King of the Beach, Manuel Alonso of Casa Manolo

King of the Beach – An Interview with Manuel Alonso of Casa Manolo

To imagine Casa Manolo, is to imagine the quintessential European culinary experience.  Poised right on the beach, diners feast on course after course of artfully plated haute cuisine, while staring out at the Mediterranean horizon, a line sometimes hard to detect, as azure skies seemingly meld into one with brilliant blue water; it is indeed the stuff we dream about, when we think of the ultimate luxuries that life can offer.  But this gem of a destination is not in St. Tropez, Monte Carlo or Costa Brava.  Rather, Casa Manolo sits in the rather ordinary, purpose-built beach town of Daimús, about an hour south of the city of Valencia.  For food lovers in Spain, it is a destination in and of itself.   And for the locals, an unlikely hero, attaining the kind of recognition normally reserved for its big city neighbors.  It is indeed, the pride of the town.

What might be even more unlikely than Casa Manolo’s location, is its story.  A family owned beach shack, turned temple of gastronomy and receiving a Michelin star, through the sheer vision of son Manuel Alonso, who only started working in the kitchen four years ago, and has never attended culinary school.

We were lucky enough to score some time to talk with Alonso in January,  just after finding out that Casa Manolo had won Restaurant of the Year, by Valencia’s Almanaque Gastronómico 2016 edition.

Here’s what he had to say…

Lens Gourmand: So…Casa Manolo was started in 1985, by your parents. Why did they decide to start a restaurant?

Manuel Alonso:  My parents lived in a town near Madrid, where they had a meson (meson: rustic restaurant made out of wood and stone).  In 1979 they moved to Oliva, Valencia, and my father managed a restaurant for another family for 4 years. Then, the owner passed away and they decided to close the restaurant. Someone told my parents that this place was available (speaking of the current location in Daimús).   It was just a snack bar then in 1985, but they took it.

LG: When did you start to work here?

MA: At that moment, when they took it over…I was 14 years old. I served drinks at the snack bar and ice cream. I was in school and worked after school and on the weekends…and in the summer, everyday.

LG: Was your family close?

MA: Yeah, definitely. We’ve always been a very close family and it was clear we would work together with the same unity. I’ve always admired my parents. They are your priority. On occasion people tell me that my parents are lucky to have me as a son but I tell them that I’m the one who is fortunate to have them as parents. Parents are born tireless fighters!

LG: In what year did the snack shop begin serving food and why?

MA: It was a natural evolution. Three years after taking it over we wanted more and wanted to expand. Still at that time we were renting. We bought the place in 1999.

LG: When did the food start to evolve into something more gourmet?  I’ve read that you credit Raul Alexandre (chef at Vinícolas, who has worked at El Bullí, Mugaritz, and Cellar Can de Roca).  What was his role?

MA: I was always restless. I wanted to make a change for Casa Manolo. I knew I wanted to stay in this location, here on the beach, but I didn’t want to sell the typical food that you normally get at a beach restaurant, which is informal, economical, (like) fried fish, that sort of thing.  Around then, Raul had a restaurant that in my opinion was one of the best restaurants in Valencia. I didn’t know him at that time, but l would go to this restaurant as a client.  After engaging in a conversation with Raul, I invited him to visit Casa Manolo. At that time my brother was still running the kitchen and I managed the dining room. He agreed and came to visit us…that was in 2005. Raul gave us advice on how to change the menu and make other changes, and he did it out of friendship. There was never a business interest. At the same time, I began to go to Raul’s restaurant in Valencia to work in the dining room. We did this for two years…sort of consulting for each other.  It was during that period that Casa Manolo underwent its biggest change, in terms of rising to the next level.

LG: So your brother has since left the restaurant?

MA: Yes, my brother moved to Germany 4 years ago. He had other ideas of what he wanted to do in life.

LG: And that’s when you took over the kitchen?

MA: Yeah. In the meantime, I was very focused on what I wanted to do with the restaurant. I started working in the kitchen before he left.

LG: So then, did you go to culinary school?

MA: I never went to culinary school. I learned at work and practiced in other restaurants with chef friends. There’s a sort of code between the chefs here. We have a very good relationship with each other and share ideas, experiences and help one another. Ferran Adria was the one who started this idea, of sharing knowledge. To me, that was one of the best lessons of Ferran Adria.

LG: So have you been to El Bullí foundation?

MA: No, but I went to the restaurant to eat the last year it was open.   It was extraordinary. What I like most (about chef Ferran Adria) is his technique of exponentially boosting flavors. It’s amazing.  For me, the difference between a good restaurant and one that is not good, is that you must recognize the ingredients. If you’re told what’s in the dish, but you can’t identify it, then there is a problem.

LG: You’ve only been in the kitchen at Casa Manolo for 4 years. Was it ever your dream to become a chef?

MA: I knew all along that my life would be dedicated to the world of the restaurant business, but not necessarily as a chef. I did want to go to school in Madrid, but since my family had the restaurant here it was hard for me to leave. But I knew this was what I wanted.

LG: How are you as a boss?

MA: As a boss? I’m a perfectionist and very demanding, but at the same time consistent…I think I’m a good boss. I’m a perfectionist, at home as well as in the restaurant.  Everything must be organized, clean … at home my clothes are arranged by color.  Sometimes when I go to the super market I find myself fixing the stuff on the shelves! I tend to make decisions taking into account my employees’ emotions, but I know that to be a good businessman I should not do that. But I always keep my employees and my clients. I work in the restaurant that I would like to eat.

LG: Most of the other chefs we interview have worked under various other chefs. You’re a little different in that you’ve only worked here, at Casa Manolo. How do you think that has affected your style of cooking? 

MA: It’s a good thing to work with n’tthem (speaking of established chefs), and to gain the experience. But I’m very clear with my concept. It’s very positive to share the kitchen and learn from the experience of great chefs, but you have to have clear ideas, and know who you are, what are your goals. In a way I think it has helped me stay clear and focused not having that ‘traffic’ of other ideas. If you are not sure of your concept, working with great chefs doesn’t do any good.

LG: Do you ever think about moving the restaurant to a bigger town?

People ask me that a lot…why Daimús?  Why not?  It is clear that being in Madrid or Barcelona would possibly be easier, but I like challenges.  Daimús is a small town that doesn’t enjoy the advantages of large cities and therefore doesn’t get the necessary attention…so it makes it more complicated. But, it’s clear to me that my life is here.   This place is me and I am this place.

LG: With regards to getting your Michelin Star in 2014…you were quoted as saying that it “was all you ever wanted, but that you had to wait for it”. What did you mean by that?

MA: I had always dreamed of getting it, and I always worked for it but I never thought I would get it. It wasn’t my obsession, or that I couldn’t live without it. But it was clear what I had to do.

LG: Where do you get your inspiration when creating new dishes?

MA: I get it from the outside..from traveling, or every day experiences. I never just wake up and come to work and decide to develop a dish…it has to come from my surroundings. I am continually looking for my identity, which is something I think is very difficult to find and very few people have it. Having a “path”, having a philosophy of life, is complicated. We must practice what we preach.

LG: Interesting..when you talk about identity, are you talking about developing your own technique, refining your own process…what?

MA: (I mean) the thinking and the facts should be aligned. I don’t like it when people don’t live the way that they claim are their beliefs.

LG: We noticed the sake on the shelf. Do you pair sake with your dishes?

The sake? Not’s its for me! I’ve been reading about sake and so I put five sakes on the menu. But the people don’t ask for it much.   For me, I love it. I like the philosophy, the process of making koji (mold spores on the rice that break it down into sugars for fermentation) the work involved in polishing the rice grains. It started when one of my customers brought me some sake..I tried and loved it, so I started reading about it. I love Japanese culture. In the future I’d like go there and work for a few weeks.

To read more about Casa Manolo, click here.

 

2 Comments

  1. What a great story! Manuel Alonso Is a very humble and interesting man. I love his commitment to what he loves. Is t that what the ultimate goal is for life?

    • Eric Bloodsworth says:

      Thanks Eileen, glad you enjoyed the article. If you haven’t had a chance yet, hopefully you’ll get to try out Casa Manolo in the future!

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