Sergi Arola is a man of many surprises. Not only does he boast a two-Michelin-star restaurant but he was also awarded a national gastronomic award and plays guitar in an alternative rock band called Los Canguros. There are many layers to the enigmatic chef and this is also reflected in his new restaurant p&c by Sergi Arola, at Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi. Like many celebrated chefs, Arola’s passion for cooking started at a young age, but for rather unexpected reasons as Concierge finds out.
“There are a few contributing aspects to why I started cooking. As a child I was an extremely picky eater. So much so that I took matters into my own hands and started to cook exactly what I wanted to eat. That fuelled my understanding of cooking but my main inspiration was my grandfather. He launched me on my culinary journey and gave me the drive to turn my passion into my lifestyle,” says chef Arola. “I now also understand that you take inspiration from all around you and can learn on a daily basis. My experiences, family, friends, loves, travels – these all form the basis of my daily inspiration.”
Arola went on to enrol at the Hospitality and Catering School in Barcelona while also exploring his interest in music, playing guitar and composing songs for the Los Canguros (Kangaroos) alternative band that gained acclaim in the late ’80s. To help cover expenses, Arola began to work in small restaurants in Barcelona before stepping through the doors of L’Aram. Arola then joined Talaia Mar under the guidance of Ferran Adria, as well as award-winning el Bulli, and honed his craft before being offered the chance to take charge of a small restaurant in Madrid: La Broche, a cosy neighbourhood restaurant. A year later, it was awarded its first Michelin star.
Another star and more restaurants in some of the world’s most iconic cities followed, but Arola remains grounded and still retains an inherent raw energy, passion and respect for fine flavours. In fact, he tells Concierge, that he could happily live on simple Spanish Jamón Ibérico ham and olive oil for the rest of his life.
“Success is relative and is for others to judge. My children are my greatest success and the ability to do what I love every day surrounded by great people is the measure of success. That said, achieving my first Michelin star when I was 28 was a proud moment. It really was the product of hard work and a cornerstone from which to build,” says Arola, adding that he’s now excited about his latest restaurant in the UAE capital – p&c by Sergi Arola.
“Abu Dhabi strikes me as an authentic city. I strive for authenticity in all I do, so that’s what drew me here. p&c by Sergi Arola is my first venture in the Middle East so the location was important. I fell in love with Abu Dhabi the first time I experienced it. There is a beautiful calmness here. Thomas Guss, the general manager of Shangri-La Hotel was the person who first suggested Abu Dhabi to me and once I started exploring it, I knew it made sense. I am excited about incorporating Arabic tastes and styles into my cooking, taking inspiration from the environment,” says Arola.
In Spain, enjoying a pica-pica assortment of finger food and nibbles over a glass of wine is a local tradition and there’s every chance its popularity is set to cross borders to Gulf shores. Since opening in April, the restaurant, which was previously Pearls & Caviar, has been well received in Abu Dhabi’s discerning community. With ambient lighting and jazz legends on the radio, it’s an elegant setting that also stands out for its flavourful yet uncomplicated take on Spanish cuisine.
“p&c follows my main cooking mantra – simplicity. The concept here is pica-pica tapas-style. The menu is designed to share, picking at different dishes while enjoying each other’s company, so it’s very social. The cuisine is Catalan, highlighting many of my favourite dishes from my other restaurants in Madrid, Barcelona and Istanbul,” says the chef.
The menu includes traditional Spanish favourites, including paella, signature patatas bravas and lots of seafood and sweet delights, but with a twist. For every creation, it is the little details that make the difference.
For example, a popular Catalan dish is pan con tomate (tomato with bread) where a toasted baguette is rubbed with fresh garlic, and topped with ripe tomato and finally, drizzled with olive oil and a bit of salt. However, Arola likes to add the salt to the bread before the tomatoes, which sounds quite insignificant, but does change the overall flavour. This playful experimentation of ingredients and balance of flavours is one of the reasons why Arola is in a league of his own.
The chef also plans to marry the best of Arabian and Spanish cuisine, as he explains: “I want to bring local flavours to the food. However, it takes time – sometimes up to a year – to find the right balance and mix. I was at the souk in Abu Dhabi recently and smelt traditional oudh and straightaway started to think about how to incorporate this into my cooking. I am excited to see what we can create. I find Mediterranean and Arabic cuisine very similar in terms of the sharing approach, importance of family meals and even the flavours and style. Tapas and mezze have the same vision and philosophy. I am a fan of any cuisine that is rooted in good ingredients and is true to itself.
“I plan to open more restaurants and am going for my third Michelin star this year, something which will require much dedication and hard work.
“Every restaurant I am involved in, I put part of my soul into it. I don’t just put my name above a door and walk away. So by visiting p&c by Sergi Arola you get a little slice of me.”