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Keeping cost down on quality fare no simple task

WHILE the fine restaurants of Spain have undoubtedly been at the forefront of European gastronomy, Spanish chefs have been compared to their French and Italian brethren, reluctant to leave their shores and evangelize.

While tapas restaurants have been a staple in any major city, it has only been recently that quality Iberian fare has been available here with the likes of El Willy and Bonito consistently commanding the crowds. Prior to this, there was a collective wounding of Spanish pride that their foremost dining option, Indalo, was run by a Portuguese.

One of the secrets to Indalo's success was chef Albert Servalls. The Catalonia native first arrived on these shores with Gran Bodega, the first Spanish restaurant in Shanghai. He then opened La Verbena in 2005, then manned the burners at the aforementioned Indalo before returning to Spain to work for a nationwide catering company.

His love for China, and Shanghai in particular, eventually got the better of him, and the Catalan recently returned for another stab with La Verbena, bringing modern tapas and some iron-clad faves to Pudong foodies.

"After several months of moving back to Spain, I felt I had to come back to China," says the 34-year-old. "Spain is my home, and there is nothing like home, but here, especially in Shanghai, it has glamor as one of the top cities in the world like New York or Barcelona. It has energy, and speed; in Spain things are a lot calmer. This is a 24-hour city."

It is this energy that has attracted the top talents to this corner of the world, and Servalls himself comes with considerable pedigree.

Hailing from a line of culinary greats (his mother taught in the culinary academy in Manresa, a small town in Barcelona), Servalls has served in the kitchens of some of his country's finest chefs such as the Michelin three-starred Carmen Ruscalleda and, perhaps most famous of them all, El Bulli's Ferran Adria.

Servalls' wealth of experience in classical and molecular gastronomy is absolutely key in the overhaul of La Verbena, where he dons both the chef's toque and the hat of general manager.

While the Riverside Boulevard spot made for some picturesque views, especially on the veranda, the consistency of the fare left much to be desired and put many off from parting with their hard-earned yuan there.

While refusing to criticize his predecessors, Servalls is aware of the changes that must be made for La Verbena to be mentioned in the same breath as the more popular Spanish joints in town.

"(Over the years) La Verbena has gone through many changes - we started at a high level, then we went cheaper, then I don't know what kind of food (was served)," says Servalls. "The main thing is to keep stable and have a standard. My way to work is to have control of the recipe. My sous chef and pastry chef are in charge of purchasing goods, but I am in charge of receiving them as much as I can.

"I know all the costing of the food, and, of course, I am trained to buy. I'm not looking to go as cheap as possible but to have more profit," he says.

Servalls is clearly not about skimping on costs. His tuna and scallops (which come nitrogen-frozen to maintain the structural integrity of the water molecules within), for example, come from Japan, while he uses both Kobe and Australian beef as well; pastry and ice cream are also made in-house.

Remarkably, he keeps his food costs between 28 and 30 percent when many restaurants operate closer to 35 percent.

"If you check the menu you will see some tapas are a little expensive, but when I do a cost-recipe card I put my costing at 25 percent. Of course, there is always wastage, but quality is quality, this is something I will never fool around with. People who know that will appreciate it," says the Spanish chef.

La Verbena

Address: Shop E, north of Riverside Blvd, 2967 Lujiazui Rd W.

Tel: 5878-9837


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