The second edition of the Somos Gastro event gave attendees a first-class review of what goes on behind the scenes of the multiverse of gastronomy, catering and wine. The conference, organized by El Mundo and Metrópoli (two of the titles of the Unidad Editorial Group), brought together personalities, experts, risky entrepreneurs and innovators from the world of gastronomy and wine to talk about trends, generational changes, consumers and even the battles in the day to day of their trades.

The event, moderated by Juan Fornieles, deputy director of El Mundo, brought together at the first table two great restaurants with a common denominator: a family proposal of haute cuisine (Michelin star included) in emptied Spain. It's all about OBA and Versatile. The first is managed by Juan Sahuquillo and Javier Sanz, best childhood friends, almost brothers. With just 25 years, they have not only passed through large establishments such as Mugaritz, Casa Marcial or Atrio, but they have acquired the title of Best Revelation Chef of Madrid Fusión, a Michelin star and another Green star of the French guide with their restaurant in less than a year.

"We did not like school, we liked cooking and, after working and training in several places, we were always clear that we wanted to return to Casas Ibáñez (Albacete) and contribute what we played," said Sanz. When the Michelin star arrived in this corner, the impact was enormous and a claim to attract more young people. In fact, the chefs, also creators of Cañitas Maite, ensure that none of their employees exceed 25 years. "It is very appreciated in a rural space, where tourism is almost nil, that people come from both Spain and the rest of the world. In addition, that makes everything more and more professional, "said Sahuquillo.

On the other hand, the three Hernández Talaván brothers (José Luis, Alejandro and David), from Versatile, have opted for a business model in which family reconciliation prevails in order to attract workers to Zarza de Granadilla, a town of less than 1,800 inhabitants in Cáceres. "Young people want to live in big cities, so retaining employees is a challenge. Therefore, our trump card is to offer three and a half days off, and I am convinced that people prefer more free time than money, "said José Luis Hernández Talaván. Thus, Versatile has managed to break through in the middle of an almost population desert and reach the star opening only from Thursday to Sunday.

From left to right: Juan Sahuquillo and Javier Sanz, from OBA and Cañitas Maite, and the Hernández Talaván brothers, from the Versatile restaurant.

Both businesses have managed to offer their localities "something different", which has managed to attract not only visitors to their villages, but also young and international talent to work in their prestigious restaurants. And they achieved it as everything is done in the villages: with word of mouth. "We never considered reaching the Michelin star. We simply knew that something different was needed in our area. When we opened on Thursday, November 2, 2017, a very cloudy day, there was no one, until week by week word of mouth worked very fast, "said Juan.

Wine and women

The second table of Somos Gastro had the female experience. Four women experts in the world of wine, Marian Otamendi, counselor of the Lanzarote winery El Grifo; Pilar Oltra, owner and sommelier of Vinology; Laura Sánchez Lara, journalist and sommelier; and Helena Rivero, president of Bodegas Tradición in Jerez, exchanged views from the different areas of their trades.

The experience of these women denoted a knowledge and wisdom that only tradition and generational change can teach. The wine sector, like so many others in history, has been predominantly dominated by men, although many times behind each winery was a family, including women. "The world of owners is very much male, but it has changed a lot. In Jerez there have always been many families dominating the wineries and there were always women in the shadows," Rivero explained.

From left to right: Laura Sánchez Lara, journalist and sommelier; Pilar Oltra, from Vinology; Helena Rivero, from Bodegas Tradición, and Marian Otamendi, from El Grifo.

This is how these women personify it in the present. But no longer from the shadows, but from leadership, with the respect of their counterparts and an enviable knowledge fruit of tradition and study. Otamendi represents the sixth generation of El Grifo, the oldest winery in the Canary Islands and one of the oldest in Spain, which has been producing wine since 1775. Oltra's vocation also comes from generationally. "I am third generation, my grandfather and my father had wineries and my father is a winemaker," he said. Similar was the case of Rivero, who said that, despite being a family inheritance, "it was late." Sánchez, on the other hand, is a journalist specialized in gastronomy and stressed that his communicative work lies in "telling the stories behind the wines".

"Sommeliers and winemakers are underrepresented, especially in the management part, but more and more winemakers and more owners are seen, and little by little we are arriving," said Otamendi. In general, the guests agreed that they had had a positive experience in relation to their condition as a woman in a predominantly male world. "Depending on where you are in the value chain, it can be more difficult to reconcile with personal life. Maybe that's why there have been more men, although I've always felt sheltered and welcome and I think the wine sector is very human," Oltra acknowledged.

However, beyond the gender debate in the sector, the experts focused on current trends and realities around the product as such. For Sánchez, it is very clear: "The consumer increasingly knows more and drinks better and that makes establishments and wineries try harder; It is a circle that attracts more and more people. This is due to democratization and communication. Now we tell the stories, the people behind them, we make known varieties and regions and this interests the readers, "he said.

Attendees to the talks.

In that sense, it is important to continue accompanying the consumer. "People increasingly want to know more and there the figure of the sommelier is super important. Consumers are open to trying new things, new denominations," Oltra said. In Rivero's opinion, it is also key that Spain bets more on quality than on the volume of production and puts even more value on all its wine wealth, of equal or better quality than countries such as France or Italy. "Somehow, you can tell we still don't believe it," he said.

But the wine sector is on the right track, according to experts. "The only common denominator my audience has is that they love wine. In Spain, people are starting to be aware that we have a wonderful oenological wealth and I see more and more interest. In addition, better and better wine is made," Oltra said.

Responsible in the shadows

The last table of Somos Gastro brought together three other luxury guests: the multi-awarded Abel Valverde, one of the best maîtres in Spain and head waiter of the restaurant since 1911; Roberto Jiménez, head waiter in Zalacaín; and Christopher Manchado, head waiter at Nintai. The three talked about the importance of service to obtain a gastronomic experience of excellence. But they also discussed the generational change and the difficulty in attracting talent to a profession with many awarded sambenitos that are difficult to remove: sacrifice, impossible schedules, enormous stress and low salaries.

Contrary to what anyone might think, it is not the helpfulness or even the good memory to retain commands the most important quality of a head waiter of a haute cuisine restaurant, but something much more complex: "Attention, service and psychology. That is the room, difficult and very easy at the same time," Jimenez explained. These room managers are actually masters in the management of other people's emotions and must maintain a sharp and empathic emotional intelligence every day to be able to treat both the client and the members of their teams.

From left. on the right: Christopher Manchado, head waiter at Nintai, Roberto Jiménez, head waiter at Zalacaín and Abel Valverde, head waiter at Since 1911.

"The hardest part is managing emotions. This is not like manual work, which is learned with practices, but it is improvised. Interestingly, managing the emotions of the team, that everyone is well, gives more work than the client himself, "said Manchado. In this sense, Valverde believes that we must do two types of psychology: "The individual and the collective". And he believes that "psychology often prevails more than rationality."

The pandemic, lockdown, masks and isolation deprived humans of contact with each other. "When the doors of the restaurants opened again, the customer longed and wanted to reconnect. And this is the future, since, at the moment, machines cannot deal with emotions as humans do," Valverde said.

That skill of the head waiter in times that have changed is the one that knows how to treat a stubborn client. "When the customer is not right, you cannot bend down and let him pass over you or colleagues. The most difficult thing of all is to debate with the diner: you have to calibrate their profile very well to be able to make them see reality," explained Manchado.

While all three agreed that the customer today is not the same as the one 30 years ago, there are still some profiles in their restaurants that "want everything now" and treat waiters as "servants." In these cases, their maxim is "see, hear and shut up", torturing that user to avoid confrontation, but at the same time never let anyone disrespect them.

Abel Valverde, head waiter of Since 1911.

On the other hand, Valverde said that for work to be attractive to young people and a generational change can occur, stereotypes must be removed. "The great pending duty is the conciliation, the balance between personal and work life." But not only that, but the heads of room are the ones who guarantee an excellent service whose attention makes each masterpiece of the chef shine even more. "Chefs have to give importance to the maître de sala and not only talk about the dish, but about what accompanies the dish," he said. Therefore, service is the key.

"The customer values the service very much and that shows in the reviews. In fact, the evolution of analytics, if the service is good, almost always goes in a straight line, while the kitchen can have more peaks, "explained Manchado. In addition, Valverde concluded, success implies delegating: "The greatest success of a professional when he expands his responsibilities is to have the concrete pieces and know how to give the confidence that each piece that you have around you deserves. That's the way to grow."

The conference was held at the Espacio Aster (Gran Vía, 30) and was sponsored by Mahou 5 Estrellas Sin Filtrar, Solán de Cabras, Flor de Esgueva, Vermut Zecchini, DIA and Finca La Estacada.

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