now president.
MM: José, tell us more about ASCAIB. What is your goal as president?
JC: ASCAIB is a non-profit association with about 1800 members, in which there is a lot of work done to promote the culinary culture of the Balearic Islands. In its 6 years of life, the association has organized the best National Cooking Championship that is remembered, said by the rest of the culinary associations of Spain, and in which a large cast of Michelin Stars participated.
My objective, furthermore, is for the association to take another line. I want to focus on what I consider our three fundamental pillars: training cooks and spreading out Balearic gastronomy as well as the local products.
In the first place, it seems essential to us to carry out courses for chefs in training. What’s more, we are working on an agreement with the Ministry to give a masterclass with a focus on the Balearic products and, especially, on extra virgin olive oil, since we have a very good relationship with the D.O. Oli de Mallorca with which we want to continue collaborating.
Regarding training, we agree with Treurer’s willingness to spread knowledge. I remember a great masterclass on your farm that we did with Rodrigo Vallejo Fernández and with professional training students who were amazed by the tasting of your olive oil and the series of haute cuisine dishes that were made.
MM: And now that you’ve brought up the issue of oil. What differences do you perceive between Mallorca’s olive oil and the one from the mainland?
JC: Mallorca’s olive oil has specific characteristics due to the climate, the complex collection process and the extraction differences. When I participated in national competitions, I used our olive oil in my recipes and they always asked me if it had to be from the island, to which I answered ‘yes, it’ has to be’.
The point is that each cook, each palate, has preferences. In Mallorca, we are very used to the Arbequina variety, the most common on our island, because it’s fruitier and smoother on the palate. Other oils, such as those of the Picual variety from regions of Andalusia, tend to be stronger and bitter and not all palates are used to it.
Our Denomination of Origin has been recognized with awards. Besides, as I mentioned, one of my challenges at ASCAIB is to promote local products. I consider that we defend our products highly important, especially when they are of the highest quality, such as extra virgin olive oil.
MM: So, when you cook, do you notice the difference in the oil you use?
JC: Yes, you can tell it. Unlike other consumers, as cooks, we analyse the qualities that oil has when cooking. And for my recipes, I want an olive oil that pairs with the ingredients and doesn’t distort the dish. By this, I do not mean that some oils are better than others, simply that the extra virgin olive oil from Mallorca has nothing to envy them.
As a cook, I always think about what variety of oil I want, in which dish I am going to use it and how I am going to use it, that is, which technique I will use, and it must also be considered that each oil must be used at a specific temperature. In short, knowledge of the raw material used is essential.
MM: Don’t feel in an awkward position, but what do you think of Treurer olive oil?
JC: Although we use several Mallorcan oils in the restaurant, I think Treurer is one of the best ones. I, who consider that smell is 80% of a tasting, meaning with it you can know many things about a product, have discovered incredible nuances of the Arbequina variety in yours.
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I remember that once I tried a Novel oil that you gave me as a gift and it’s one of the best oils I have ever tasted, dense and with exceptional colour. It was authentic olive juice that I still remember today. And as I have commented, I think that the promotion of the D.O de Mallorca, as well as the individual brands, is important.
MM: And do you think that chefs who come from abroad really know olive oil?
JC: They don’t know the product as we do, but they do know how to differentiate the oils. However, coming from abroad, their palate is accustomed to other types of products, that is, they have other preferences. Of course, when they try extra virgin olive oil, there is no doubt that they like it, and they start to use it.
However, I believe that we have very good products that are unknown to all types of consumers. People know a little about sobrasada, ensaimada… but not compared to other products from the mainland, and even less in comparison to products from other countries.
MM: So, do you think that we should market our products better?
JC: I do, I think that in the field of marketing we are far behind. We have that problem; we can’t believe how good our cuisine and the products we have are. For example, pizza is known internationally, but our vegetable coca is exceptional and goes unnoticed.
Although in recent years many chefs have been working to promote Mallorcan gastronomy, such as Andreu Genesta, Macarena de Castro, Santi Taura or Tomeu Caldentey, we need wider visibility and for all types of consumers. Visibility such as Andalusian, Basque, Madrid and even Catalan gastronomies have, which are even known internationally.
Mallorcan cuisine is not so well known on the mainland either. And we have a great gastronomic culture to which we want to give more visibility and diffusion at the national level. As I have mentioned, at ASCAIB this is one more objective that we want to carry out through exchanges with other associations in the sector to promote and explain what Mallorcan cuisine consists of.
MM: And finally, what else does the future hold for José Cortés?
JC: I can say that I have already retired from cuisine competitions. Right now, I have re-joined the Diablito after a leave of absence and the objective is to resume all my activities, recover the line of work and, later, continue innovating in the menu.
In addition, there is the association (ASCAIB) and my objectives to promote our gastronomy and products and to continue training cooks, since communicating and training is also another important part of a good cook and another of the challenges that motivate me in my career.