«In the end, it is about the essence and quality of the products, and the care one takes in preparing the food. There is no greater secret than that.»
This year, 289 Spanish restaurants received stars from the world-renowned French gastronomy-bible, Michelin. 23 are in Andalucía and eight are found in the Málaga-province, more specifically in Marbella, Fuengirola, Ronda and Málaga. But of the thousands of restaurants in this province, only two restaurants managed to achieve two Michelin stars – Skina in Marbella and Bardal in Ronda.
I had the pleasure of meeting chef Benito Gómez (46) in his renowned restaurant Bardal to talk about food, restaurant management, Michelin stars and what makes this cook work 18 hours a day.
The boy in the restaurant kitchen
Benito’s parents were Andalusian, and both were cooks. In the 1960s, the couple moved to Barcelona where they ran a Catalan restaurant, and since many of the guests were from Andalucía, they also served Andalusian food. «I grew up with typical Catalan comfort food and traditional Andalusian dishes. Bardal is a reflection of my past and therefore inspired by both Catalan and Andalusian cooking.»
Benito grew up in the restaurant kitchen and helped clean seafood from he was a mere lad. Since the family lived above the restaurant and his mother was a practical woman, she saw no reason in having a kitchen at home when they had the restaurant kitchen just a floor below. «All the cooking I have seen in my entire life has been in restaurant kitchens,» Benito says. He studied Culinary Arts at Sant Pol de Mar which at the time was one of Europe’s best cooking schools. But it was only in his third year that he got truly interested. The turning point was the cookbook El Bulli – El Sabor del Mediterráneo (El Bulli, the taste of the Mediterranean) written by the Catalan chef Ferran Adriá. «That book is the foundation of modern Spanish gastronomy. It was where Adreá broke from the establishment and showed the way for a whole new generation of cooks. To be honest, I stayed in the kitchen because of that book, which marked my path both as a cook and a person.»
Benito’s first paid job was in the Michelin restaurant of the French/Catalan chef Jean Luc Figueras. Even today Benito continues to make recipes inspired by his Catalan role models Adría, Figueras and Manolo de la Osa. «But I have to admit that I look up to anyone who has the stamina to work in a kitchen 15 hours a day while putting all their attention, care and love into preparing food.»
Fell in love with Ronda
Benito came to Ronda in 2014 when Dani García (Malaga province’s other chef with two Michelin stars) left Tragabuches. The owners of the restaurant hired Benito to take over as chef, and ever since then, Ronda has been his home. Here, he also met his wife, Mercedes, who is what he calls «a genuine rondeña».
«I fell in love with Ronda and hope to die here. There are few places in the world that are as spectacular. Most people know the town because of the bridge or the bullfighting ring, but Ronda has enormous unexplored potential and a big future that Bardal wishes to be a part of.»
Two years after he took over as cook at Tragabuches, Benito became the owner, and the restaurant was renamed Tragatá. This is where he received his first Michelin Guide recommendation in 2017. Tragatá is still open as a tapas restaurant, while Bardal opened in 2018 and has had two Michelin Stars since November 2019.
The restaurant is located on a narrow side street between the historical Puente Nuevo bridge and Ronda’s emblematic Plaza de Toros while having an undisturbed view from the cliff edge towards la Serranía de Ronda mountains. Both Spaniards and foreigners come to dine at the famous restaurant. «Just like people who like football will spend 150 euros on a football match, those who appreciate a special dining experience will come here. The guests spend 230 euros per person on average, but a restaurant visit like this is an experience of a lifetime.»
Benito is convinced that Andalucía has enormous gastronomical potential. «Never before has Andalucía’s kitchen been regarded with the eyes that we look at it today. In the past, this was Spain’s poorest region. Andalusian villages had a few thousand people and a couple of families that owned basically everything. The rest of the population worked for them, so the only ones that ate well were the owners. But Andalucía’s popular cuisine is fantastic. It is based on very humble ingredients. That is what was available and what people could eat. The great thing now is that you have a very extensive kitchen with rich taste nuances based on very simple ingredients. At the same time, Andalucía has some of the best products in the world – truffles, wild mushrooms, locally grown vegetables, outstanding seafood and of course the ibérico pork.»
Life of a Master Chef
If one expects to meet a haughty Master Chef, Benito proves to be exactly the opposite. Like his ancestors, he is an unstoppable workhorse. «I grew up with parents who worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Thankfully things are starting to change, but the restaurant business is still undervalued”.
Benito is vocally concerned about working conditions and fair treatment of employees. «Just a few years ago, the people who worked in restaurants didn’t have a single day off, but in our business, we still work all weekends, bank holidays and vacations. No other profession in the world has similar characteristics. Many restaurants do not take into consideration that the employees have to live off what they earn. They sell goods under the market price so that the clients can drink a beer for one euro, but if the prices were to reflect that the employees work eight hours a day, the beer should cost at least 3-4 euros like in the rest of Europe».
Bardal is like fine-tuned machinery and the only thing that causes problems are when the guests arrive late. Since the diners at Bardal spend up to four hours at the table, there is hardly any margin for delayed guests. «Our lunch reservations are between 13:30 and 13:45, and the dinner reservations are between 20:00 and 20:45. The guests cannot come any later than that, but especially Spaniards still have a lot to learn about punctuality. If you go to an opera or a theatre performance that starts at 21.00, they won’t start again if you arrive late. Why cannot people look at restaurants the same way? It is a business, and our cooks and waiters also need a life outside of the workplace. This isn’t a problem at our tapas restaurant Tragatá where you can eat in 30 minutes or in three hours and order one or ten dishes. But Bardal does not function that way since we serve 18 or 21 dishes depending on which menu the diners choose».
The restaurant owner and chef gives everything to be able to offer his guests the very best. Bardal is not only his job but his hobby and his passion. «I am lucky in that I love what I do. If I was born again, I would have done the same thing, guaranteed!»
A la mesa
Bardal has three separate dining sections, but the kitchen is unfathomably small. Eight synchronized professional cooks work in a 20 m2 area, overseen by Benito and his sous-chef to ensure that the tastes, scents, and presentations are nothing but perfect.
The unique Andalusian restaurant uses ingredients that reflect the region while making taste experiences led by the concept of ‘respect, essence and authenticity’. On their Menú Degustación one can find a mushroom and pine nut infusion, tuna belly and smoked oxigarum, sea urchin and caviar, sheep milk labneh, courgette and eel, wild seabass, and baby goat with seaweed. And that is before one ventures into the heavenly desserts. «Bardal is in continual development, and the menu changes with the season and availability. In the five years we have been here, we have established our style, but every year the style gets more refined in how we combine our ingredients.»
To present the many daily dishes the restaurant works with over 120 special suppliers, as one simple dish can have ingredients from five different suppliers. «Everybody in the industry talks about using local ingredients and having a 0-km kitchen. Obviously, we also wish to use more local ingredients and pollute less, but cooks are not the ones who will ruin the planet. We support local production when it is possible, but not everything one finds locally is good, and we need the very best. By importing better ingredients to Ronda, we also contribute to improving local knowledge and production.»
Stars and suns
In November 2022 Bardal was one of three Andalusian restaurants that received two stars in the Michelin-guide for 2023. Once again Benito confirmed that he and his passionate kitchen team follow the right path and Ronda got to keep its position among the world’s gastro-elite. At the same time, Bardal keeps receiving suns from the Spanish Repsol restaurant guide, but Benito is quick to point out that for him these are prizes and nothing more. «Of course, we are ecstatic to be in the Michelin Guide. Had it not been for that, we would probably not have been able to keep Bardal open since the guide brings people to Ronda just to eat right here. It has given us international attention, but the stars have no importance in our daily job. To me, it is not a goal in itself to achieve stars. If you have 1,2, 3 or zero stars, you still have to continue to do everything to the best of your abilities, be honest with yourself and work hard.»
Bardal’s future – bigger kitchen
Benito calls himself ignorant, but his food art and his success as a restauranteur say otherwise. «People always talk about doing something new in the kitchen, but I have always believed that if something ‘new’ comes, it is something that has been done before. For a cook to be able to create ‘the latest’, one first has to know what has been done in the past – if not one can never create anything new.»
As for something new, Benito’s long-time dream has been to get a bigger kitchen. The plans were drawn up and drawn up again, as they had to design three full restaurant concepts before the local authorities were satisfied. And as soon as they get the last approvals (during the spring of 2023), Bardal will move to a spectacular location 15 minutes outside of Ronda, where Benito and his team will have the space to cook to their hearts’ content!
But for all his stars and suns, Bardal’s chef is a down-to-earth man. «I do not believe in gourmet food. Either you make good or bad food, and the difference is that good food is made with care and love. It is and has always been, as simple as that. People like to complicate matters, but you can eat an almond or an olive, or you can eat oysters with caviar, but in the end, it is about the essence and the quality of the products and the care one takes in preparing the food. There is no greater secret than that.»