Spain’s Star-Studded Restaurant

Chef Paco Morales is just one of the celebrities behind a new getaway near the Mediterranean.
paco morales

How many superstars does it take to open an ambitious restaurant these days? If that sounds like the setup for a bad joke, you haven’t been to Hotel Ferrero. Located in Bocairent, a small town in eastern Spain, between Valencia and Alicante, the hotel’s restaurant is run by the 28-year-old Francisco “Paco” Morales, who last year turned Madrid’s Senzone, which was predicted to be yet another boring hotel restaurant, into the most exciting dining room in town. He was rewarded for his efforts by being voted best new chef in the country at Madrid Fusion (the main chef's conference in Spain) in 2008 and Best Chef of the Year from the same in 2009. Its prize-winning sommelier is Morales’ wife, Rut Cotroneo (voted best Sommelier of the Year in 2007), who trained at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and who met her husband (“It was gastronomic love at first sight,” she says) when the two worked together at San Sebastian’s Mugaritz. If those guns weren’t big enough, the whole place—from the cerulean walls of the old textile factory that houses not only the restaurant but a stylish hotel to the secret garden where Morales cultivates thyme and lemon verbena—is owned by tennis star Juan Carlos Ferrero, former French Open winner and, yes, occasional onsite instructor at the hotel.


Yet for all its firepower, Ferrero doesn’t clobber you with showy aspirations. “My cooking is very minimalist,” Morales says. “What I’m after are clean, pure flavors that are also well-rounded—a balance between taste and aesthetics.” Those qualities are obvious in one of his signature dishes, carried over from Senzone: a tiny heap of black trumpet mushrooms moistened with a rich pork broth and topped with a translucent rectangle of lardo. At Ferrero, Morales has replaced the mushrooms with a false caviar, their spheres the size of poppyseeds, made from squid ink. A little more techno, no less delicious.

In fact, Morales belongs to that newest generation of Spanish chefs who clearly know their way around a liquid nitrogen canister, but who keep their geewhiz techniques subordinate to their product. “There are so many restaurants where, if you were eating blindfolded, you wouldn’t be able to tell where in the world you were,” he notes. “I want my cooking to reflect my environment.” That would sound typically—and boringly—locavorish, if it weren’t for the fact that Morales thinks of ‘local’ in terms that are as conceptual as they are literal. It doesn’t simply mean subbing in squid-ink caviar at the new location (Bocairent is less than an hour from the sea) for the old’s mushrooms. Nor does it just mean growing his own brightly flavored herbs that put in a star turn in a briny shellfish frost that Morales serves with tiny beets sliced to look like droplets of blood on fresh snow. It also means transforming his standout dessert from Madrid—a perfectly formed Granny Smith apple made from little more than juice, meringue, and painstakingly-painted rice paper—into a Valencia orange that tastes like the platonic ideal of a Creamsicle. In other words, he’s thinking creatively about what place means.

So, too, is Cotroneo, who not only runs Ferrero’s wine program, but oversees its elegant dining room. Joining forces with Juan Carlos Ferrero at his hometown hotel has given her and Morales a freedom to develop ideas of their own that they have never enjoyed before. Watching her husband at work in his sleek new kitchen, she smiles, “Before, he was a Rolls Royce engine in the body of a Volkswagon. Now he is his own Rolls Royce.” Ambitious, indeed.

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