Vicenç Fajardo is the president of La Cuina de l’Empordanet gastronomic collective, which brings together a group of 17 cuisine and catering professionals in Baix Empordà. They recently published a guide to publicise the restaurants in the group (three of which have Michelin stars).
How long have you been president of La Cuina de l’Empordanet?
Just over four years. We were based in La Plaça restaurant in Madremanya, but a few months ago we opened Saó, in Fonteta. With the change, I made the position available to the members because to be part of La Cuina de l’Empordanet the restaurant must be open for at least two years. But they said they wanted me to continue as president because they knew we wouldn’t open a McDonalds.
The group’s published a guide.
Yes, the guide aims to publicise and promote the 17 restaurants in the group. It’s a useful tool not only for visitors passing through the area, but also for local people, so that they can enjoy most of the most prestigious and renowned establishments in the region. They are restaurants with very diverse cuisines, three of them with a Michelin star (Bo.Tic, in Corçà, which has two; Els Tinars, in Llagostera, and Casamar, in Llafranc, each have one).
Have you met any customers who have been to all the restaurants in the guide?
The other day some customers came who had been to all the restaurants in the publication and had each chef sign their page. They were very happy and told us that they’d had very positive experiences and that they would never have imagined that they could have eaten so well in Platja d’Aro or L’Escala.
Speaking of Michelin stars, do any of the restaurants in the association deserve any for the quality of food they serve?
One shouldn’t get obsessed about these things. I opened a restaurant to enjoy my work. I’m lucky that the restaurant is part of another business, because my forte is catering. I don’t think a restaurant with nine tables like the one I just opened will give me that holiday in Honolulu. But that doesn’t worry me. What I want is to enjoy what I do, and that’s the best reward ever. And if, in addition, the customer also values you, then you can’t ask for anything else.
So you don’t think about Michelin stars?
We have a loyal clientele, and that is our Michelin star. In the end the best restaurant is the one that has a loyal clientele that comes back again and again. About 15,000 people a year passed through La Plaça restaurant in Madremanya, despite our schedules: in August we only opened at night, we closed three days a week in winter, and yet we served a bunch of customers. Proof of the loyalty of our clientele is that although we’ve only recently opened Saó, we have always filled it with returning customers.
Do you come from a lineage of chefs?
No, but I’ve always loved cooking. I really like my profession; I can dedicate many hours to it and not notice the time go by.
You are not from Empordà.
I am an outsider, but in a good way. I’m from Salt, with a mother from Madrid and a Catalan father. We emigrated to Australia when I was little, and that instilled in me a very open culture because we lived among many different nationalities. But I’ve always loved Empordà.
We are the way we live, it’s the climate, the culture, the nature, the calm, the air, the mountains and the sea. It has everything. I’ve been asked a thousand times to go to work in Barcelona but I don’t want to leave Empordà. I live in La Bisbal d’Empordà, my restaurant is in Fonteta and my other business is in Forallac. It’s gratifying to be able to see the wheat fields in the morning, and the orchards and nature while you go to work or come home. Many people are happy to have that on a weekend but I have it every day.
And what about the food?
We have some really good restaurants in the area, while the local wineries are doing really good things. When we still hadn’t opened the restaurant but were looking for local suppliers, we learnt that we had an organic winery three doors from the restaurant. We have always been committed to locally-sourced produce and we have always believed, both in Madremanya and here, that we must help each other.
Back to La Cuina de l’Empordanet. Last year the group turned 25.
Yes. The aim of La Cuina de l’Empordanet is to promote the region, its culture and gastronomy, because in the end these three things go hand in hand.
And how is the region and its culture promoted from a restaurant?
When I come up with a menu, you pair the dishes with local wines, and that means promoting the region, and if you also know who made the wine, you can explain its history. And culturally we spread the word because in Empordà there are good artists and a lot of heritage, and this is easy to sell.
Has gastronomy room to grow here?
I don’t think there are any problems about more restaurants opening in Baix Empordà; the problem is in the winter months, when it’s harder for everyone. In the summer there is enough business for everyone. In fact, the problem is that here there are times of the year when the region can’t absorb the large number of people who come. Proof of that can be seen in places like Cadaqués, Calella, Llafranc, Tamariu or Begur.
How have restaurants handled the pandemic so far?
Terrible. The vast majority of restaurateurs are self-employed and have not received any help from the authorities. I’ve made a titanic effort to keep smiling when you see the business sinking. You know it’s sinking but you don’t know if the water is up to your feet, neck or head. It’s very hard feeling helpless and having no solutions; you don’t know where to turn. Now you can open, now you have to close, now they make you close at three and then at five, now there needs to be two metres between tables, now masks have to be worn then they don’t. It’s been hard.
Now that summer is over, how do you see things evolving?
What might happen in autumn worries me. We’ve noticed that people seem to have more money to spend, as if the months locked down had curtailed people’s spending and now they’re letting go. People want to go out. We’ll have to see how it all goes.