In this digital exclusive, we pick Martínez’s brain and speak to him about his culinary genius and find out what it is like to train under the celebrated Michelin-starred chef Carles Gaig.
Not all Spanish feasts are created equal. A restaurant located along a quaint stretch of road in the heart of Singapore’s Central Business District, manages to cleverly capture all the old world charm of Catalonia and serves Catalan cuisine unlike any other. The first international outpost of the Michelin-starred restaurant in Barcelona, founded by the iconic chef Carles Gaig, Restaurant Gaig constantly redefines traditional family recipes that go back 150 years.
A bona fide celebrated Catalan institution, the fifth generation family-owned restaurant is helmed by Núria Gibert – the daughter of Gaig – in Singapore along with executive chef Martí Carlos Martínez in the kitchen. And while Gibert rules the roost, Martínez is in charge of elevating humble Spanish favourites such as tapas, paellas and mains with an incredibly fresh approach.
It would come as no surprise to start one’s meal with a familiar bowl of tomato soup, but what truly makes the cold tapas at Restaurant Gaig stand out is the irrefutable genius of Martínez – breathing new life into the salmorejo. Originated from the south of Spain, this cold garlic and raw tomato soup is conventionally served with sliced jamón and hard boiled eggs, but here at the restaurant, the soup is served with a jamón – wait for it – ice cream and burrata instead of hard boiled eggs, along with a tomato sponge.
The result: A texture so sublime and deceptively incongruous, it makes it very hard to stop at just one serving – especially when the cheese heightens the creaminess of the cherry tomato soup.
And in this digital exclusive, we pick Martínez’s brain and speak to him about his culinary genius and find out what it is like to train under the celebrated Michelin-starred chef Gaig.
1. What was the last meal you had?
I just had sushi ten minutes ago!
2. Can you please explain the difference and similarities between Catalan and Spanish cuisines?
Spain is made up of different regions – there is Catalunya, where I am from, then there are also Andalusia, Basque… Catalunya is rich in resources and the region spans from the Mediterranean coastline to the Pyrenees mountains inland. Our locality is reflected in our cuisine. For example, we have something called mar i muntanya – a mixture of meat with seafood in the same dish, which is what many would typically consider surf and turf.
Catalan food is also about the seasonality. Due to our location, we get to enjoy seafood all year round, and seasonal vegetables and produce from the land. Spanish food in general is more about the locals eating what they can get in their area. For example, Madrid is located near the mountainous region, so their dishes tend to be more meat focused.
3. What is your favourite Catalan dish?
My favourite dish is snail. I will always order them if they are on the menu. I love them! Everytime when I go back home to my family, we go to one restaurant near Girona and I’d always order snails for my starter and main course. And if I could, snails for dessert. They do them in different ways: with tomato, with aioli and even only with salt and pepper.
4. What is your relationship with chef Carles?
I had heard of chef Carles Gaig when I was young, and had always admired him and his dedication to his craft. I had the opportunity to dine at his restaurant during a culinary school field trip. That experience opened up my eyes to his cuisine.
Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet chef Carles again in 2014 at the restaurant Speakeasy, where I worked. Chef Carles was a regular customer, and I would often offer him tapas on the houses. An opportunity came about in 2016 with an opening at Restaurant Gaig. My friend who was working at the restaurant encouraged me to apply for the position. No further introduction was required when chef Carles saw me at the interview. It took no less than five minutes and I was offered the position as a sous chef.
5. How did you develop the dishes on the latest menu?
When we think of a new plate for our menu, we will always ask ourselves what do we enjoy eating in Spain; which dishes best represent our culture and how to create it. Once we decide on a dish, we will work on the presentation. Our main goal is for our diners to feel like they are dining in Barcelona when they are at our restaurant.
There are many dishes that we’ve created to challenge ourselves to make them exceptional. One of my favourites is the salmorejo soup with jamón ice cream. It is a common dish in Spain that is enjoyed during summer – a plain tomato soup made with tomato, garlic and bread, with some shavings of jamón or hard-boiled egg.
We tried to make it more ‘fun’ and different from the conventional ones. So, we created a jamón ice cream to replace the usual jamón shavings. We serve it with tomato bread sponge to bring texture to the palate. We always keep in mind to maintain the flavour of the dish when we recreate it, as it must be the same as we’d eat it in Spain.
6. Can you please describe your culinary journey?
I started cooking professionally at 19 after I graduated from culinary school. My first job was a cook for the four-star Gran Hotel la Florida in Barcelona. From there, I began to work in restaurant kitchens of other prominent four-star hotels such as the Grand Hotel Central, Hotel Arts Barcelona and Hotel Hilton Brussels in Belgium.
In 2011, I took on a 6-month stint as a cook at the three Michelin-starred restaurant El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. The short tenure opened my eyes to the impeccable operations of the renowned kitchen.
In 2012, I was under the tutelage of chef Ramón Freixa, a two Michelin-starred chef, at restaurant Avalon by Ramón Freixa, where I learnt about traditional Catalan cuisine and recipes that dated back more than a century.
Then in 2014, I joined restaurant Speakeasy in Barcelona as head chef – little did I know that chef Carles Gaig frequented its bar. I was excited to see chef Carles again after so many years and would often offer him complimentary tapas on his numerous visits.
In 2016, came an opening at Restaurant Gaig. I was encouraged to apply for it by a friend who was working at the restaurant. Chef Carles remembered me instantly during the interview and took no less than five minutes before I was offered the position as a sous chef.
Later that year, the position of sous chef at Restaurant La Ventana in Singapore came about. Carles urged me to take up the post; and I headed to Singapore. And in 2017, we opened Restaurant Gaig at 16 Stanley Street.
7. Did you always want to be a chef?
Yes. I was born in Mataró in 1989, and grew up in Barcelona in a family that enjoyed cooking and feasting. My mother is a superb home-cook. Because of her, I enjoyed cooking at a young age.
8. If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I love the sea and I’ve always been connected to it. If I am not a chef, I am quite sure it will be something related to the sea. I am lucky that I knew I wanted to be a chef since young.
9. What is your first memory of food?
My family enjoy cooking and since young food has been present in my life. I have many good memories of helping my grandfather cooking some traditional desserts at home. And I still use some of these recipes.
10. What is your most memorable meal?
I have been lucky enough to visit many good restaurants in my life. Sometimes it is more about the people who were with you than the meal itself. If I have to choose one most memorable meal, it would be four years ago at Enigma restaurant run by Albert Adria. I went with one of my closest friend, Bernat. He is also a chef and a great childhood friend of mine. The food and the company was very memorable.
11. What is your favourite local Singaporean dish? And what is your least favourite?
I will definitely choose sambal stingray. I love it!! I’m not that picky with the food, I can eat almost everything. If I have to choose a least favourite, I would say rice porridge or anything that contains pineapple. You won’t see me eating them.
12. Which local Singaporean dish do you think is the most underrated?
Singapore has a lot of hidden gems. If you do not live here, you will not know. The first time when I tried the carrot cake, I was amazed as I did not expect a dish like that. The oyster omelette is also one of my favourites.
13. Who would be your dream dinner guest to cook for and why?
It’s a difficult question as there are a lot of people. Starting from the most known chefs in the world, which will be a challenge to please their palate, to my favourite musician artist… If I really had to choose, it will be the people who are not around anymore, like my grandparents. I would love to show them who I’ve become, what I’m capable of and make them feel proud of me.
14. What is the most important part of a meal you reckon?
I think all parts of the meal are important. From the starter where you create the first impression till dessert – the last dish you would remember for the meal.
15. What would your last meal be?
If I know it is going to be my last meal. I will go to that very restaurant I love near Girona that serves my favourite snails as that I’ve mentioned earlier. I will eat snails till I can’t get anymore.
Restaurant Gaig is located at 16 Stanley Street, Singapore 068735.