Only few times one has the pleasure to chat with someone so convinced about generosity as a mean to procure everyone else’s enjoyment. If that ‘someone’ happens to be Diego Guerrero – one of Spain’s best chefs – then the conversation becomes irresistible.
Diego Guerrero (Vitoria, 1975) is one of the hottest Spanish chefs of the moment. His Madrid-based restaurant DSTAgE is just turned one year with a Michelin-star under its belt and an impressive record of spectacular reviews.
Guerrero started his career as a Head Chef of El Refor, a restaurant located in the Basque city of Álava. Despite being only 23 at the time, he was able to turn an unnoted business into a flagship reference for the new Basque cuisine.
Not content with this, his restless personality pushed him then away from his beloved Basque Country and into the Spanish capital city. Once in Madrid, he took over the kitchens of El Club Allard, a private members club based in a modernist palace next to Plaza de España. His arrival established a before and after in the history of the club, which advised by Guerrero, opened his restaurant to non-members, quickly turning its tables into some of the most desired ones of the capital. Soon it would arrive the ‘Best Restaurant’ award at Madrid Fusión and the recognition from the Michelin guide, with one star awarded in 2007 and a second one in 2011.
Things couldn’t go any better for the chef. But then, in October 2013, he surprised everyone announcing that after 10 years working at El Club Allard, he was ready to open a new chapter in his life.
Nearly two years after the announcement, Diego Guerrero welcomes us today in his very own home, one to be enjoyed in jeans and with Bruce Springsteen’s music in the background. A place to relax and talk about the importance of looking outside the plate. Let’s the show start!
To enter DSTAgE is to teleport yourself to a loft in downtown Manhattan. High ceilings, brick walls, wooden tables and a small but beautifully-designed bar where to welcome the customers. Only one element breaks the industrial atmosphere of the place, a statement of principles painted by Guerrero’s mum herself. It says “Daysto Smell Taste Amaze grow & Enjoy”.
“I believe more in the attitude than in the aptitude”
It’s 10 am and the stuff is very active already. Whilst he invites us to sit down in one of the tables, Diego keeps observing every detail around him. “Here we’re all like a family. I’m very Basque when it comes to the way I relate to my team” he says. During the whole interview, we witness that sense of family. Chefs coming and going with a relaxed smile on their faces, apparently loving their job. “All the Head Chefs have been my students first. The rest are all interns. Perhaps many people think that it’s crazy to have this sort of junior-heavy team structure, but I believe more in the attitude than in the aptitude. Here we make elaborations that are not done anywhere else in the world, so needless to say, the more they know about cooking, the better. But what really matters to me is to have smart, pro-active and motivated people. People who are team players and have a good attitude towards work but also towards their colleagues. We spend an average of 14 hours a day together, so I rather working in a pleasant environment where we all have fun and come happy to work”.
You really look at home, as if you’d have been here all your life. However it’s only been one year since you open DSTAgE.
Yes, everything has gone very quickly. I left El Club Allard last October, I went back to Vitoria and I started thinking about all this. As a designer or an architect would have done, I drew a sketch with my idea in a paper napkin and then I started looking for the right venue. One day I visited this space and I felt like the space was talking to me. We decided to keep it and seven months later DSTAgE was a reality. I enjoyed that phase like a kid in a candy store because it allowed me to experience other disciplines than cooking. I got very involved with the design, the decoration, the layout planning… Opening the restaurant was the end of a creative phase which was very important to me.
“I don’t believe in looking for a payback when you do things, but doing them because you have the vital necessity to do them well.”
And only four months later, you landed the first Michelin-star…
That wasn’t our initial objective. But of course we were very happy when it happened. This level of recognition makes you feel loved by the people. Plus at the end of the day, it’s just the consequence of our work. I don’t believe in looking for a payback when you do things but doing them because you have the vital necessity to do them well. The payback is simply a reward but it’s never the end goal. I didn’t open DSTAgE to get a Michelin star. I opened it as a mean to become better. I proposed my team to do something unique in Madrid, a place where to feel happy, where to play the music we loved, in a very casual environment but still offering high-cuisine to our customers. In fact, it was about offering the best quality cooking we could, but delivered in a warm, distended and approachable way… a reflection on the way we are ourselves.
What does the name DSTAgE mean?
The stage… A long time ago I established in my head the association between the stage and the kitchen. At DSTAgE we have strengthened this idea by creating an open kitchen to our public… a stage. Every day, we have 40 people for lunch and another 40 people for the evening service. All of them come here to experience a show. So we do two live shows a day. That is why beyond the kitchen, the dining room becomes an experience on its own. Our public can see the dancers, the rock stars, the actors… Meanwhile in the kitchen, we feel the adrenaline of a live gig in which instead of playing songs, we serve plates of food.
Is it true that you considered placing the tables inside the kitchen?
During my last year at El Club Allard, I redesigned the kitchen. Back then, we decided to place a VIP table inside the kitchen. We called it the fish tank because it was all surrounded by glass walls. It didn’t take very long for this table to become the most desired one in the restaurant. So when we designed DSTAgE, the first thing I thought was that I wanted all the tables to become VIP tables inside the kitchen. So we were left with two options, either we had to place all the tables inside the kitchen – which was unfeasible – or we had to take the kitchen out of its corner and make it completely open and visible to the customers, which is exactly what we did.
Do you think people understand your proposition?
Some people have defined the restaurant as ‘informal’. However I disagree with associating this word to the concept of DSTAgE. Here when the clients comes in, we took them to the bar, we offer them a snack whilst they enjoy a cocktail, we take them to visit the kitchen where they help the chefs to finalize some of the dishes and finally we take them to their table. All this with Bruce Springsteen playing in the background and listening to the continuous laughing of the chefs. This is a complex world. At DSTAgE there are many more messages, concepts, brain, work, technique… much more of everything really… so that we can turn the complex and make it simple to the customer. To have been able to create this quiet and relaxed environment, considering that we have three different serving points of sale and that we finish the dishes in front of the customer, has been a real challenge for us.
“The message behind all this is the necessity to look for the small things”
You constantly talk about the presence of messages. What are those messages that you are looking to communicate?
Everything here can be subject to many more interpretations than just the apparent ones. Our ambition is for people to understand all those interpretations without the need for us to tell them. We want to show confidence. We’re not afraid of being looked at when we work, that’s why we pull down the kitchen wall and that’s why our name is not on top of the restaurant main entrance. We don’t need a name to serve you a great meal. We also make the service non-invisible. On the contrary, we credit them with the protagonism they deserve, making them become an essential part of the whole cooking show.
The message behind all this is the necessity to look for the small things. At DSTAgE we have performed an exercise in humility, which consists on looking outside the plate and not into it. The most important thing at DSTAgE are not the chefs or even the food. Sure we are important but there are other aspects, such as the music, the light, how we treat our customers, how approachable our service is… I’ll give you an example: there is a massive difference between drinking a beer at the pub after work or drinking the same beer in a beach bar when you are on holiday. The difference lays on all those little intangible details which make you feel better at certain particular moment. These are the small details that we’ve decided to give importance at DSTAgE.
I don’t want intellectuals serving the food. If I don’t live in a place and I never wear a tie to go to a wedding, it doesn’t make any sense to do otherwise at work. I’m not saying we lay our hand in our customers’ shoulder. But we do allow them to treat us as friends. For us, it’s all about behaving more naturally and enjoying. And that includes the kitchen, of course. Here there are plenty of Head Chefs coming from a two Michelin-star who are much more productive because they are happier. For me, the most important thing is that people are happy.
What can you do here that you couldn’t at El Club Allard?
Everything. I’ve had a unique opportunity to stop and think about what I really wanted to do. And then I’ve been able to do it. As a chef, my experience was to join restaurants where things were already functioning. I started working in an old farmhouse in the Basque mountains. Over the years, I created my own identity there and I manage to almost merge with the environment. Then I went to El Club Allard which is a restaurant based in a palace. It’s a wonderful venue, but let’s be honest… I have very little to do with a palace myself. Little by little I manage to make it mine, introducing a more fun and relaxed menu, that had the aim to dilute the seriousness of the environment. But finally I set up DSTAgE, the only place I’ve created myself from scratch. And this is really the first time I’m doing exactly what I want and how I want it.
With so much activity, have you been able to evaluate this first year of creative freedom?
Right now my obsession is precisely to understand what’s happened during this first year. When you reinvent yourself and create something from zero… and so much happens in a year, you need to understand the why. All this that is happening to us… the Michelin star, the long waiting list on the reservations… this is not just because we’re good at cooking. The initial burst and expectation are now gone. But clearly, there’s something we’re doing well to be the 5th most desired restaurant in Spain.
I’ve recently stopped to take some few days off and look for haven in the same place I took refuge when I left my previous job. I needed to think about this first year but also about the next one coming. And I’ve understood that a chef needs to leave the kitchen so that he can come back to it. I’ve also understood why some of my colleagues need to close the restaurant for a period of time every year in order to plan the menus and objectives for the new season. I’ve thought about lots and lots of things, ideas… not just for recipes but well beyond the menu only.
So what’s the next step for DSTAgE then?
DSTAgE is called DSTAgE Concept precisely because the key idea is to structure a main restaurant that has many other projects attached to it. That will be our next steps. I’d love the people who’re working with me to direct other projects, all under the DSTAgE umbrella.
“I’d love to keep DSTAgE as our main creative headquarters and open a London restaurant with a menu based on my classic dishes.”
Does that mean we will see DSTAgE restaurants opening in other places?
Yes. We’ve had offers to open in New York and London. And we’ll go ahead once we find a project that motivates us enough, not just because of financial reasons. It wouldn’t necessarily be another DSTAgE but a project that helps us telling a story.
I’d love to keep DSTAgE as our main creative headquarters and open a London restaurant with a menu based on my classic dishes. Sometimes it’s difficult to say goodbye to certain very special dishes which have given me so much happiness. That’s why it would be beautiful to create a tasting menu with all of them.
You are official ambassador for the Spanish olive oil. How is the experience?
Being ambassador of a product which is so close to us Spaniards is a huge honour to me. Whatever you come from in Spain, the olive oil is so vinculated to us. I can’t express how grateful I am to have been chosen as an ambassador amongst so many great Spanish chefs.
Thanks to this opportunity I’ve had the chance to travel to many countries and learn lots of things. In fact, my cooking is the result of mixing all those experiences. When I travel across a new country, it will show in my food, in the venue decorations… because every time I visit a country I speak with other local chefs, I buy books, I visit the markets…
“There’re only two types of cuisine, the good and the bad one”
Your cooking is usually very far from what we can understand as traditional Spanish food. Would you still consider your cooking Spanish?
Of course! What I do is Spanish cuisine! The environment defines both me and my food. But it’s true than I cook differently in Madrid than when I was in the Basque Country. I’ve got more asphalt around me, I’m next to a Chinese restaurant and if you walk up the street there is a lovely Indian restaurant. This is a mixed city and I adapt myself to this quality.
So yes, my cooking is Spanish… and also global. A long time ago I understood that the less rules and restrictions you have, the more creative you can be. I don’t like labels. It’s the same with the term ‘high cuisine’. I think that label is wrong. Take some white beans and cook them to perfection… that is high cuisine too. In fact there are only two types of cuisine… the good and the bad one… and that’s it.
THE FACT SHEET
How did you start cooking?
I told my parents that I wanted to study arts, journalism or cooking. They told me to do anything but cooking. So I did cooking. At the end I realized all I was looking for was the best vehicle to express myself.
How would you define your cooking?
I’m always back to the beginning. I aim to tell you stories with my food. But that’s all my ambition. I rather my customers to define my cooking for me.
Give us a gastronomical reason to visit Madrid
The amount of varied stories you can find in here. From the Mexican story of Punto MX to the Asian one of Sudestada or even the excellent Galician cuisine of Lúa. Madrid is a meeting point for many cultures and that shows in its gastronomy.
Our next interview will be with José Pizarro… is there something you would like to ask him?
Sure, from the perspective of a Spanish chef who is based in London, I’d like to know how the British look at us Spanish chefs and generally at our Spanish gastronomy.
C/ Regueros 8
‘DTASTE’, 10 courses, 88€ per person
‘DSTAgE’, 14 courses, 118€ euros per person