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In one of the most prestigious hotels in the Canary Islands a young chef named José Marín is sitting opposite me in his crisp chef’s whites and his tall toque, looking like he just came on duty after a siesta and shower. In fact, he’s been working in the kitchen of Hotel Botánico’s La Parrilla restaurant all evening and now he’s sitting opposite me, exuding nervous energy and asking me if I enjoyed my dessert.
At just 26 years old, it’s a responsible position for a young man.
But José is used to being the ‘boy’ about the place. It doesn’t phase him. He’s been working in kitchens since he was 16 years old.
With my shaky Castellano, I decide to ease us both into the interview by asking José where he comes from. Before I’ve even had time to get my babel fish in, José is half way through his biography and a resumé of his short but illustrious career to date. I have to interrupt him to recap, having got completely lost in his rapid fire responses.
Born in Ubeda in Jaén, José left the family home when he was 16 years old to travel to Girona to work in the kitchens of the Club Hotel Giverola. Taken under his wing by Head Chef Manuel Cabezuelo, it was during four holiday seasons at the tourist hotel that José was to supplement his formal Barcelona training with the kitchen experience on which his culinary know-how is built.
“It was a very traditional kitchen which was perfect for me because I learned how to do all the basics. With a grounding in traditional cooking you are then able to do modern cooking. For me, it was important to learn the basics of traditional cooking on which to build.”
Working with his mentor Manuel Cabezuelo and fellow chefs José Antonio Martinez & Juan Carlos Borrego, the young trainee chef learned to prepare speciality dishes from Spain and abroad including Chinese, Catalan, Valencian and German cuisine.
Coming from a background where the only cooking was done in the family kitchen, José has bucked the trend of his roots in his chosen profession.
“I come from a small town with little tourism where the people know little of what happens outside their province. They work and live in the country and they don’t leave to go anywhere else. I’m special,” he says, grinning. “At 16 years of age I left and I’ve been away ever since. After I left Jaén to work in Girona I only went back for holidays. I always worked outside of Andalusia and I worked and worked and worked to learn new techniques and to learn from the chefs.”
From Girona, José moved out to the Canary Islands, first to Fuerteventura and then to the Hotel Princessa Yaiza in Lanzarote before following the head chef from the Yaiza to a five star hotel in Mallorca. From there, José got his first taste of exclusive luxury when he moved to Cantabria to work as second chef in a rather special hotel.
“It was very, very beautiful, a restored palace from the 1700s. Very exclusive,” he tells me. “It had just 30 rooms and the restaurant. It was really very special.”
José’s culinary education has been built on the solid foundation of recipes and techniques handed down from generation to generation and then enhanced by modern methodologies and ingredients. It’s this blending of traditional values with the best of contemporary design and a sprinkling of innovation that Hotel Botánico, and by extension, restaurant La Parrilla is all about.
Firmly rooted in traditional cuisine, the restaurant uses the finest quality ingredients from across Spain and the Canary Islands, flavoured by fresh herbs from the aromatic, chef’s garden and finished with José’s own special touches.
“Because I have worked in so many different places and learned different international specialities, my dishes are unique to my skills and experience. It’s like that for every chef, they bring their own experiences to their menus.”
I ask José if he has cooked for any famous customers and he tells me “Many, many – Juanes, David De Maria, David Bisbal, Ricky Martin. Here in the hotel, the restaurant have prepared meals for Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton in the past.”
I ask if he’ll be cooking for Sting when he stays at Hotel Botánico later this year and his brow clouds with confusion. He doesn’t know who Sting is. Feeling older than the hills that surround us, I realise once again just how young this chef is.
José quickly reassures me that he loves ‘Police’ but just wasn’t familiar with the name Sting. It’s not uncommon here for young people to only know Latino artists. Earlier this year I interviewed Tenerife’s Carnaval Queen, Carmen Gil and asked her if she liked any UK or US bands, the only name she could come up with was Supertramp because her dad had been to see them once in Barcelona.
Heading back to what I hope will be safer generation gap ground, I ask José which chef he most admires. There’s no hesitation; his old mentor Manuel Cabezuelo.
“Manuel had faith in a 16 year old boy. Not many people would have taken that risk. He taught me everything I know.”
Thanks to Manuel’s faith in the boy, José developed a love of cooking which has never left him.
When we finish the interview I’m exhausted, but José is still buzzing so I ask him what his favourite part of the job is. “I love everything about this job,” he grins. “The technical side, the creativity, the daily routine. I’m very, very happy here.”
Having scooped up the last of my angel-soft sponge with its foamy mousse onto my spoon and allowed it simply to melt on my tongue in a cool flow of almond, fig and toffee flavour, I’m happy too.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+