Four Hands: Sushi and Tapas

Web original  Madrid, May 2015
Versione italiano  

As you approach the Rocío it looks like any tapas bar in Malaga, the capital city of the Costa del Sol in Andalusia.  But the cooking here, by Michelin-starred chef Juan Bautista García Martín and Japanese sushi maestro Maeso Kikuchi, is unique.  So, too, are the prices. Why do two such successful cooks decide to focus on tapas and sushi affordable to everyone?

The first clue to what makes the Rocío unique as a tapas bar comes in the cooking smells outside the kitchen door. Here, where tables are left stacked up outside opening hours and the kitchen door is ajar, there are no southern aromas of frying in olive oil, garlic or tomato hanging in the air. Instead, as I head into the galley-like kitchen, I walk through a subtle mix of sesame oil, lemon and Iberico ham.

El rocío team in kitchen
El Rocío team in kitchen


"It's not a fusion menu," Juan Bautista García Martín says quickly, shaking my hand. "For me that would feel irreverent. It's a double menu."

Inside the kitchen, lined with shelves, equipment on hooks, stoves and ingredients, I meet Juanma and Carmen, in their twenties, and Masao Kikuchi, aged 79, one of the few Japanese-trained sushi masters working in Spain.  He and Juan Bautista each cook a separate menu from their own food cultures. Among this summer's tapas is an ajo blanco, or white almond gazpacho with quince paste, pine kernels, Pedro Ximénez agar-agar noodles and lychee ice-cream.  On the sushi menu are Iberico pancetta with Japanese mustard, octopus with sake and a Hijiki salad of seaweeds and mushrooms dressed with warm sesame oil.  The clients then order what they like, often ordering from both menus.

The Rocío grew out of friendship, circumstances and the economic crisis. Masao, Juan Bautista and his wife María José met while working as cooks at the Gran Guadalpín, a luxury Marbella hotel.  Juan Bautista headed up its Michelin-starred Spanish dining-room while Masao – who came to Marbella via Emperor Hirohito's palace kitchen, the Hiltons in Dubai and the Emirates, and various other stop-offs - ran the Japanese restaurant.  Then came the economic recession.  By late 2009 María José found herself unemployed and began to set up her own tapas bar in tiny premises in a low-rent quarter of Malaga city.  Juan Bautista, finding himself redundant a few months later, joined her. Masao quickly followed suit.

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