Meeting with Fernando del Cerro, chef at La Casa de José, in Aranjuez south of Madrid
A healthy diet, the taste of terroir, environmental concerns… There are many reasons for the strong comeback of vegetables'. Fernando del Cerro, a major chef from Madrid, even made them his speciality twenty years ago.
Are vegetables underestimated in today’s cooking ?
Vegetables have always had a certain strength, they have of course been valued, but in a supporting role. Nowadays, and this will be accentuated in the near future, they are increasingly taking centre stage, through dietary or environmental necessity, in search of a healthier lifestyle.
Your work is therefore to refocus on seasonal vegetables …
Above all, the “seasonal vegetable” is a concept that needs to be explained. Seasonality of products depends on the place of origin of the produce and not where it is transformed. At home, we effectively strive to give this leading role to vegetables, with very local products which are of course seasonal.
Does it allow you to add a creative touch to culinary traditions of your region?
Of course, work with vegetables requires immersion into a very complex world, where small achievements give us great satisfaction. Vegetables open up more options and give us the freedom to explore the culinary world. We do not support the concept of “renovating” traditional recipes. We only claim to give new ideas for the preparation of vegetables, not forgetting how to do things as we often do the opposite of what tradition demands!
How do you buy your vegetables?
Where and how we buy them depends exclusively on the will of the chef, according to the moment and the intention. Vegetables can come from the traditional market, the farmer, be supplied in liquid, puree, frozen form or come from an ecological farm… We are looking to use them in a smart way to draw the best from them by choosing them and demanding the best possible quality. We work closely with farmers, buying directly from then, in addition to growing our own.
Are you also open to discovering new preparations?
There is a whole world of vegetables that we are beginning to discover and offers us infinite possibilities. This discovery of new uses is synonymous with new forms of presentation. We are currently working with Les vergers Boiron frozen vegetable purees, a new method, which we find can open up more creative possibilities. For example, in the bistro menu, we use these purees to make preparations and soups. Furthermore, in terms of storage and yield, these products are very attractive.
Do you speak to your customers about your approach to vegetables?
Of course, that’s where you need to start. We explain that we offer truly local cuisine. As luck would have it, in our village, farming is an inherent part of our socio-economic and cultural roots. We are located in what used to be the leading vegetable garden of the Renaissance in sixteenth century Europe. We show that it is possible to attain fine gastronomy with vegetables and that it is necessary for us to give them greater value, far from passing fads and trends.
In your tasting menus, you sometimes have fun serving the same vegetable in different forms of cooking or spicing it up with different condiments...
Vegetables open up so many possibilities to us that, effectively, for certain vegetables, we have decided to serve them in different forms of preparation. Sometimes we do not know if Aranjuez green asparagus is better raw or fried. In early spring, when asparagus is both sweet in flavor and strong in consistency, it would be a shame to deprive ourselves of any one of the possibilities of cooking it. This is the case with an increasing number of vegetables in all seasons: the courgette, which we prepare from different fermentations, but also the tomato, autumn cabbage… Customers, in the same menu, are thus given a very broad vision of a modest vegetable.
Which vegetables are you working with the most this autumn for example?
Farmers always say that our climate, with its winter night frost and summer heat, is the worst for growing vegetables. In reality, we are lucky to be here. Our climate allows us to have a wide variety of vegetables in small quantities. This autumn, we will continue to plant new varieties, Asian vegetables (Chinese cabbage, pak choï, Japanese broccoli) and a wide range of radishes, turnips, carrots which we do not traditionally grow.
What techniques do you use to cook them?
Each vegetable has its own cutting technique, it's own personality but also its way of being chewed and digested. Its transformation only depends on the form we believe best for it to be eaten. I believe, for example, that cabbages (cauliflower, broccoli, romanescu cabbage, etc.), when raw reach their maximum potential by adding a subtle spicy marinade like ceviche.
Aranjuez is also known for certain fruit like strawberries…
Our strawberry is indeed considered to be a jewel, even though we can only enjoy it 25 days a year. As with vegetables, we try to find the best form in which to taste the fruit, whether in mousses, creams, etc., often applying thermal treatments to strengthen them.