By Sebastian Menendez
I started cooking from an early age in my family’s Spanish tapas restaurant in Stockport, Cheshire. My dad was from Asturias in Northern Spain and he taught me all the dishes he loved as a child cooked by my abuela (grandma) and his abuela. Cordero Chilindron, which takes hours to cook, was a particular favourite.
When my father died in 2007, I had to step up and become head chef. I was 17 at the time and a bit of a rebel.
I was never academic. In fact, I hated school. I decided early on it simply wasn’t for me. I got thrown out of two schools because I just didn’t want to be there.
When I first started cooking it felt like a light bulb moment. It was truly me. I was working with my mind and hands simultaneously and I felt that I was achieving something. I had to use my common sense and I learned quickly through trial and error. People always say I understood flavours from a young age and that’s really important as a chef.
‘I wanted to learn a lot more than the family restaurant could teach me. I knew I needed some proper discipline. The kind I’d fought against so hard at school’
I wanted to learn a lot more than the family restaurant could teach me. When we eventually sold it, I knew I needed some proper discipline. The kind I’d fought against so hard at school.
I got a couple of decent jobs at a sous chef level but I was craving a higher level of understanding and cuisine. I saw an advert for a chef de partie, earning a lot less money than I had ever earned, but I applied nevertheless.
It was at a Michelin-starred hotel in Sussex, Ockenden Manor. The graft was brutal, the stress relentless and the hours were in the high 70s every week. But, I loved it.
I was inspired and I learned the standards and discipline which I really needed. I look back on my times there with great fondness. I met some amazing people who I’m still in contact with to this day. I learned some incredible techniques and recipes, but more importantly, I learned real balance of flavour and an understanding of what makes things delicious.
From Sussex I went to Spain, my roots, which was another incredible experience. Not the costas, but the cuisine meccas of Bilbao, San Sebastian, Valencia, Madrid and Ibiza. Although I spoke some Spanish, I wasn’t fluent, so I was plunged into another language, culture and cuisine, working for a company that owned 20-30 restaurants at the time.
So this English chef moved up the rankings fairly quickly and I found myself being sent all over Spain to open up and run 100-300 cover restaurants.
It was the most exciting and fast-paced work I’d ever done. We were doing a mixture of Basque food on big charcoal grills, Peruvian, Mexican, Argentinian, even Japanese and classic French – lots of modern fusion food it was an amazing learning curve.
I miss working with Spaniards/Basques/South Americans. They are the nicest and funniest people you could hope to meet, the banter was tremendous.
When I first got to Bilbao, I worked in a restaurant called El Kiosko and I met the head chef Yoldman from Venezuela. He and I would regularly perform a terrible rendition of The Back Street Boys’, “I want it that way” with the kicks, spins and dramatic hand-on-face dance moves, during the quieter 70-cover services.
I moved on to the golden paradise of Ibiza. Every chef should do a season in Ibiza, in my opinion. It’s amazing, get stuck into the countryside, local cuisine and get lost on the tracks up the mountains on a scooter. It’s not all about the nightclub scene, which is the best in the world.
Now I’m in Guernsey, part of the UK Channel Islands, in a small hotel/restaurant called the Auberge Du Val. This is a much less stressful environment, and I can concentrate on getting everything perfect, consistently.
‘Money and career aren’t everything, mental health and happiness really are’
I took a small step back in my career as it was apparent I was in need of addressing a few things with my mental health. I was pretty burnt out.
I’m now happy and with the best boss I have ever had who really appreciates what we do in the kitchen.
I feel that I have really honed the skills I have learned over the last 10 years of my career and created my own style of food. I’ve battled a few demons in the process and become a much better person for it.
I also met the woman of my dreams who is another Mancunian living on Guernsey. It’s a very small world.
Money and career aren’t everything, mental health and happiness really are.
I’m now ready for my next adventure/challenge.
Iberico Pork Pressa with Crispy Potatoes, Romesco, Parsley and Rioja sauce
This is a dish that has been on most of my menus over the last four years. It’s really simple, but has a great complexity and great depth of flavour and can be served all year round.
There’s plenty of flavour coming from the Iberico pork, lovely texture from the triple-cooked potato discs (Patatas Panderas, as they call them in Spain) and the whole dish is balanced out by the smoky sweet umami rich Romesco and richness via the Rioja sauce.
Iberico pork is recognised as the best pork in the world. They have strict rules on rearing the pigs, one being that they have to have a few hectares of land per five pigs and a huge part of their diet is bellotas (acorns).
This pork is rich in amino acids and omega 3. As a result you end up with a much larger and muscular animal with redder meat colour. The wonderful nutty fats from the acorns are marbled evenly through all of the muscle groups not just round the belly.
Once you have your Iberico Pressa in front of you feel free to cut in in to 4-6oz steaks and leave out at room temperature for at least an hour.
But first the sauce.
5 whole red peppers
2 plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon of sherry vinegar or a good quality red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of pimenton de la vera dulce
4 tablespoons of almonds
5 cloves of whole peeled garlic
100ml of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of brown sugar
2 tablespoons of Maldon salt and 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
Place halved tomatoes, garlic, de-seeded and quartered peppers on a roasting tray and half of the olive oil with salt and pepper. Roast in a 220c oven for 20 minutes until garlic is golden and soft and peppers have blackened slightly around the edges.
Place your almonds on small tray and roast them till they have toasted in colour. 7-10 mins same temp oven. While hot, place all cooked ingredients into a food processor and then add all other ingredients together and blend until smooth, check for seasoning, adjust if necessary.
120 mls of Rioja red wine
150 mls of real beef/pork/chicken/veal stock that is made from bones and is gelatinous (you can buy from most butcher shops and supermarkets if you don’t want to make your own).
Heat a small saucepan and turn down to minimum heat. Now add red wine and reduce by two thirds. Add liquid stock and reduce the whole thing by two thirds. You should have a sauce that has got bit of body to it and coats the back of a teaspoon. Add 2 sprigs of thyme and leave to infuse till you are ready to serve it taste for salt
2 large peeled Maris Piper potatoes sliced around 1 cm thick
Salt to season
Place into a pan of boiling, salted water for around 6 minutes remove from water and leave to steam for a few minutes.
Pre-heat a fryer to 155oc, place potatoes in the fryer for 5 minutes until tender with a little colour.
Whack the fryer to full temperature and put the potatoes in again until really golden and crispy. Season with salt
Cooking the pork
Now that the pork has been at room temperature, place on a tray and season with salt and pepper. Now get a heavy-based good quality frying pan and place it over a high heat until it starts to smoke.
Place your seasoned pork in to the pan, drop the temperature to medium low for around two minutes per side and a really nice caramelisation on each side of the meat. A good trick is to turn the heat back up to high as you flip it on to the other side so that you get a good initial sear on the other side.
We are cooking this meat to medium so we need to probe it in the middle and it needs to read 48-52oC after it’s had two minutes a side in the pan. If not, cook a little longer.
Remove from pan and leave to rest somewhere warm. If not, keep it cooking on low heat until you achieve the desired temperature. A large proportion of the cooking is done while the meat is out of the pan and resting. It will rise a further 10-12oC out of the pan.
Extra virgin olive oil
Fresh flat leaf parsley
¼ clove of garlic
You will need equal parts olive oil to fresh flat leaf parsley and 1/4 clove of garlic. As a rough guideline, 50g of each is a good. Add to food processor with a little salt and pass through a fine sieve.
Now plate it all up however you like.
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