As the leading gastronomy writer and food critic in the region, Alfredo Argilés proves once again that the pen is a formidable weapon. His carefully weighed opinions are read by thousands of discerning diners, making him a man both revered and feared by restaurant owners and chefs whose success rests on the strength of their reputation.
“It’s not quite as bad as all that,” insists the affable expert. “I only give harsh reviews to those who really set themselves up to be measured among the very best – and fall short.” Others are measured not against the highest yardsticks but judged within their own segment, ensuring that the verdict is always proportionate to the establishment he critiques. “If the truth be known, I’d rather not write about someone than have to say something harsh.”
It is a true reflection of a self-confessed lover of those things that add beauty to life, for gastronomy, art and architecture all compete for a place in his heart. “In essence, they are all expressions of artistry and creativity, starting with a basic need such as food and shelter, and culminating in heights of culinary and architectural excellence that matches art as a form of human expression. Naturally, art is largely free of practical function, but when we excel in fields such as gastronomy, architecture and cinema, we are in essence creating art.”
During August, when he traditionally writes an article per day, he created a series in which the food he reviewed was compared to compositions of great contemporary artists. “It’s amazing how much a meal and its ingredients can approximate famous works,” says the food critic who also happens to be an authority on art. Indeed, the two fight for his affections, “and it’s undecided which has won,” smiles Argilés. This unusual way of comparing fine food and fine art caught the public’s attention, drawing their attention to the fact that cuisine is an art in itself.
It is this creative process that excites and fascinates him, though this respected food critic has his feet firmly on the ground. Essentially a food historian who loves to trace the cultural and anthropological origins of regional cuisine, the head of the gastronomic department at El País has not got caught up in the fads of the past years. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the way luxury dining has become avant-garde and experimental, but I feel too many young chefs are trying to establish themselves too early, and their efforts all too often end up looking kitsch.”
“Having lots of technique and wanting to show it off is not enough, just like a designer décor does not necessarily make a great restaurant. It takes passion, innate talent and also a degree of patience and humility to become a great chef. First you have to learn from mistakes and experimentation, earn your stripes under a master chef, and then be let loose on the public. It is at this stage that you are more likely to make a true and lasting contribution to gastronomy.”
According to Argilés a good restaurant is one where the focus is on the diner, not the chef. “Rather than this sudden boom in sommeliers, therefore, we should have more maîtres. They can really add a dimension to the dining experience in terms of service. Of course, when a chef has the personality to act as maître in his own restaurant that is even better, but this is a relatively rare phenomenon.”
Asked how he rates Valencia as a culinary centre, he answers: “Catalonia and the Basque country may have more international fame than Valencia, but in reality our best matches theirs, partly because we are particularly blessed with some of the finest produce in the country. I would say that among its many other facets Valencia is well worth visiting for its gastronomy”.
Photo II Credit: Tania Castro in El Pais