Celebrating with Miguel Maestre
Celebrity chef Miguel Maestre is the embodiment of celebration! From his easy grin and joyous demeanour, to his passion for creating Spanish food that Australians love, he oozes authentic enthusiasm.
Those who have come to know Miguel Maestre from his appearances on television, particularly on The Living Room, might assume the Spaniard’s booming enthusiasm is a façade. It’s a familiar trope: the moment the cameras stop rolling, the presenter drops the joy-filled act, their over-the-top demeanour springing back to that of either a shy introvert or an arrogant narcissist.
I meet Maestre in the studio where this issue’s cover shots and the images of his recipes are being snapped. There’s a brief break in the schedule, and as he steps away from the camera, I watch closely to catch the moment the smiling mask falls away. Instead, Maestre leaps into the kitchen to check on the progress of his tightly-rolled, stuffed pork belly. “Oh my god,” he beams as he opens the oven and spies the successful crackling, his volume bringing every other conversation in the large room to a pause. “Look at that! Isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”
This is no façade
Born in Murcia on Spain’s South-West coast, Maestre’s Sundays were spent at his maternal grandparents’ sprawling farm; cooking, feasting and causing havoc among his 19 aunts and uncles, and their swathes of children. The energetic mini Miguel would hunt rabbits and pigeons with air rifles, smash whole watermelons to get at their sweet centres (to the understandable outrage of his grandfather), and attempt to smuggle baby chickens home under his shirt until their squeals would give him away.
“There would be 60, 70 people,” Maestre reflects on those early days that so firmly established the inexorable link between food and celebration, “so everything we’d cook would be massive. Enough for 100 people. A big pig being cooked over charcoal. Big paella pans with enough for everyone. They’re the most beautiful memories I have. Food memories are the ones that never fade.”
“I remember the volume of voices, too. I think that’s why I’m so loud. When I got to Australia, I was always the loudest in the room, because I grew up like that. The way we celebrate is so expressive.”
Watching his parents cook together, helping the family prepare seafood and cook rice, proved formative for the itchy-footed teenager, who at 18 left the familial security of Spain on a one-way journey to the UK. Landing in Edinburgh, he survived on an array of menial jobs before landing a spot in the kitchen at Indigo Yard. There he would meet his future wife and make the decision to relocate to her hometown of Sydney.
“I wanted to do everything on my own terms,” he says of the decision to pursue his passion for food outside Spain. “I didn’t want anybody helping me. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done on my own.”
While Spanish food is yet to make the same mark on Australia’s culinary landscape as Thai, Italian or Mexican, throughout his Australian career, Maestre has remained true to his roots. From opening Australia’s largest Spanish restaurant in Manly (El Toro Loco, now closed) to developing a line of chorizo, Jamón and other Spanish products, even the chef’s accent serves to honour his heritage.
His efforts to evangelise Spanish food down under even saw Maestre receive the Order of Civil Merit from the King of Spain in 2014 for his ‘outstanding representation of Spain in the Australian media’, something only three other chefs (including legend Ferran Adrià, whose El Bulli Maestre was invited to work at) have ever achieved.
the celebration connection
But despite his steadfast desire to celebrate the food of Spain, he finds the notion of authenticity problematic.
“That word,” he says, “is a very difficult thing. For me, ‘authentic’ paella isn’t exactly the same as what you might find in Spain, it’s what paella represents to me. I’ve been criticised in Spain because they say I Australianise my Spanish menus, but I live in Australia. If Australians love chorizo, who am I to tell them they can’t put it in their paella just because at home we used rabbit and snails?”
Life in Sydney with his wife and children, who prefer their ‘Paella Maestre’ without the rabbit and snails, might seem a long way from those days spent running amok on the Murcian farm, but the chef says it’s through the celebration of food that the connection is kept alive.
“Food and celebration,” he asserts, jumping off his chair to emphasise the point, “is everything! It’s all about the big paella dish in the middle of the crowd, everyone eats from there. If you and I are eating from the same paella, we can talk about the big things in life. People know each other better when they’re eating from the same pot.”