From a countertop bar to a gastronomic restaurant (Dani Carnero is about to open Kaleja), and from a countertop bar to a sandwich bar (Rafa Peña has just opened Torpedo). ‘I’ll end up with a food truck...,’ says the latter. It’ll have a countertop bar. It’ll be gastronomic.  

January 3, 2019

Dani Carnero and Rafa Peña defend – most ardently – unusual projects, one in Málaga and the other in Barcelona. With similar ages, skill sets, initial ideas, and outstanding CVs, the new openings by these two chefs pinpoint targets and experiences lived. Carnero has opted for the gastronomic (he is about to open Kaleja); Peña, for more of a neighbourhood bar (he has just opened Torpedo). They are both fun guys with no taboos when it comes to proper cooking, and have managed to consolidate an offer of honest food served at countertop bars, ‘a symbol of gastronomic freedom.’ They discuss projects, casualness and innate desires, of accessibility to haute cuisine; of trends and dishes. Together, on Wednesday 30 January, they will bring the talks at the Madrid Fusión 2019 Auditorium to a close. Behind a countertop bar.

It’s part and parcel of who they are. Dani Carnero has been at the helm of the eatery La Cosmopolita in Málaga since 2010, and Rafa Peña has done the same since 2006 at Gresca, in Barcelona, which in 2016 he expanded by adding a bar. In both places, these chefs defend ‘countertop bar’ haute cuisine where ‘diners and cooks see each other face to face, and the former are free to create their own menus.’ From this vantage point which they have made their hallmark, they now take diverging paths. They’ll meet, ‘or not, if Rafa doesn’t install WhatsApp…’

‘Because he’s not going to install WhatsApp and I’m not going to change at this stage of the game…’ Carnero aims to open Kaleja ‘in around March or April.’ A gastronomic restaurant that will enhance food cooked over firewood and life around the countertop bar, like a high chef’s table. A sacred totem. ‘The feeling that diners have at a countertop bar is that they’ll eat when and how they want. The countertop bar is freedom, and that’s part of the future of Spanish gastronomy. We have to feel free when we sit down to eat, not feel restricted.’ Carnero is enthusiastic when he speaks, and his arguments are convincing, ‘At the table, you’re seated low and the waiter looms over you. At the countertop bar, you’re face to face, horizontally linear.’

The magic of the countertop bar

Peña talks to us about his Gresca Bar, a bar and countertop bar, as well as tables from where you see a small countertop bar for six that overlooks the kitchen (similar to the one Carnero will set up at Kaleja, although this one is smaller, as the one at Kaleja will seat 14). ‘People who sit at the countertop bar overlooking the kitchen do what they want. They see a dish go out, they like the look of it and order it, or they ask you if you’ve got truffles and peas. Really? On the same plate. Ready.’ Carnero nods. ‘Unlike at a table, at a countertop bar everything is more visual. You order based on what you see and from comments made. A dish goes past you, you comment on it and order it. Basically, you’re saying, ‘Give me something to eat.’ And that customer who had settled in their place at the bar criticizing haute cuisine, finds that three hours later – having talked and solved the world’s problems with our cooks – they have eaten five dishes and not even realized it. That’s the magic of the countertop bar.’

It’s the casualness that goes with the countertop bar and the food that goes with it, and that is also setting a firm trend for the future. ‘You can get up from a countertop bar whenever you want. You decide how long you stay,’ they say. Virtues that Carnero conveys to the fact itself. It will be a trend or the future. It’s found in Málaga and Barcelona. ‘If we’ve met for a meal and I’ve got a stomach ache, I don’t see why I have to ruin your tasting menu. We’ve got to change the inflexibility of tasting menus in the restaurant industry in Spain. It’s absurd that you’re at the table, and after half an hour you ask how many dishes there are still to go; it’s quite stifling.’

Not being afraid

It’s important for customers not to be afraid. Following the news that Dani García was closing a restaurant, Carnero points out, ‘it’s not about making haute cuisine more popular, but simply for customers to not be afraid of going to an haute-cuisine restaurant. Very often that fear is not about money, but about feeling awkward.’ In addition, at countertop bars like those at Gresca and La Cosmopolita, ‘people begin to understand why one dish costs €4, while another costs €14. And, if you “get them hooked”, the day will come when that person will have saved some money and will go to El Celler de Can Roca. But, hey, how can they not be afraid when even we sometimes don’t understand our what colleagues have on their menus?’

Peña wasn’t listening any more. He’d left us to wander around Torpedo, ‘the bar I used to look for in Barcelona where I could eat well and rock on late into the night.’ Just like those enjoyed in the embrace of a countertop bar.