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M&M : So lets start with a little back ground…who are you, how old are you, where are you from and where are you currently working?
Sergio: My name is Sergio Lujan Perera and I am 34 years old. I was born in Zaragoza, Spain. I am currently collaborating with other talented chefs in Los Angeles, New York and Europe working in restaurants and private establishments. I am also working on opening my first restaurant concept here in Los Angeles.
M&M : What are your motives behind this concept restaurant… by this I mean, what are you trying to say with your food? What is your vision?
Sergio: I want to bring back naturalism in my food. By that I mean letting the ingredients speak for themselves and using the latest techniques to help us perfect that and give our ingredients more of a time and place. So much can be lost when hidden by too many ingredients or techniques. Gastronomy has grown and evolved tremendously in the last 10 years and has become more innovative and more specific. These techniques have allowed us to perfect our ingredients even more and has allowed us to expand on our visions and expressions using these ingredients.
Food has become a form of entertainment and diners are becoming more involved and present in their dining experiences. Culture, emotion and sense memory are used much more now in dining, what many chefs today call techno-emotional cuisine. We’ve also become more aware and involved in the care of our resources. Sustainability, purity and supporting farmers are important. My place has to make ecological sense and be evocative. I want to be inspired by nature when I am conceptualizing a dish. I also want to create a unique and organic enviroment. I am working with architects, artists and ceramists to create our dishware, atmosphere, etc. I want to use the latest techniques to produce everything in-house from our own salts, curing and distilling to botanicals, freeze drying and aging. I am working with scientists to create equipment that will help me produce the best results. I want my place to be welcoming and to be innovative while respecting our products. It will also be warm and whimsical. It is great to know that’s cooks are in the business of making people feel good. To give them an escape, a memory or just a smile.
M&M : Could you explain a little about your training?
Sergio : Long version or readers digest version? I grew up with a family of chefs. My Grandfather was my biggest inspiration in the kitchen. I started learning at the age of 12 cooking the traditional food of Spain with a big focus of our region which was Aragon.
M&M : Could you describe one of the dishes you loved as a child growing up in Aragon?
Sergio : One of the best dishes I remember eating as a child was a braised rabbit dish my Grandfather made. He would bring home some of the largest white rabbits I had ever seen. I was 10 years old when I first saw him kill a live animal right in front of me and cook it. There was something so barbaric about it that I actually enjoyed but was also afraid of at the same time. He would always tell me that was the way of life as long as you always gave thanks to the animal for its sacrifice and honored it for its strength to fight, it was all right. He would kill it, butcher it and clean it perfectly. So much care was put into it. The sequence of the preparation and ingredients used were unlike any other, the aromatics, the earthiness and purity of the finished dish gave you images and aromas of the animal’s environment and habitat. The end result was delectable. One I am still trying to reproduce.
He would first salt it heavily and let it sit for a day to tighten up the interior meat and expel outer skin water. Then he would rinse it with burnt cognac that he would first light on fire and cool down before soaking the rabbit. He would then blanch it in boiling water filled with aromatics before putting together ingredients such as day old bread, marcona almonds, garlic, onions, olive oil from our olive trees and fresh juniper. Finally he would braise it slow for an entire day. It was bliss. Somehow down the road I might have missed a step or two since I never actually got the recipe. Needless to say I am still trying to replicate that exact dish that is embedded in my brain forever. Thinking back on it now, my Grandfather did some pretty innovative things back then.
At the age of 17, I started working in some popular traditional restaurants and tapas bars throughout Zaragoza where I learned the basics and foundation of cooking.
M&M : I imagine the restaurant to be on the river… what was it like growing up there? Being 3 hours from Barcelona it would seem that it wouldn’t be very touristy… more suited for locals with local fair.What were some of the basics you learned while working there?
Sergio: I finally made my way up to some of the top restaurants of Barcelona. Up until I left, I was cooking very basic and rustic dishes of various regions of Spain. I had heard about a very original and innovative restaurant in the Basque country of San Sebastian called Arzak.
(Please allow the movie below to buffer by starting and then pausing it… or just change the quality located on the tool bar of the player.)
I looked at photographs and read about what the Chef Juan Mari Arzak was creating at his restaurant and was immediately intrigued. He was creating traditional Spanish and Basque dishes into complex and artistic interpretations using unique and advanced techniques. He was going beyond tradition and reinventing classics into beautiful and expressive ways. I was lucky enough to get a 6 month apprenticeship where I worked like I had never worked before. I was working 15 hours a day 6 days a week. At night I was exhausted, but during the day, I was excited, full of energy. What I thought I knew was completely left to the side. I was starting over in a new way, a new process, a new way of thinking, feeling and expressing. I was like a child astonished and surprised by it all. I never knew cooking had some much depth. A soul of its own. I ended up working 3 years there.
M&M : After doing a little searching I found this video (shown above). It takes me right to where you were and I am astounded by this man and the “idea bank” with 1500 ingredients. To work in this kitchen must have been amazing and by the looks of it you were not alone; there must have been twenty to thirty people just in the kitchen. What an experience!
Sergio: I was exposed to some of the best chefs in the world. I start reading about other chefs who were also changing gastronomy and creating new and groundbreaking techniques. I worked with chefs from all over the world. I became great friends with a young Japanese chef who had been working in France as a pastry chef and had made his way to Spain to work at Arzak. He explained his Japanese traditions of cooking along with the philosophies and discipline of his culture. Again I was fascinated. There was such beauty and strength in the Japanese esthetic. They too were also honoring their tradition which was simple and pure but making it better every day. Everyday they strived for perfection. I was invited to spend some time with my friend and his family in Kyoto, Japan where his family had a beautiful restaurant tucked away in the nature and rivers of Northern Kyoto. The place was Minokichi Takesigero. A 600 year old traditional kaiseki restaurant. What was meant to be a 2 weeks, turned out to be 2 years.
M&M: What is kaiseki ?
Sergio: Kaiseki is an old traditional way of dining in Kyoto, Japan that incorporates technique, skill, beauty, nature and seasonality. It is expressed in 14 courses beautifully crafted and presented. The discipline and artistry involved in this style of cuisine which came from the monks attracts many high profile and royal people to this exquisite experience. It grasped me 17 years ago and changed the way I looked at the purity of food and how beautiful it could be.
M&M: Awesome, Sergio, what an experience… where did you go from there?
Sergio: I made my way back to Spain with a whole new perspective on cooking. From tradition to innovation and to simplicity, beauty and respect, I knew what kind of food I wanted to create. I heard about an up and coming restaurant that had exactly those qualities. A young chef named Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastian was breaking the mold of innovation and was paying homage to earth and nature at the same time. I stayed in Spain for 3 more years.
M&M : I am starting to wonder about your uncanny gift of working at the right place at the right time. These chefs and the movement they subscribe to0… I guess the world of gastronomy seems to be in a renaissance period and you seem to be right there in it.
Sergio: It was all finally clear to me. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and I would go great lengths to give my part in the history of Gastronomy. To be a cook and an artist, a scientist and a poet, you have to have a balance of strength and sensitivity. I finally left to the U.S. I had the privilege of going to New York and work at such establishments such as Jean-Georges, WD-50 and Momofuku. Now I am a chef here in Los Angeles where I have worked as a private chef to some wonderful people and have worked with great chefs such as Ludo Lefebvre and Greg Bernhardt.
M&M : Is there any one from you childhood that effected your culinary decision making or influenced you to take this route in life?
Sergio: My Grandfather. A great chef and mentor. I was inspired by his love for food and how people would react together in the presence of it. Every time he cooked, it was a celebration. He always wanted to cook and have his own restaurant but was forced to work as a construction worker in Spain during the Franco era. The only cooks making any money at that time were the ones cooking for royalty or politicians. My Grandfather had a family of 7 and had to do what he could to take his family out of poverty. I was in his mind, the chosen one.
M&M : With that type of pressure I can really see how and why you are so driven… do you plan on having him come and see the restaurant once its opened? Will there be any thing on the menu specifically for him?
Sergio: He passed away in 1993 of lung cancer at the age of 56. He is watching me now and he will be there on the opening night. On the menu: braised rabbit ( ….and he thought I would never get it right. Thank you Grandpa)
M&M: Thank you Sergio for your time and incredible story…Best of luck to you and your endeavors.