Juanjo Lopez chisels the air as he explains why he uses only the finest ingredients available to him.
“The creative process is linked inherently to the produce. Michael-Angelo said that many of his sculptures, especially those he didn’t finish, were in the rock. I feel the same way about my food. He had his tools and I have mine. I specialise in produce. That’s what I’m known for in Madrid.”
As he bounds with enthusiasm, it’s hard to imagine that Lopez was once a senior insurance executive. Risk assessment and roscas hardly go hand in hand. But so proud is he of his corporate background that Lopez still adorns the walls of his eight-table restaurant with neckties from his old profession. And there’s undoubtedly an entrepreneurial spirit behind La Tasquita’s mix of modern cookery and traditional Spanish cuisine.
“I was always passionate about food, but my background is in business. I come from the business world. I’m the CFO of a business and I’ve always been in the financial area of business. For many years I developed different tastes for food and these are the ones that I chose for my restaurant – the restaurant adapts to what I like. Our menu reflects what I like and my passion for the food. It’s rare to find a dish in our menu that I wouldn’t eat.”
Lopez’s unshakable commitment to the finest local produce means his menu is continually changing. For 20 years, he has been serving up authentic Spanish market dishes, often using only a handful of ingredients.
“People call it ‘radical minimalism‘ because we never use more than three ingredients. All our dishes are minimalistic expressions. We work with produce, produce and produce. Our main motif is the produce. That’s why our menu changes every day. I go to the market with bags, then we check what we have from that as well as what our providers bring. Once we see the produce, we decide how we’re going to cook it and prepare it.”
Lopez’s respect for produce stems from a rich family food heritage. Opened by his father in the 1960s, La Tasquita translates as ‘the little bar opposite’, a tongue-in-cheek nod to La Gran Tasca, a popular restaurant across the street from Lopez’s, frequented by Madrid’s best and brightest, from bullfighters to politicians. Forced to shut down in lieu of the competition, La Tasquita was reopened by Lopez to honour the recipes of his ancestors and the unique character of the Chamberí corner of Madrird.
“My food is inspired by my father and grandmother. They taught me respect for the produce and traditions of Madrid. They taught me that chefs should always be inspired by their surroundings. And though most restaurants are found in the middle of cities, it doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired by what’s around you.
“This place was my father’s and he always celebrated the food and people of this community. One of my favourite photos is actually of me with the most famous ‘puta’ of the street. My dad has one from back in the day and I recreated it to show that I love where I’m from. She’s been part of this restaurant since the beginning and I talk a lot with her, I met her when I was just a child. People here are proud of their environment.
“Part of the reason we are known here is because of our traditional food. We focus on a few key dishes. Callos (a traditional stew of beef, tripe, and chickpeas), la ensalada rusa (potato salad) and mollejas (sweetbreads). We serve what we call ‘casqueria’ too, which are all the internal parts of the animal- ears, tongues, intestines, even brains, las mollejas cesos! These are Madrid foods, ‘Madrileños’ dishes. And Madrid is a city of the innards.
“West to east, north to south to centre, each region in Spain has its own culinary identity. The common thing is the closeness to the produce. Each area has its different fish, meats and vegetables. But then there are the dishes that stand out from the rest, the ‘platos de las cucharas’ (spoon dishes). Over here in Madrid we have the ‘cocido’ (a hearty chickpea stew). My recipe is simmered for 24 to 48 hours and slow cooked to let it rest.
“There are always influences but I believe there are also adaptations. For example, the cocido is made in Madrid but then there are other types across Spain. In Burgos, it’s called ‘la olla podrida’, in Barcelona ‘la Escudella’. In the end, each region puts its own identity on the dish but there’s always a common denominator- el cocido.”
But despite the changing menu, sheer popularity ensures a few dishes return again and again. Like prawns from Denia, injected with olive oil and quickly pan fried or sweet shrimps from Motril served warm.
“In Tasquita, the products call the shots, what is in season, what my suppliers advise. These are the only variables that influence what dishes we offer. However, the customers are the protagonists. They make the decisions. Today one of the most important parts of this business is the client, let’s not forget the client is the rock.”
All Photographs by Stefan Johnson