Words by David J Constable
Quique Dacosta was back in London last month, three months after opening Arros QD, his first restaurant outside of Spain. Arros – the Catalan word for rice – promises a fine dining “evolution of paella”, and, following a € 4.8 M investment, is set to make the Valencian peasant dish the new star of London fine dining. This finely tailored chef – in monogrammed, carnation white shirt and a neatly-barbered beard – is the latest in a line of Spanish superstars to try their luck in the UK capital – Eneko Atxa, David Muñoz and Elena Arzak having established themselves with varying degrees of success – and is setting his sights on taking paella upscale.
The image of Spanish rice abroad has for too long been that of a lurid, yellow mass of paella – actually the name of the pan it’s cooked in rather than the dish itself – studded with tough chicken and prawns. “Paella is one of the best-known dishes around,” the chef tells me, “yet it is also one of the most mistreated”. Paella, according to Dacosta, has lost its way, bastardised across the globe and mass-produced on a depressing scale. “When you put paella on the table, things become more friendly,” he tells me over a large “Paella Valenciana” consisting of rabbit, chicken, garrofon beans, rosemary and traditional aioli. “Paella is a celebration, a sharing plate, but it has lost its identity”.
It’s difficult to argue. Supermarkets churn out their ghastly fake-styles, passing them off as classic and traditional paella, and creating a sort of Frankenstein-concoction between jambalaya – a pot of red rice loaded with smoked andouille, chicken, shrimp and a sofrito-like mixture known as the “holy trinity” in Cajun cooking, consisting of onion, celery and green bell pepper – and Valencian paella. In what Dacosta calls “an unforgivable decision,” Jamie Oliver further corrupted the recipe by suggesting that chorizo be added. Dacosta bulks at the idea. “Would you put chorizo in fish and chips?” he snorts. I shake my head in agreement, but am not entirely sure myself.
A self-taught chef who operates on the gastronomic cutting edge and hold three Michelin-stars, Dacosta blends respect for tradition with a desire to innovate. Arros in paella has initially been a celebratory Sunday dish, and according to Dacosta, should take up to two hours to cook, including vegetable preparation and a stock made from scratch. When complete, the dish sits in a spectrum of rice dishes ranging from soupy arros caldosa to stew-like arros meloson. But in his Dénia research kitchen, Dacosta has created tessellating steel trays called chapas that can cook rice in an oven as well as on an open flame and can be arranged in patterns on the table. “The fire is our guide,” he says. “But it’s not just the heat, it gives an aroma. It’s like an extra ingredient. The way you manage the fire, it has a bit of magic.” When he posted a video on social media of him using a pre-made stock, it made the Spanish papers.
The focus of Dacosta is to project rice into the high-end gastronomy scene. As one of the most recognised experts in the field of rice and paella, he seeks to challenge preconceptions and restore Valencia’s rice culture to its rightful place, while introducing the technique of true and authentic paella to London and the world. “Bringing our tradition and gastronomy to London is an exercise of commitment and responsibility, which fills me with excitement. The thing that was important for us,” he continued, “was not just to bring the recipe itself, but also the methods, the tradition.” Perfect rice, Dacosta stresses, isn’t stirred like the Italian risotto. It also has a crust, something that must be scraped from the pan, called socarrat. “If you don’t have any knowledge about this, you might think it’s burnt, but that’s where all the flavour is.” I can attest, the blackened, crispy socarrat is a delight and certainly worth fighting over, and the two paellas I sampled, the best I’ve had – despite no chorizo.
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