The best childhood memories of Rafa Zafra (Alcalá de Guadaira, Seville, 1981) are linked to food. "I've always been an enjoyer," he admits, sitting in the dining room of his restaurant Estimar in Madrid. But there is a ritual that he keeps with special affection in his memory. "My father delivered with a truck and my mother, as I did not like to study or anything, punished me and sent me with him. What I didn't know was that for me it was the best plan in the world. When he stopped his 45 minutes to take the menu in his restaurant on the polygon and I could choose between three first and three seconds, he lived it as a party. " The good hand of his mother in the kitchen - "cooks like angels" - and his naive curiosity marked a path that led him to enroll (hand in hand with his mother too) in the School of Hospitality Heliópolis in Seville, where he found his place.

That kid "eater" today serves as host of Bruce Springsteen and the Obamas, businessmen and politicians of all stripes in his premises in Barcelona, Seville, Madrid and Ibiza and has an agenda full of projects. He is not enthusiastic about being labeled 'fashion chef' because these, he says, are "fleeting" and that always implies in some way an end: "We are in a very sweet moment, receiving the affection of the public, the press and colleagues, which for me is important." Campechano and humble, he does not lose his smile throughout the conversation.

In the room of Estimar, temple of fish and seafood blessed by Ferran Adrià himself, who baptized it as the seafood restaurant of the XXI century, the hustle and bustle begins. Part of the team places the fresh genre in the open kitchen; On the other side of the counter they prepare the famous gildas of the house. "We have created a very beautiful language around the sea." There are a few days left before both this and the Estimar de Barcelona close in August and focus their efforts on Casa Jondal, the beach bar in Ibiza where it is impossible to reserve a table since almost before the summer officially starts. "We have everything taken until October," reports the cook, who makes a couple of calls on his mobile asking for a table on the beach.

The Zafra universe is based on a phrase: "We cook as we like to eat". In a few weeks he inaugurates a new space in Madrid, Rural, a few meters from Estimar in Marqués de Cubas, with meat as the queen of the party. "Now we have to decide what we want and what we don't. Where we put more energy and where we don't." Romantic and easy to convince when he likes an idea, he is aware that the one who covers a lot does not tighten. "In addition to Rural, we are expanding Jondal in Miami and the Bahamas and we have a theme in Istanbul," he adds with some mystery. He can't and doesn't want to take on any more challenges. "Every project involves making teams, traveling... And they don't give the days. I take eight flights or trains a week." He prefers to create concepts and "not replicate them", and perhaps therein lies part of his success.

In that and in the team that surrounds him. "The sorrows when you share them are less sorrows and the successes are enjoyed more in company." The theory sounds good, but better the practice: "We try to bring into the societies of the group people who have been with us for a long time to make them feel that they work for something and that they are part of the project." It's a formula they adopted seven years ago and they've done wonderfully. "They have always been very generous to me and I try to be so now."

Despite the applause of critics and public and the regularity in the work, until today he has not knocked the Michelin star at his door. "We don't work for guides." And he takes it to gala. "If there's one beautiful thing right now, it's that we fill every day, enjoy the respect of the profession and there's a chef sitting at our tables almost daily. The Sandoval brothers, Dabiz Muñoz, Ferran Adrià...". He doesn't seem to be stressed much about awards. "We're not looking for Michelin; I even think it would hurt us. In the end, having the star makes you a restaurant for special occasions and we flee from protocols. We want to work that luxury close. If they give it to us, perfect too, nothing happens either."

Chef Rafa Zafra, at Estimar Madrid.

The common thread of everything he creates is "the product, purity and simplicity". From here he draws a point of sophistication that each dish has hidden. "The cooking points also make a difference." He draws a lot of inspiration from the space environment. "In Seville we didn't want to make a restaurant; He called us more of a brewery." In the offices of Barcelona they have their bunker where they work all the cards, formats and concepts. In the team there is even a biologist, in charge of choosing the best product by seasonality and type of fishing. "It gives us incredible information." The simplicity of the proposal implies that the more they know about the product, the better they will be at everything. The staff is currently made up of more than 350 people. "Jondal alone works 120."

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More than boss, he considers himself a "close leader", which does not mean that the level of demand at work is not maximum; Of course, without one voice louder than another. "I forbid the head chefs to get angry and yell at the teams." From his time at El Bulli he remembers how Adrià "knew how to get the best out of everyone. We always said that there are no good or bad helpers, but good or bad bosses. Going through there was my best master's degree; I acquired that point of leadership there."

Summer is taken more slowly than any other time of the year. Many of the regulars of the restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona move to Ibiza in July and August. "It's very nice when people tell you, 'I've been to all your restaurants.'" You do not need to disconnect and when you are not in one of your premises you are eating here or there. He has also learned to value lately "being at home, I need a home, to be calm with my partner".

The famous bikini of Estimar.

After leaving the School of Hospitality, he started an internship in one of the best Italian restaurants in the Andalusian capital, San Marco. "When I was 17 years old, I was made head chef, with a crazy salary, which I gave to my mother," he clarifies with a laugh; he then went to Italy, he would stop in the Basque Country, in Catalonia ... and in 2003 he returned to his homeland, to Hacienda Benazuza, the hotel in El Bulli, where he spent 10 years and became head chef. "It was the first two Michelin stars in Andalusia."

With the maturity that experience brings, he decided to open Estimar Barcelona with his then partner Anna Gotanegra. It was Ferran who advised him to open "a fish restaurant with a concept of haute cuisine". The adventure in Barcelona evolved "little by little". Many customers asked him to open a branch in Madrid. The diners themselves who traveled from the capital to Barcelona showed him possible places to rent. In the middle of the Catalan process, Zafra jumped into the pool with a space next to the Congress of Deputies. "What we didn't know was that Covid was going to come after three months", but even in a pandemic it was like a movie. "Estimating Madrid was born great; He didn't have a childhood." Converted today into one of the capital's tables of power, they have managed to create a different culture around fish.

He lives in Barcelona, a city he loves. "I don't change her for anything, for the simple reason that she has given me a lot of love since I arrived." His maxim is to enjoy life and "collect moments". He has no luxuries, "not even a car". He only loses the kitchen.

Rural, meat and other tracks

1. The Rural restaurant is located at Calle Marqués de Cubas, 8. This September will open its doors with meat as the absolute protagonist. "We want to create a different concept."

2. In the project, Zafra Anna Gotanegra and Ricardo Acquista accompany as partners. As head chef will be Alberto Pacheco and the maître d' and sommelier will be Juanma Galán.

3. Ferran and Albert Adrià have been his professional and personal references. "I owe them everything. They have been a mirror for me, even as a way of understanding life."

4. The group in figures. At Casa Jondal, 80 pieces of fish are bought a day. In Estimar Madrid, they acquire 20; and in Barcelona, 15. Of caviar they buy 800 kilos a year. The place where most caviar is used of all is Casa Jondal, in Ibiza.