El Willy, El Palanca And Manuel Palacios On The Belt-Buckle-Broadening Culinary Fiesta That Is The Best Of Spain

Ah, Spain. Tapas and toreadors. AFC Barcelona and Benidorm. Paco Rabanne and Pep Guardiola. El Willy, El Palanca and Manuel Palacios are bringing all those contrasts, and culture and creativity, and more, to Tomatito’s The Best Of Spain. 

Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt

Tomatito Saigon, since it opened in early 2018, has presented Spanish culture in a playful way. There’s the matador outfit on the mannequin, there’s pictures of Barca-era Maradonna, too, and a wall featuring Los Grandes pop icons, and a massive paella pan that’s wheeled out for special occasions. 

Tomatito Saigon’s playful ode to the fun side of Spanish culture.

Tomatito: The Sexy Tapas Bar 

‘Sexy Tapas Bar’ it says below the name Tomatito above the door, in case that wasn’t about to become obvious anyway. 

Naturally, this is all the doing of El Willy, AKA Chef Willy Trullàs Moreno. Since 2008, Willy and the team have been creating funky and fun restaurant concepts that have captured fans from Shanghai to Bangkok, and, most recently, in Saigon and Manila.

And Willy’s Best Of Spain is a belt-buckle-broadening culinary fiesta featuring sexy tapas, that oversized paella, and hand-cut Iberian ham. 

Alongside local luminaries, Alex Ortiz, from Octo Tapas Restobar, Donato Diez and Ngoc from Ibérico Tapas & Vino Saigon, and Aeron Tran from Tomatito Saigon, for this special edition of Tomatito Saigon’s Best Of Spain, like a European Cup away game, on the team bus over is El Willy, and with him El Palanca, AKA Álvaro Ramos – the former Tomatito chef who’s now holed up in the same hometown as Willy, in Bangkok, as executive chef at Vaso – Spanish Tapas Bar (and lots of other projects), and Manuel Palacios from Pirata Group, Hong Kong.

Barcelona tastes like crispy warm bread with tomatoes, served with a good amount of quality olive oil.”

Manuel Palacios: “Madrid is a bit nuts.”

So, we asked El Willy, El Palanca, and Manuel Palacios what it means to be the best of Spain. 

Manuel is from Madrid. It’s a city, he says, that’s “fun and unexpected, cheeky and dangerous, and, overall, a bit nuts.” 

After spending the last ten years in Hong Kong, where his Pirata Group has opened 28 restaurants, he goes back as a tourist, he tells us, and so he notices the quirks and the qualities of his hometown more than he used to. “I’d say Madrid tastes like cheap beer, fried food, and charcuterie!” he laughs. 

Manuel isn’t a chef himself, although he calculates that he’s been front of house for around 25 years now. 

On the way to this esteemed position at the top of the tough Hong Kong food chain, he opened “a highly unsuccessful” hip hop record label in Spain, called Quattro Records, when he was 17. 

“In hindsight, I had zero skills to run a company or to organize a festival, never mind to be able to sell any records!” he laughs. 

Two years later, he found himself in London where he entered the hospitality business at the very bottom, washing dishes and cleaning toilets, and, he adds, “building resilience.”

Pirata Group's Manuel Palacios
Pirata Group’s Manuel Palacios, who, despite a “highly unsuccessful” attempt to run a hip hop record label at 17, has gone on to open 28 restaurants with the group.

Flash Forward To Today

Flash forward to today, and the latest project from the Pirata Group is called Calle Ocho, in Causeway Bay. It’s a cozy but elegant Spanish taberna that takes Spain’s historic Madrid de Los Austrias neighborhood as its inspiration with a menu that reveals “the unique flavors of Spain.”

There he continues to confront the misconception that Spanish food is easy to make. “Actually, it’s very complicated to have high-quality Spanish food – the thing is it’s all about the best ingredients that are prepared simply.”

And beyond food, he admires the contributions of compatriots like the radical thinker, Mario Conde, his favorite writer, Arturo Pérez-Reverte Gutiérrez and, of course, Rafa Nadal, “the greatest Spanish sportsman of all.” 

But what, we ask him, if he could choose one thing, is the best of Spain? “Jamón!” he declares.

Introducing Álvaro Ramos Palancarejo, AKA Chef Palanca

Madrid-born Álvaro Ramos Palancarejo, AKA Chef Palanca, joined Willy in Shanghai in 2012 as executive chef for Tomatito Restaurant and el Willy, after working his way up in kitchens like the two-Michelin-star La Terraza del Casino and the one-star Dos Palillos, which, maybe as a premonition of his future direction, means two chopsticks. 

“At those places, I learnt how to cook,” Álvaro Ramos remembers. “And how to manage a team. But, the biggest takeaway of all? How to be myself and to let that shine through in the food.”

lvaro Ramos Palancarejo, AKA Chef Palanca eating
“My grandma would always say to me ‘eres un gamberro.’ That word kind of means a ‘hoodlum’, but not a bad one. It’s a fun loving kind of hoodlum.” – Álvaro Ramos Palancarejo, AKA Chef Palanca

In The Footsteps Of Ferran Adria, Santi Santamaria and Albert Raulich

He’s still in awe of the chefs he’s met, some of whom he got the chance to work with: “people like Ferran Adria, Santi Santamaria and Albert Raulich.”

After all that, he moved to Komune in Hong Kong – part of Ovolo Southside – where Ramos created a menu of  Mediterranean, South American and pan-Asian dishes as head chef, before moving on, again, to Bangkok, to the AKARA Hospitality Group that runs places like Vaso, Anaconda – Latino Nikkei Bar, Petits Plats and the hip burger chain, Quickie.

Chef Palanca remembers his native Madrid a little more nostalgically than Manuel Palacios. “Madrid tastes like my grandma’s food,” he sighs. She was the one, after all, that set him on the chef’s path. “And she would make these stews – callos a la madrileña, or cocido madrileño.” 

Those flavors, he says, still appear often in his cuisine, “as my way of showing to people the food that I grew up with.”

As with Manuel, that means challenging some misconceptions about Spanish cuisine. “It’s not only tapas,” he shakes his head insistently. “Neither is it paellas and tortillas only,” he adds. “Spanish cuisine is one of the oldest cuisines, and that makes it very extensive, with lots of variations, and lots of incredible produce that backs it up.”

And really, Álvaro says, the best of Spain is exactly that, “quality produce and all the years of gastronomic culture that the country has been through.”

Finally, Introducing The Instigator Of All This, El Willy Trullàs Moreno

El Willy has had a storied ascent too. While Spanish cuisine has been celebrated in culinary circles for a long time, and restaurants like Ferran Adria’s El Bulli and the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca have defined the industry, Chef Willy Trullas Moreno took his Spanish restaurant, el Willy, to the top 50 in the world, while in Shanghai. 

Willy had graduated from culinary school in Barcelona in 1999. And after that, he took a 6-month internship at the MICHELIN 3-star restaurant, Georges Blanc, in France, the oldest running Michelin-starred establishment in the world. Duly inspired, by 2008 he’d relocated to Shanghai where he opened el Willy.

After that, came the Tomatito brand that now has restaurants in Shanghai, Saigon and Manila, and the bistro-style elEFANTE, and then the cocktail lounge El Ocho, in Shanghai, and then FoFo and La Paloma, in Hong Kong. But most days, he’ll be at his Bangkok el Willy Kitchen. 

“But you can just call me Willy,” he reassures us. A simple chef from Barcelona (he adds way too modestly) the capital city of Catalonia and, as he describes it, “a place by the Mediterranean with lots of art and beautiful architecture, some pleasant weather, great food…and lots of tourists.”

“And Barcelona tastes like crispy warm bread with tomatoes, served with a good amount of quality olive oil,” he smiles. 

In fact, he just arrived back in Asia, from Spain, in time for this event. “I go every year,” he tells us, “to explore the classic places all over again, and to see what’s new and exciting – to keep myself up to date, and connected to my homeland.” It’s the land of his heroes – Ferran Adria, of el Bulli, the singer Julio Iglesias, and Rafael Nadal.

For Willy, the biggest misconception about Spanish food is that it’s spicy and similar to Mexican food. “It’s rarely spicy…except for a couple of dishes,” he explains. 

Chef Willy Trullàs Moreno
Chef Willy Trullàs Moreno in the house.

Bringing “a little craziness and character” to events 

So what, we put it to El Willy, El Palanca And Manuel Palacios, should guests expect at this special edition of the Best Of Spain event?

“In Spain we have this word, ‘gamberro.’ My grandma would always say to me ‘eres un gamberro.’ That word kind of means a ‘hoodlum’, but not a bad one. It’s a fun loving kind of hoodlum,” he laughs, “and I want to bring some of that energy to the event – a little craziness and character.”  

“For me, it would be a great time, unapologetic hospitality, and, of course, great food,” Manuel smiles.

But we leave the last word to El Willy Trullàs Moreno, the instigator of all this. 

“Look, this one is special because of the talent we are bringing in from other cities — Chef Alvaro Ramos who’s based in Bangkok, and Manuel Palacio who’s based in Hong Kong. And that, along with the local legends in attendance, is what will make this event special.” And, reassuringly, Chef Willy Trullàs Moreno will be in the house too.

Tomatito Saigon’s The Best Of Spain Special Edition is on Saturday 29 July, with two seatings: 5.30pm – 8pm, and from 8pm – late. For more information click here and for bookings click here.

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