The Spanish
food business
Manuel showing us 'real' Spanish food Manuel showing us 'real' Spanish food Sara Bosch

I believe the Melbourne patron is a well-travelled and knowledgeable person. A sophisticated culture in food exists in this city, so you have to keep that in mind

He is the embodiment of true Spanish food: simple, seasonal and not just about 'paella'. By Paola Ghirelli, freelance writer

Barcelona-born Manuel Villegas, Executive Chef at Melbourne's iconic Hairy Canary and sister restaurant Hairy Little Sista, is a charming and service passionate man who is on a mission to inject Melbourne's lively food scene with 'real' Spanish food.

But what's real Spanish food? "You know we live to work, sleep and eat in Spain. It's simple. For me true Spanish food respects flavours; it's about genuine sauces and vinaigrettes, it's about how to use a grill properly. It's simple. Take just three ingredients: chorizo, white wine and onion. But cook it for two hours; that to me is true country Spanish food, the kind of cooking that my grandmother put together so well", says Manuel.

The process that Manuel enters into when he is creating his menus does not evolve from thinking about the dish first and then the ingredients, but rather from how he can use an exquisite cut of pork in the best way that respects its unique flavour. "I even think about it over night," he laughs.

Manuel has been in this role for one year now and his plan for the Hairy Canary duo was to create a honest offer kept fresh by changing the menu every three months and producing weekly specials. With a menu based on Southern Spanish food for Hairy Canary and another modelled on Northern Spanish cuisine for Hairy Little Sista, no flavours Spain-wide have gone astray. Market fish of the day, prawns, calamari, aromatic rices and fresh herbs are dishes that are found in Catalonia and the Basque country, such as fresh tuna vinaigrette, prawns with garlic, chilli and hot oil, black ink squid and octopus. "Hairy Canary's menu has more of the vegetarian rice, pasta and salad dishes found in the South of Spain,"  says Manuel.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Spanish food in Melbourne was about "paella, full-stop", he comments. "The Spaniards that had immigrated to this wonderful country were still living off their memories, which stopped there and didn't really evolve in the way Spain did", Manuel comments. "Since the financial crisis has truly hit in Spain, there has been a wave of young, ultra-talented chefs coming here and bringing with them the cuisine of today from their own regions in Spain". Here Manuel mentions molecular gastronomy: "It's not about Ferran Adria. It's about decomposing an ingredient such an onion! It's exciting so I ask my staff to experiment".

Despite having a degree in Industrial Design, Manuel recalls his passion for the food business being ignited from the age of 14 where he spent his free time in kitchens observing chefs cooking. "My Dad owned seven restaurants and I worked in them after school and when I was on holiday," he says.

Serviceis of utmost importance to Manuel: "I believe the customer walks in and decides whether he likes the restaurant and service in the first five minutes of being there". Manuel makes sure to train his staff fully in the ways of serving customers well. he likes to come out of the kitchen to speak to his customers, to hear what they liked, and what they didn't like about his food. He can then incorporate this knowledge into his changing menus to reflect customer demand. "I remember a customer complaining about the seafood paella tasting too much like seafood. So I replaced it for another with less seafood and adding some chicken. I believe the Melbourne patron is a well-travelled and knowledgeable person. A sophisticated culture in food exists in this city, so you have to keep that in mind," he says.

The fact that Manuel believes service goes hand-in-hand with excellent food is seen through his hope of one day realising his dream of opening a school/restaurant. A school that would open and teach about food and customer service from Monday to Wednesday and then from Thursday through to Sunday would operate as a restaurant.

Manuel is also in the process of finishing writing a book this year. Spanish Australia magazine has been granted an exclusive sneak peak at the beginning. Que aproveche:

Este es un muy resumido origen en los sabores y aromas de una cocina, un restaurante, de la atencion al cliente, de la elegancia en el comer y beber (...) Para mi la restauracion, no es solo unos estudios de hosteleria y cocinar. La hosteleria, es la empresa y el conjunto de ella, pero se basa en un origen, el cual es la cocina.

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