You probably haven’t heard this one before. People don’t usually savor the tastes of things they’re more likely to find in their backyards than in their kitchens. But if you fire up Instagram and follow Rodrigo de la Calle, you might start salivating over such plants-turned-food. Swipe down for images of black garlic, heaps of violet asparagus, and bushels of broccolini, plus dozens of photographs of vegetables, flowers, and herbs transformed into carefully executed, vibrant plates too good-looking to eat.
Rodrigo de la Calle is the rare Spanish chef content to trade in his tortilla española for more creative gastronomical adventures. It’s not that he doesn't love those traditional dishes. He was born near Madrid—of course they’re in his DNA. But for the past decade or so, De la Calle’s blood has run green. This is a man who loves his vegetables more than any croquette or jamón ibérico.
“Meat and fish are just like a dressing,” he says through a translator at Madrid’s five-star luxury property Hotel Villa Magna, where he was named executive chef in October. “The main thing is the vegetables.” Thus, there are four menus at Restaurante Villa Magna Rodrigo de la Calle: gastronomic (for a la carte diners), green (for vegetarians), green revolution (for ultra-seasonal dishes), and gastrobotanics (for the adventurous).
To understand his marriage of vegetables and cuisine, it’s necessary to go back 10 years to the meeting of De la Calle and Santiago Orts, the director of the botanical garden El Huerto del Cura in the tourist haven of Alicante. One day while looking at the gardens full of ornamental and decorative plants, De la Calle was struck by their gastronomic value and, as he tells it, “decided to save those plants from extinction and cook with them.” (A more deeply-rooted inspiration came from his childhood when, as a young boy, he watched his father work as a farmer in rural Spain.)
After training and working with celebrated chefs including Andoni L. Aduriz, Paco Torreblanca, and Quique Dacosta, De la Calle opened his namesake restaurant in Aranjuez. He managed to put these onerous, labor-intensive veggies at the forefront of his restaurant—and found much success. By uniting gastronomy and botanical products, he created the “gastrobotanics” philosophy—the discovery of new species and the revival of forgotten ones. His restaurant earned a Michelin star before Villa Magna lured him away.
The result? Courses constructed from ecologically sustainable and seasonal produce that are as artfully designed as the Crystal Palace in Madrid’s Retiro Park. The food feels surprisingly healthy—or at least health-conscious. During a week in which I ate what felt like 784 courses, most of them belonging to the carbs-cheese-jamón family, the meal at Restaurant Villa Magna was refreshingly light. Even the dessert is made of quinoa.
A sampling of the menu: roasted lamb and eggplants with coffee flavor; turbot cooked three ways with citrus caviar; cream of black garlic; chickweed and endive aguachile with flowers; and creamy lichen, mushrooms and seaweed shoots (which begs the question: who knew lichen could be creamy?) More substantial options are present too—like aromatic, delicious risotto with truffles and lobster with Thai vegetables—but the vegetable courses are where De la Calle gets most creative.
In person, De la Calle looks like a cross between Christoph Waltz and Aaron Paul, a little bearded and wildly enthusiastic (just see his twitter account where he describes himself as “el domesticador de los vegetales.”) During lunch at the restaurant he brings over a finger lime, explaining in Spanish how it journeyed from its native Australian rainforest to his kitchen, then he splits it open and proudly display the contents: orbs of tangy liquid known as citrus caviar.
In a culinary-obsessed culture, it’s easy to view chefs as a bit aloof, toiling away in the back kitchen, creating feasts that novices just can’t replicate using Gristedes produce plated on IKEA dishes. This makes De la Calle’s energy and enthusiasm all the more endearing as he eagerly shares his excitement with a hungry audience. When he peppers his social media eruptions with #revolucionverde and #gastrobotanicapower and many, many exclamation points, you might find yourself thinking: I’ll have what he’s having.
And it’s true, there is an Alice in Wonderland quality to sitting at a bedecked table eating one of his colorful meals. Tiny, single-bite seaweed and beetroot macarons remind that we’re a long way from Ladurée; the quinoa croquettes aren’t at all like the piping hot cheesy-lava versions served everywhere else in the city; and braised leeks swim in a marine emulsion.
Compare this with the menu at Botin, christened by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest restaurant in the world. It’s a short and sweet example of “traditional” Spanish cuisine: suckling pig, roasted lamb, and veal cutlet breaded with potatoes. (Breaded. With. Potatoes.)
De la Calle is undoubtedly a hometown boy. Including the Michelin star he notched in 2011, he was named “Chef of the Year” by Madrid’s Chamber of Commerce, and Madrid Fusion, the annual food festival heralding the next wave of Spanish cuisine, gave him the title of “The New Revelation Chef.” No pressure.
And he’s living in good company. Madrid is now home to more two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants than Barcelona, a trend De la Calle thinks will continue. “I’m sure that the number of Michelin-starred restaurants will increase,” he says. “It is just a matter of time.” Progress was made during last month’s Madrid Fusion festival, where some of the world’s top Spanish chefs—including Jose Andrés, Pascal Barbot, Andoni Luis Aduriz and Joan Roca—gathered to talk about the future of food. There were panels on “external inspiration and internal motivation,” workshops on vacuum cooking, and talks on the world of mycology. De la Calle, of course, discussed the vegetable invasion; it’s no wonder that San Sebastian’s Basque Culinary Center recently called him the “vegetable whisperer.”
But amid all the excitement, De la Calle is still looking for what’s next. Literally. He wants to find one of the plants most elusive to him: the lotus flower, native to Asia. Surely it’s only a matter of time. Viva la #revolucionverde.
While You’re in Madrid...
SLEEP HERE: The five-star luxury property Hotel Villa Magna, home to De la Calle’s restaurant, is a favorite of Brad, Angelina and their brood; they’ve been known to rent out half of the ninth floor.
SHOP THERE: The Spanish label Delpozo, which has only two storefronts—one in Madrid, one in Miami—made its mark most recently on the fashion world with a well-received fall 2014 RTW collection at New York Fashion Week.
EAT EVERYWHERE: Head to La Cocina de San Antón, where award-winning jamón Ibérico-slicer Jason cuts whisper-thin pieces of the infamous cured meat and presents it on a plate like the expert that he is.
GO HERE: Stop by the unsurpassed and eclectic collection at Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the only museum in the world that starts with a Madonna and child from the 13th century and ends with Lichtenstein. Cézanne’s on view now; the exhibition “Pop Art Myths” opens June 10.
GETTING TO AND FRO: American Airlines offers nonstop flights to Madrid from New York, Miami, and Dallas. Check prices at AA.com Other carriers also serve Madrid with nonstop flights.