Christian Sala – Gastronomic Advisor
Christian Sala works as a gastronomic advisor. He works across five continents, developing concepts of restaurants, menus and training kitchen teams. Reading his words is like making a gastronomic journey through different cultures and culinary habits around the world. This has produced an interview that, without a doubt, is worth a read.
I have many anecdotes from various countries in which both chefs and the public discuss a taste because their whole life they ate it in the wrong way, which, for them, is the original.
What projects do you have now on your hands?
Several projects which are quite different from each other: A couple of restaurants to open, of which I have to develop the menu and train the staff for the openings, some menu changes in two restaurants of former clients and the development of menus for a chain of stores that have a production plant. Here the processes and recipes are totally different from those of a restaurant, since it is produced in scale and frozen, and then distributed to branches in several cities. The development of these recipes is totally different from the recipes that are prepared in a conventional kitchen.
You moved from Argentina to Spain, to Valencia specifically. Did you find what you expected?
Yes. I used to live in the USA and decided to come to perfect my cooking skills. I wanted to learn local cuisine and that’s what I found. Especially there is a big difference with the quality of products. At the level of new techniques, there is a difference too, but the culinary bases that are learned in an Argentine cooking school, like The BUE Trainers or IAG, are at the same level as the best ones in Spain. The only difference is that in Argentina it is more difficult to find good products and it is almost impossible to do stages in important places where you can learn haute cuisine.
You worked for several years in New Orleans. What differences do you see between the Argentine, Spanish and American palate?
There is a great difference in flavours. Each culture has a palate that has been forming for years and adapting to local products for hundreds of years. The result is very different flavours; even the portions and the service vary a lot. The same dish, for example, a dessert, I had to change according to the country where it was cooked, since the levels of sweetness in Spain are lower than in America. In addition, in Spain usually you seek out clearer flavours, where the flavour note is given by the quality and freshness of the product. On the contrary, in the USA, sauces, spices and fat provide the basis of flavour of the dish. Obviously there are all types of palate, but those differences are a reflection of the culture of each society.
New Orleans is a very unique city, is it also gastronomically?
Yes, of course. New Orleans is a city different from the rest of the US. It has two types of gastronomy: Cajun and Creole. Creole is the kitchen that was born in the cities where the aristocracy made good products for their servants to cook. Cajun is a country kitchen, of slaves, who made their cuisine with the closest and cheapest products at that time. Gumbo, etouffe and jambalaya are typical dishes of New Orleans cuisine. Prawns, oysters, crayfish, rabbit, sweet potato, rice … are some of the main ingredients, along with many spices that have come from the Spanish and French, while Lousiana was their colony.
Since 2011 you work as a freelance consultant. In these seven years, what evolution have you seen in the concepts that you have been asked for?
It is a rather complicated question, since each country has a different development. In Russia they continue to make menus with more than 70 or 100 items, while in other countries short menus are developed and are renewed quite quickly. In some Caribbean islands, they draw up an annual menu with small changes depending on whether it is high or low season. The services for weddings are planned and sold one year in advance … In general terms, I could say that in most countries there is a tendency to eat healthier, use organic products, bio, etc.
At the moment, what kind of restaurant do customers ask you for the most?
In the Middle East there is a great demand for meat restaurants. Of my next 3 projects, one has roasted and smoked meats as the main theme, and my last two menu developments have also been of that style.
How is the process of creating a restaurant or menu concept, since a client contacts you until the opening of the establishment?
Depending on how advanced the project is, and if it is a hotel, resort or restaurant. I usually start with the design of the kitchen: layout, calculate staff templates, recruit people. Then we develop the concept based on certain parameters that we agreed with the client, such as style of food, number of tables, expected number of clients per day, average value of the coverage per person and the percentage of raw material costs.
There are clients who are very precise with this information and others who do not care so much about the costs, since they want to offer a high quality service or product. If it is a new country, part of my job is to visit the competition and the different suppliers of products, in order to develop a menu that works. The first week I was in Russia, I ate at more than 40 restaurants in the city. It was part of the job to analyze menus, types of service, prices, portion sizes, etc. to be able to create and run a successful restaurant.
You work in five continents, do you see many differences between the concepts that ask you in one or another continent or are the concepts being homogenized?
Yes there are differences; the only concepts that are maintained worldwide are hamburgers and Italian cuisine. But, even within these two great concepts (in Russia almost 50% of the restaurants are Italian style), each country has a totally personalized vision of that style. A pizza or a lasagne in Argentina has very little in common with one in Italy or in Turkey and Caicos. A hamburger with potatoes in Paris has little to do with one in Jeddah or Dubai.
Do you usually have the opportunity to give your menus an Argentinian touch?
In this work, you have to make food that your target audience will like and get rid of your ego a bit. My success is to make the restaurant work perfectly as a gastronomic business, be it a fine dining restaurant or a hamburger place. Even to be successful in that area, you have to know how to make good bread, dressings and combine quality products.
Gastronomy is more globalized than ever, are local gastronomy losing the uniqueness they have?
Yes and it hurts a bit. Obviously globalization does not make concessions. I believe it is good that people can know other flavours without having to travel 4000 km. I think it’s good to be able to taste exotic flavours, but it’s hard to judge without having a real frame of reference. People eat sushi with Philadelphia cheese and believe that Mexican food is nachos with cheddar sauce. So, the day they try sushi or original Mexican food, they may even say that it is not 1005 original, or that it is not good.
I have many anecdotes from countries in which both chefs and public discuss a taste because their whole life they ate in a wrong way, which, for them, is the original.
For a few years, Asian cuisine has been THE trend. It is now time for Latin America?
Peru has done an excellent job. In large cities there are many Peruvian restaurants that are successful.
I believe that Peru as a country is achieving a strong position. And they achieved this thanks to the fact that nobody had ever heard about them at a gastronomic level (in a massive way). Then, when they started promoting their country, they got a clear message, using a leader like Gastón Acurio. To position yourself, not only you have to have good gastronomy, but you must know how to communicate. In marketing, there is a difference between image, identity, reality and institutional communication.
For example, Spain is much more than croquettes, tortilla, paella and chorizo. Italy is not just pizza and pasta. But even if Italy had the best beef in the world, it would be very difficult to position itself in that segment. Changing the image is a long process, which requires time and investment, in addition to having a genuine product behind the strategy, which can also be produced in quantity to cover markets.
The rest of Latin America has very good products, but currently they do not have references, they do not move or they communicate in a block.
If you had to write a cookbook, what theme would you choose?
Actually I am writing one, which is basically a guide of recipes and experiences in different countries where I have been. I reinterpret dishes with a different style to the original. There are many cookbooks from New Orleans, the Caribbean, Russia, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East or Southeast Asia, which have excellent recipes. I prefer to talk about a product, a dish or a character I met there, and then reinterpret a flavour that somehow takes me back to that place.
What lets you gastronomy express?
Emotions. I do not know any cook who cooks for him alone. He always does it for one, two or 500 people. With gastronomy I can move people, make them feel good. Enjoyment or pleasure that is what I want to communicate and express by cooking. Then, the prizes, flattery or bad criticism, are caresses or hits to the ego that, of course, serve, but you should not take them too seriously.
Christian is a blogger at afuegolento.com.