Chef Sergio Perera on his Spanish upbringing and the importance of sourcing locally
Photo obtained from Centr Website
Before moving to Byron Bay five years ago, Michelin-trained chef Sergio Perera had let his passion for food transport him around the world.
Starting out in his Grandfather’s restaurant in Zaragoza, Spain, Perera then went on to work in world renowned kitchens, from Arzak in San Sebastian to Kyoto Kitcho in Japan.
Yet, despite being able to boast of having cooked alongside some of the biggest names in the food industry, Perera talks mostly of getting back down to his roots.
His food journey has more recently seen him sharing his knowledge of fresh produce and simple cooking with celebrities such as Chris Hemsworth.
While talking to us, Perera not only reflects back on his heritage but shares his thoughts on sustainability and how he plans to bring that into households around the world.
Tell us about your upbringing in Spain and what first inspired your love of cooking?
I come from a long line of amazing cooks. I mean, everyone in the family, my grandfather and grandmother, we lived under one house when was I born in Spain. This was in Zaragoza, Spain, where my grandfather had a restaurant so he was the patriarch of the whole family and everyone was influenced by his ability to cook. Every morning we’d go out and get our fresh milk from the dairy farmer, get our meat from butcher, get our fish from the fisherman.
It was ultimately something that ended up inspiring me completely because of the fact that we would all get together and get these ingredients, cook them together and it was sort of like an everyday celebration.
The amazing thing about it all is that if there were any rocky relationships or disagreements of any sort, it was forgotten when you got to the table which was one thing I really loved about the power of cooking and eating and was one thing that led me to wanting to be a part of it.
Would you say that your Spanish heritage has a large influence on your cooking today?
It definitely does, yes. I still cook with my family and I love cooking for friends. There’s still that very important element for me, whether it’s been cooking at restaurants or at home, of getting that importance of gathering, of celebration.
You’ve mentioned that fresh and local produce was a big part of your life in Spain. Has being based in Australia, with such a diverse and multicultural food industry, changed how you approach or integrate different food or ways of cooking?
The most important thing that’s really stood out from me being here, because I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the United States as well and there’s similarities in the States and here in the sense that both countries are filled with immigrants. Being here made it even more clear of the importance of understanding where you’re from.
Australia’s also just got so many beautiful ingredients that it really does pay homage to where I’m from because of the fact that Australian’s have always really been proud of doing their own thing, growing their own thing and standing by the product. So, it’s made it really easy to make that transition and with my cooking it’s the same thing, if I have an idea for a dish or something that I remember making as a kid in Spain, it’s going to be more of an inspired dish rather than a direct replicate. I’m always going to treat the ingredients with the same amount of respect and it just translates really well.
With our daily lives changed by the current COVID-19 pandemic, how have you been coping as part of the restaurant and hospitality industry?
I think just like with anything, you know, you see things go up and down but there’s this thing when things change drastically and then a few years down the line they end up going back to the roots, back to the traditional things. For a while we kind lost track of it with restaurants and being a chef became this rockstar Hollywood status and restaurants became a form of entertainment – somewhere along the way we lost track of the importance of keeping our traditions alive, they were thrown out the window and we’re just utilising the best ingredients, even if it meant importing it from another country thousands of miles away, as long as you had the best ingredients that’s what people cared about.
So, unfortunately, or fortunately depending on the way you look at it, when tragic things or changes like this happen we always revert to our past, and it’s necessary to understand that and keep that alive even when we’re not going through a pandemic. It’s essentially bringing us back to where we came from which is a very important thing as a chef to understand that.
Photo obtained from Sergio Perera’s Instagram
How have you been keeping busy and sane throughout this?
One thing that I’ve started doing again recently that I had missed doing, which is a perfect example of tradition, is baking bread. It’s something so simple but there’s a depth to that craft that takes bakers years and years to develop and master. I’ve been doing a lot of that, I’ve been finishing my first cook book that I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve also been doing a lot of writing, writing about my own cooking, the history of cooking and the evolution and future of cooking – that’s what my book has a lot of, it’s going to be a culmination of everything I’ve learnt in Spain from here in Australia, and everything in between.
In terms of ‘everything in between’, what are some other key cultural experiences that influenced you throughout your career?
I spent a total of two years working in Kyoto and some time in Tokyo. That I would have to say was a major, major eye opener for me as far as far as culture wise. I was fascinating by the Japanese culture because everything was very personal and very important, from the attention to detail to how they made their rice to why they got certain fish and treated it certain ways, even looking at the way they handled their produce was very delicate, very poetic.
After working there I gained at lot of respect for produce and how everything we consumed had to be respected, as well as the people you worked with, after that it really changed my entire direction of cooking.
You’ve worked on a wide range of projects in your career from cooking in international kitchens to consulting on nutrition and diet for the likes of Chris Hemsworth. What would you consider to be your greatest achievement or the biggest joy in your career, thus far?
I think the biggest one for me would have to be sharing the importance of understanding of how to consciously eat. In this world that’s become such a fast culture and everyone’s gotten in such a big hurry with life, people forgot to really enjoy a meal, you know. Working with a lot of people, whether it’s been in dining in restaurants or helping Chris [Hemsworth] and other actors with their diets, I haven’t focused so much on creating the perfect diet because the most important thing for me to establish with my clients is to get them to understand and to be aware of what they’re eating and why.
Some clients were never a huge fan of seafood but part of the reason was because they never ate it fresh, but once they experience getting something super fresh and having it cooked beautifully and simply they actually enjoy it. Seeing that right there was far more rewarding for me than having them lose weight or having them look good for a certain thing.
Besides the cookbook that you’re currently working on, what’s next for you in your career?
I’ve had this idea for a food and travel show, which incidentally enough couldn’t have come at a better time. The idea of this show is to really focus on sustainability of the past, present and future and how every part of the world has done their part or is doing their part to preserve. I’ve experienced everything from high end to cooking out in Indigenous cultures throughout Mexico as well as everything in-between, and this is something that I think, even now, is going to be very important moving forward.
One of the places that I would be most excited to work on quickly would be the Indigenous culture here in Australia. They’re the perfect example of people who have lived by their land for thousands of years and for me it’s about seeing how the modern world can do the same.