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El Portal

El Portal

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Calle Padre José Garcia 1926280 Ezcaray




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Name: Francis Paniego
Date of birth: Unknown
Origin: Spain

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Where to sleep in the neighborhood?

Articles - Christian L Wright
Family Style

Family Style

When Francis Paniego made his first foray out from under the wing of his mother, Marisa Sánchez — the winner of Spain's premier national gastronomic award in 1987 — things didn't go exactly as planned. He had an idea to do quail in puff pastry. "When I started to make this dish," he said recently in the kitchen he still sometimes shares with his mother, "I was really excited because I'd just come back from working with Pedro Subijana at Akelarre, and I was very full of myself, like St. Peter." As soon as he put the tray of fowl into the oven, his mother raised an eyebrow. When he took out the tray, the puff pastry had slipped down around the birds' hips. "It was absolutely comic," Paniego said with a laugh. "They looked like they'd come out of the bathroom wearing towels around their waists."

David Hughes

Francis Paniego stakes his claim in the double-duty kitchen.

David Hughes

His mother, Marisa Sánchez, tends to her stock.

Fast-forward nearly 20 years. In a big, stainless-steel kitchen in a southwestern corner of La Rioja, Spain's famous wine-producing region in the north, Paniego was experimenting with pairing sea bass with a delicate sheet made from crystallized red wine, while his mother occasionally stirred a huge pan of simmering artichokes with bits of ham. Paniego hunched over his dish, inspecting it closely, as if it were a science project; Sánchez took her wooden spoon and wandered over to the back of the kitchen, where an enormous pot of lambs' trotters had turned white. She was checking on their progress, as well as that of her classic patatas a la Riojana al estilo de Marisa, which were sure to be in demand on that day's menu at Echaurren, her restaurant. Paniego, meanwhile, disappeared into his lablike office to make notations in a spiral notebook that he keeps for the evolving menu at El Portal de Echaurren, his restaurant. When Paniego re-emerged, his mother chided him for the striped apron he was wearing. "I prefer him in all white," she said. He smiled but didn't change.

The two restaurants share one kitchen, both of which have been overseen by Paniego since his mother's retirement two years ago. (She remains a frequent presence, despite a bad leg.) A swinging wood door leads to the traditional dining room that is famous all over Spain; a sleek beige door opens onto a smaller, modern dining room that is calling new attention to the cuisine of La Rioja. It could be the setup for an upstairs-downstairs drama or, perhaps, a comedy of errors.

In fact, Echaurren, in the small mountain village of Ezcaray, is a little family operation — there are also 25 hotel rooms — whose history can be traced back to the 1600's. Four hundred years later, it is still owned and run by the same family. Marisa Sánchez, the matriarch, lives with her husband, Félix Paniego, in an apartment above El Portal for most of the year. Francis Paniego, the heir apparent and, at 38, the baby, lives in a renovated stone-and-beam house 50 yards away with his wife and three children. His brother and sommelier, José Félix, lives next door with his brood. And their sister, Marta, now living in Pamplona, returns on weekends to do the desserts for a bistro the family has opened around the corner.

A Rioja is steeped in tradition. Its people (all 301,084 of them) are creatures of habit and custom, so change has been slow to come to the area. But progress is visible — both in the low, curvy bodega built by Santiago Calatrava for the Ysios winery below the medieval town of Laguardia, and in a wide-lipped bowl of pumpkin purée topped with an oyster at El Portal. "In the Basque country, the evolution started," said Juan Mari Arzak, the Michelin three-star chef at Arzak in San Sebastián, where Paniego worked for a year. "Then it moved to Cataluña. And now it's La Rioja. Francis is the beginning of the revolution there." Indeed, Paniego won a Michelin star in 2004, the first in the region, and he's been tapped to bring both his mother's recipes and his own to the restaurant in the Frank Gehry-designed hotel that's due to open at the Marqués de Riscal winery in nearby Elciego this September.

"We are very proud they came looking for us," Paniego said. When speaking of Echaurren, he almost always uses the first person plural, because even though he went to cooking school in Madrid and did apprenticeships in some of the best kitchens in the country — including two with the chef Ferran Adrià, whom he calls "a total influence" — there was never a question but that he would go back into the family fold to carry on his mother's legacy while forging his own culinary identity. "We were chosen because of the two cuisines, the balance of the traditional and the modern," he said. Of course, taking on more responsibility is daunting and has awakened him in the middle of the night more than a few times: "But if I'd said no, everybody would have said what a jerk I was for the rest of my life."

After decades of Sánchez's rule, Paniego makes the decisions these days and is, by all accounts, the boss — or, as they say in Spanish, the one who cuts the cod. Everyone defers to him, including the squat woman who has wielded the cleaver for 30 years and watched him grow up. "He's the youngest, but he acts like the oldest," his mother said. "Whatever he says goes. His head is well furnished." The transfer of power happened gradually — before El Portal opened in 2003, Paniego's dishes slowly began to appear among his mother's at Echaurren. But it was his older brother Luis who had been in line to take over, and Francis was his pinche, or kitchen helper. "When I decided to be a cook," he said, "my greatest dream was to be alongside my brother. I saw him as being so great, so prepared, and the only thing I wanted to do was be by his side." When Luis died in a car accident at the age of 26 on Christmas Eve 1987, "I had to grow up in about 10 days," Paniego said. He decided to leave cooking school in Madrid and spend a year at home. "There were lots of people coming for my mother's food, but they were also coming for Luis's," he said. "So on one side, I had to fight against the success of my mother, and on the other, my brother's ghost."


Published: May 7, 2006 - Christian L Wright -
Family Style /2

Family Style /2

When the shared kitchen is at full tilt, the division of old and new is very clear. On the left side, four cooks tend the big pots on big burners, while on the right, 10 workers whisk and squeeze and pour and assemble. All the finished dishes arrive in harmonious coexistence on the same counter before disappearing out their respective doors. Sánchez, the fourth generation of female cooks at Echaurren ("I don't call myself a chef," she said), wanders in and out as she pleases, with a great, gleaming twinkle in her eye. She's a sturdy woman of 72 with broad shoulders and worn hands that have clearly peeled a lot of potatoes. She learned to cook from her mother, who learned to cook from her mother, and so on. She remembers making the entire meal for a wedding by herself when she was 15. It took her four days to prepare. Paniego grew up in the kitchen at Echaurren, too, and learned to cook from his mother. Back then, the kitchen was chaos. Orders were shouted out, never written down, and there was the inevitable cacophony: you didn't order me that solomillo! Yes, I did! No, you didn't! These days, there's considerably more order and method to the routine, instituted by Paniego after his various sojourns. "It would be impossible to work in these two kitchens at the same time with the old ways," he said.

David Hughes

Sanchez's Riojan potatoes.

Just then, on schedule, the vegetable man pulled up in back, and Paniego went out to meet him. "What do you got?" he said, peering into his van. "You got the sprouts? Anything new? Oh, look at these little zucchinis and eggplant."

The fish had arrived an hour before — sea bass, hake and cod, fresh from the Bay of Biscay — and soon provisions from the weekly trip to the markets of the region's capital, Logroño, would be there, too. The kitchen staff — or family, as Sánchez calls them — fell in to unload, convey and stow. A sign hung at the top of the pantry stairs reads: "Mantened el Orden y Cuidad el Material." Maintaining order is Paniego's influence, but he is still his mother's son.

Late one afternoon, while he stood talking to some hotel guests in the bar and absent-mindedly rubbed at his nose, his mother reached out and swatted his hand away. "Mi madre," he said to the guests, shaking his head. She is similarly maternal in her criticisms, always prefacing her remarks ("Don't you think that's too much oil?") with "sweetie" or "little sun." Francis Paniego, a culinary star on the ascent, admits that he misses the time when it was just his mother, himself and three other people in the kitchen. "Her taste represents common sense," he said. "She's very honest, and she's critical when it's right." She may tease him about the seeds germinating in the Freshlife Automatic Sprouter Model 2000 in his lab or go tend to her grandchildren when he starts in on an intellectual jag about deconstructing the elements of a traditional fried-hake-and-pepper recipe, but she is his bedrock, what used to be called the salt of the earth. "I like when my mother is in the kitchen," he said. "It makes me feel better and more confident."

Riojan Potatoes, Marisa Style

Adapted from Marisa SÁnchez

Serves 6

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon white wine

4 pounds (about 8 medium) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled

1 cup olive oil

1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped

10 ounces lamb rib, cut into 2-inch cubes (or lamb loin in 1-inch cubes)

10 ounces pork loin, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to season

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika

2 small bay leaves

1 cup chorizo, cut into 12-inch slices

1 tablespoon flour

2 green bell peppers, cored and cut into pieces 112 inches long by 12 inch wide

1/2 dried red choricero pepper, seeded and finely chopped, or dried ancho or New Mexico chilies.

1. Fill a kettle with water and bring to a boil. In a mortar and pestle, mash 2 garlic cloves and the parsley to make a coarse paste. Add the wine and 1 tablespoon water; continue mashing until smooth.

2. Cut the potatoes into chunks by inserting a paring knife about halfway through each, then twisting the blade so that a chunk (roughly 112 inches in diameter) breaks off.

3. Place a 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat and add the oil. Thinly slice the remaining garlic clove. Add the garlic and onion to the pan and sauté until translucent, about 3 minutes. Season the lamb and pork with salt and pepper. Raise heat to medium-high; sear the lamb and pork on all sides.

4. Add the potatoes, salt, paprika, bay leaves and 2 tablespoons of the mashed-parsley mixture (reserve the rest for another use). Add enough boiled water to just cover ingredients. If the chorizo is firm, add it now; if soft, add it toward the end of cooking. Return to a boil and cook for 5 minutes, then simmer, partly covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir the flour into the sauce and simmer for another 5 minutes.

5. Fold in the green peppers and choricero pepper. If needed, add more water to just cover the ingredients. Simmer until the peppers are tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and choricero pepper to taste.


Published: May 7, 2006 -


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