It's La Rambla 2.0 as founding chef Rafa Gil returns to the restaurant with new twists, textures and flavours.
It feels like déjà vu, a long-lost memory that feels so near yet just out of reach. The runny custard-like tortilla, the tender ruby red prawns, the crunchy salted corn—all bring back flashbacks of exquisite meals enjoyed in the Basque or Catalan country in Spain. For chef Rafa Gil, there is nothing more special than evoking a sentimental memory through food, a skill he has perfected by playing with textures, colours and flavours.
It’s also a déjà vu for the chef himself. After all, it’s not every day that a founding chef returns to his old stomping grounds. After initially opening the restaurant in Hong Kong and Singapore in 2013 under the name Catalunya, the chef travelled far and wide, honing his skills and seizing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, including a semi-finalist title at The Final Table. Now the chef is ready for La Rambla 2.0 and he shares with us what this time away meant for him, what to expect from the new menu, and his deeper appreciation for texture.
Congratulations on your return to La Rambla, how does it feel to be back?
“La Rambla was always my baby, it was first based in Singapore and I was the one who brought it to Hong Kong. [After I left] I was always in touch with the owners and kept an eye on what they were doing, so now it feels like coming back home. It’s been eight years and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to work with other chefs in other countries and learned a lot about other cultures in Asia.
You came back to Hong Kong after a stint in Jakarta but didn’t come straight back to La Rambla, did you feel like you still had more to do before making your way back to the stomping grounds?
I wanted to have a different experience, which was hotels. Last year on my birthday I went to Wagyumafia with the owner of La Rambla who offered me to come back to the restaurant. During the pandemic, a freestanding restaurant will be easier than a hotel. At the hotel there was more paperwork and here in the restaurant I spend more time in the kitchen and am in touch with the customers.
How do you think the knowledge and experiences you amassed after leaving Hong Kong last time has shaped who you are now?
At the hotel we really focus on numbers and cost so it really helped me with the business side of things. I learned a lot about management.
When I came back to Hong Kong I felt more mature. I had the opportunity to learn about different cultures in Asia, even the TV show was very intense which opened my mind to different styles of cooking, different presentations and textures. I always say that with every experience you need to highlight the positive side of things and I bring that with me wherever I go.
At the tasting, I was very impressed with the rich colours, bold flavours, and the myriad of textures in your dishes. In quite a few instances one bite would bring me back to my trips through Spain, like the runny tortilla reminded me of one I had in San Sebastian. How important a role does texture play when it comes to sensory memory?
When I was in Jakarta I organised a multi-sensory dining experience. We built a capsule in a jewellery shop for a month and it was related to the five elements. We tried to bring these elements into play through sound and visuals, like for one of the dishes we tried to dim the lights. It was quite the project. Same goes for when I was at the Ritz Carlton, I worked with Christine Ha—the first blind chef and winner of Season 3 of Masterchef—and I realised just how important texture is. Sometimes we only focus on the visual, but there always needs to be a mix. I had to blindfold myself and it was difficult [to figure out] how to eat and with which tools. I create dishes differently because of this experience.
Vamos de tapeo! A very common phrase in Spain, that you were able to bring to Hong Kong with your uni ensaladilla, steak tartare with caviar, seafood trikini and escalivada aspik foie gras and smoked eel. How did you incorporate fan-favourite ingredients while still keeping the tastes of Spain?
In the beginning I’d say 80 to 90% of our menu was traditional, with the Spanish omelette, spherical olives…this time around we tried to reorganise based on experiences, so that you have the classics but also the twists where we try to play around with flavour, texture and presentation.
Take the escalivada aspik foie gras and smoked eel for example, before it was more traditional but now we use aspic (meat jelly). People in Asia love jelly so I changed the texture.
When we created the uni ensaladilla which is a potato salad we wanted to bring the whole uni to the table. Sometimes people think uni comes from the box but this comes from the shell. I remember being with my daughter at the farm and showing her.
Steak tartare is the same. I thought why not use the piparra, the green pepper from the Basque country—which is very refreshing especially in the summer—combined with the caviar which brings some power to the plate. It’s not heavy, you don’t feel the creaminess from the yolk, you have the freshness from the chilli, the acidity from the mushroom escabeche. With each bite you discover different flavours. When you eat you need to stay curious.
Let’s talk about pulpo gallego, that was one of my favourite dishes with the tenderness of the octopus, airiness of the potato foam, and crunchiness of the torreznos (pork cracklings) really standing out. But our Final Table fans might already be familiar with it as it was one of the star dishes you and Esdras Ochoa prepared on the show. What’s the story behind the dish?
When Esdras and I were on the Final Table show, the chef said “you guys decide how I eat the octopus dish” and so we put the octopus, a crunch and something spicy from the salsa. [It shows that] you can eat the same dish but have different experiences. Even the potato foam, as you said, is more airy and fluffy. I love playing with the senses.
You took a popular Spanish candy, conguitos, made of chocolate-covered peanuts, and turned it into a decadent chocolate mousse dessert complete with salted corn ice cream and a peanut crumble, how does nostalgia.
This is from my childhood, when I moved to Spain I ate it a lot because I loved the combination of the peanut and the chocolate, and they had an ice cream shop that had conguito ice cream. When I came to La Rambla I thought I’d create something different like bring in the salted corn called kikos—which you usually have with beer at bars in Spain. Then we use the texture and saltiness and combine it with the creaminess of the chocolate foam. It is very light, it’s something you can eat by the spoonful. People who know the product are always brought back to their childhood.
For the dish you’ll try later, torrija (Spanish-style caramelised french toast), we combined two desserts in one. I had some Catalan friends that came and they were like how did you think to combine these two. I can describe my cuisine as all about texture and flavour.
The cocktails, courtesy of John Nugent of The Diplomat and Kyle & Bain, all have a Spanish twist, what can we expect?
John just came in one day and started to create cocktails with a twist, playing around with olives and anchovies and then chocolate with the churros for Easter. He likes to go deep in the culture, not just [in terms of] liquor but also food. It’s that combination between chef and mixologist. He has a great balance in cocktails and they’re so easy to drink, which can be a problem (laughs). We also have the big jar of sangria and we see people starting to order, with the summer coming. It’s refreshing, fruity and cold. John is such a nice guy, we have this cachondo, fun loving relationship and very similar personality and we just want to enjoy what we’re doing.
It’s just nice having things slowly come back to normal. Sharing food is so much easier and part of the Spanish culture and it’s really nice for us to be able to talk and celebrate with the guests. To be honest, it’s so nice to see some old faces. It just feels like you’re back home and it means a lot when people come back to support.
La Rambla, 8 finance st. 3071-73 Level 3, ifc mall, Central; +852 2661 1161