Villaverde de Pontones, 16 miles east of the city of Santander, is a tiny village blessed with the honor of hosting El Cenador de Amós, one of the five Michelin star restaurants of Cantabria. Jesús Sánchez is the proud owner and Chef of the restaurant, and the main architect behind the achievement of maintaining the Michelin distinction continuously for the past 17 years.
It is an unusual but interesting setting for a high-end restaurant: close enough to the city to consider it for dinner, but far enough to make the outing a special event. The drive also serves as a sort of appetizer, a way to transition from whatever you were doing into the green and the silence, the Endless Cantabria that you read of in the tourist pamphlets. When you arrive, worries filtered away through this land, you are truly ready to experience something special.
The restaurant is set in a remarkable palatial home, dating back to 1756; a surprise to visitors who expect a more modern setting to match Sánchez’s style in the kitchen. The contemporary interiors are a perfect complement to the historical building, reflecting the balance between tradition and innovation, between local and foreign that also characterize Sánchez’s cuisine.
We meet Jesús on a pleasant, warm summer evening, typical of the northern coast of Spain. Jesús guides us through the buildings, the attached patios and the surrounding gardens. You can feel the pride that he takes in the place, but also the humbleness with which he interacts with the setting, a sort of respect for those who were there before him, those who built, maintained or enriched this unique site.
After showing us his dream kitchen, Jesús leads us to the front room, where we can sit undisturbed for the interview. The room is a far departure from the modernly equipped kitchen. This is the least modernized area of the restaurant and it maintains a very special character, a sort of link to the building’s history.
Jesús explains that this was the first dining room that they opened, back in 1993, so it seems perfect that our interview should begin here, where it all started.
Gloria Rodriguez: This is a very special setting for the restaurant: a historical building located in a rural setting. How does this impact the restaurant as a whole?
Jesús Sánchez: Customers have to come all the way here. You need to present something that people will drive out for. When we opened we offered a more conservative cuisine, quite traditional and reminiscent of Navarra, where I come from. In 1995 we made a turn into a more personal cuisine, which evolved into the signature cuisine that we are now known for. We have also made a number of changes to the infrastructure. We invest in keeping our kitchen updated to make new techniques possible and we have also renovated the interiors to reflect the change of direction toward a more personal and modern cuisine.
GR: Do you consider your cuisine to be terroir-based or creative and independent?
JS: It’s a mix; the terroir is used as a point of reference, a starting point from which local products or recipes are interpreted creatively. We also do the opposite, use foreign products and recipes and interpret them under a local logic.
GR: How would you define your style in the kitchen?
JS: It’s a personal style. I use innovation as a tool, not as a goal in itself. New techniques and developments are used as an instrument to help me convey my understanding of a dish. I don’t want the customer to notice the technique, but to be satisfied with the dish as a whole.
It’s been 20 years at El Cenador de Amos of having a recognizable philosophy, a personal interpretation of food that has remained stable throughout the years. We have not been slaves to the food trends, but have maintained our vision incorporating the techniques that we thought could serve our philosophy.
I believe that success in a restaurant is measured by customer response, and not by your impact on the media. If you follow the trends, instead of investing in building a solid and stable cuisine style, the essence of your cooking will be diluted.
GR: How has Cantabria influenced your cuisine?
JS: It has been fundamental. Here is where I have grown as a chef. Before I arrived, the presence of Cantabria in the culinary world was largely due to Victor Merino, who started doing a new cuisine here. After that, and for quite some time, Cantabria faded off of the culinary map, although it always maintained its status as a “good food” region.
Right now there is a lot happening in Cantabria’s kitchens; there are a good number of chefs with new ideas and new proposals, and also recognition and support from the regional government.
GR: Is the region really “present” in your cooking? How?
JS: Cantabria is present in our cuisine mainly through the local ingredients, and not so much through local or traditional recipes, which are only present in a small number. I am a firm believer in the importance of understanding and respecting where you are located, so I do believe that the terroir has to come through somehow in your cooking. You need to contextualize your cooking; so even if you bring external references to it (be it via ingredients or recipes), you need to make sure that they are ‘translated’ into a final dish that can be understood and enjoyed locally.
GR: How do you think Spain’s regional culinary diversity has contributed to the “new Spanish cuisine?"
JS: Our new cuisine is the result of the motivation and drive of a number of Chefs who have promoted a new concept in cooking and not so much the result of an evolution of our culinary traditions.
GR: What changes in customer expectations have you noticed in the recent years?
JS: For a while customers where demanding a constant renewal of the menu, continuous “innovation," but this trend has died out.
GR: What is your opinion on the new “Km.0?”
JS: It’s in our DNA as chefs to search for ingredient excellence, so having local producers to provide you with fresh ingredients is essential. Every year we look for new local farmers and producers who can provide us with the ingredients that we need, but it’s not an easy task. Coordination between producer and chef is essential; we need a certain quantity and specific cuts of meat, and this is not always doable by small local providers.
We do have, for example, a local source of blueberries, strawberries, beans and peppers, but we can not rely on local providers for other products which are not produced in sufficient quantities in the area.
In my opinion it is not enough to raise awareness among the culinary professionals on the importance of purchasing from local providers; we need to educate the local consumer. Restaurants alone will not make local production sustainable.
GR: I don’t want to interfere with dinner preparations (especially considering that I’ll be having dinner here myself in a minute), so just one last question: What do you do for pleasure when your passion is also your profession? Do you have any hobbies?
JS: My other passion is photography. Most of the pictures that we have used for our web site or for printed material are mine.
I was recently asked by the local government to prepare an exhibition, and decided to do a series of pictures on local producers and other people who work with or around food in our village. The series is actually my interpretation of ‘Km.0.” We have ‘Bar Cedrín’, in Omoño, where Simón keeps alive the tradition of Goat Stew; or Carlos, the farmer who spoils his hens rotten and, in turn, obtains the most amazing organic eggs.
GR: It seems that you can’t get too far from food, even when holding a camera.
JS: I guess that happens when you are passionate about what you do