Food and Leisure

My encounter with the archaeologist of flavors

A TASTE OF LIFE - Heny Sison - The Philippine Star

‘The flavors of our kitchen will remain in our minds forever as memories that tie us to the future,’ says chef  Mario Sandoval of Coque. ‘Our job is to treasure them, keep them, and reinvent them so that they can be understood within a global and contemporary concept.’

Once a foodie, always a foodie. Food sums up my life. It consumes me, or rather, I consume it, ingest it, devour it, and savor it with relish at work or at home, with family or friends. Almost everything I do has a connection with calorie-laden delights.

So it is obvious that on my recent working trip to Spain in the happy company of good friends, we embarked on an eat-like-there’s-no-tomorrow adventure. On top of the list was a visit to the much-hailed Coque restaurant on the outskirts of Madrid. This was upon recommendation of Gema Garcia, who had the opportunity to work with Spain’s culinary prodigy Mario Sandoval, the mastermind behind Coque, Madrid's best-kept secret.

Gema acted as his interpreter, among other things, when he visited Manila as special guest to the first staging of Madrid Fusion Manila, a cultural and culinary exchange between Spain and the Philippines. He casually invited her to visit his restaurant if she ever flew off to Spain. Now we are eagerly taking him up on his offer. He was most gracious in indulging us and charmingly forewarned us to expect the unexpected.

“Magnificent,” “sublime,” “spectacular,” and “indescribably dramatic.” One would think these accolades would be directed towards an acclaimed stage production or monumental movie, but they are actually praises heaped upon Coque, which is found in Humanes, an otherwise nondescript town 30 km south of Madrid, Spain. Coque’s stellar reputation has made it an international gourmet destination, deservedly earning a coveted Michelin star (chef Mario was 26 then, the youngest to have received such a distinction). In 2013, Mario received the country’s highest culinary honors when he was awarded Best Head Chef by the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy during the National Gastronomy Awards; this coincided with his election as president of the Cultural Federation of Spanish Cooks and Pastry Chefs Association.

Coque had humble beginnings.  Sandoval’s grandparents started it four decades ago, serving rustic fare prepared in a central hearth that is still used to this day.

His mother, Teresa, later ran it. In the late ’90s, Mario took over the business, giving a personal and creative touch to the restaurant’s cuisine, experimenting with cutting-edge textures and tastes. A fearless visionary and risk taker, he nevertheless remained faithful to his roots of traditional Castilian and Madrid cooking. Together with his four brothers — sommelier Rafael, maître d’ Juan Diego, José Ramón and Mario, the youngest — they helped create a renaissance in Spanish food, putting Humanes on the culinary map where excellent cuisine is the order of the day. If archaeology is defined as the study and appreciation and culture of a people through antiquities, it is just as fitting to brand the Sandoval brothers archaeologists of flavors — gastronomic explorers who set their sights on the future, on innovation as they base their cooking on research, supported by technique, but without abandoning the raw materials and flavors that they have inherited. Their creations are explorations of traditional family recipes, yet reinterpreting traditional ingredients to offer something up-to-date and innovative.

Indeed, Chef Mario has a flair for theatrics, meticulous with each and every detail, from preproduction to execution because, for him, precision and timing are of utmost importance. What unfolds for each patron is an unforgettable gourmet adventure full of surprises. Yes, it is the ultimate foray into Spanish cuisine in every sense of the word. And consider me fortuitous to have experienced it firsthand!

Just like a three-act play, the drama began upon arrival. We were taken downstairs to the extensive wine bodega, an underground wine cellar visible through a transparent glass floor with racks of wines to be enjoyed upstairs in a dining room that holds 35 people.

Their wine cellar is one of the most highly praised in Spain, offering over 1,500 different labels from the most important wine regions around the world. But fear not and do not be overwhelmed, because head sommelier Rafael will gladly assist patrons with his expertise.

A long branch of grapes lying on a table caught florist Antonio Garcia’s eye. It was a preserved ancient grapevine meant to add a touch of authenticity to the room. This, among other unique artifacts, was meant to enrich the experience.

We were offered a tasting menu paired with a cocktail. The sweet and savory canapés were served inside elegant bell jars. For the Sandovals, presentation is just as important as taste. And so the drama and the spectacle continued as we were ushered into chef Mario’s kitchen-cum-laboratory. I was impressed at the efficiency and calmness of the chefs as they moved with precision while preparing the food we were about to partake of. More theatrics amused us as chef Mario showed us how he infuses olive oil smoke inside a dome-covered dish using olive oil wood and a smoker gadget.

A main feature of the kitchen and key element that has prevailed throughout Coque’s history is the wood oven. Now the “avant-garde” ovens have clearly evolved to cook the many different dishes, but the establishment’s signature specialty dish remains the same through time: the cochinillo, or roasted suckling pig, which can come in three distinct flavors. This happens because three different types of wood used for the fire gives each one a distinct aroma and taste. There are olive wood, birch wood, and oak wood. Coque’s piglet is special not only in the way it is cooked but also for the exclusive kind of pig it comes from, a cross of races bred by the brothers themselves in their own free-range farm.

The main act began as we proceeded to the dining area. This time Diego Sandoval took charge of the dining experience about to unfold. The principal dishes were enjoyed in the main dining room; all were exquisite along with the fantastic sommelier, who presented enjoyable wine pairings throughout. My favorite dishes would have to be the cochinillo, of course — it’s crackling skin easily separated from the tender young meat. For this alone I am sure I will find my way back to the town of Humanes.

The last of the degustation, the final act, unfolded at the lounge, located on the street level next to the entrance hall. There, Coque’s sweetest creations, as well as premium spirits and cocktails, were served. I had a hunch we were in for another magical, theatrical moment, but I wasn’t about to give away the orchestrated surprise to my companions. On our table were dainty porcelain figurines of ballerinas containing the desserts to be served. Also on the table were small dishes with leaves and chips of dry ice. So on cue, a waiter pours water on the table and a magical mist fills up the area, making the ballerina figurines seem to float on clouds. It was a charming spectacle to behold, but being a food stylist used to executing effects for different food advertisements, I knew that the dry ice was strategically put on the table to achieve just that! But yes, I admire the lengths they go through to ensure that Coque’s patrons leave the place in awe of what they have just experienced. The food alone is worth the trip, but the entire experience leaves one dazzled and speechless.

The spectacle from Coque’s four spaces, from wine cellar to kitchen to dining room to the den, where sherry and platters of desserts were presented, wasn’t just special treatment accorded to us. This is how a meal at Coque goes down every time for all guests. Talk about excellence in hospitality and service!

We started at 9:30 p.m. and ended at 2:30 a.m. The funny thing is, we hardly took notice of the minutes ticking by till the end of the meal. That was almost six hours of time well spent. We were sated, satisfied, full and complete. Exceptional cuisine served with dramatic flair, artfully presented. I am excited for whatever plans the Sandoval brothers have up their sleeves.

I can say that the Sandoval brothers come from a close-knit family who genuinely love what they do, from their passion and respect for the traditional and seasonal ingredients that make up a dish to having their own farm and vegetation where they source out what they need in their kitchen. So what ends on your plate comes from their toil and from this family’s renovated restaurant, this talented exponent of modern creative cuisine offers up brilliant, original and exquisitely presented creations based on Madrid’s culinary tradition and seasonal produce.

“The flavors of our kitchen will remain in our minds forever as memories that tie us to the future,” says Sandoval. “Just like today we treasure those from our past, even if previous Coque generations are no longer among us. Our job is to treasure them, keep them, and reinvent them so that they can be understood within a global and contemporary concept. Without losing a shred of who we are.”




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