Santiago (“Santi”) Santamaria, one of the great chefs of Spain, died suddenly last week at age 53. He apparently suffered a heart attack in the kitchen of his newest restaurant, in the Marina Bay section of Singapore.
Santamaria was the first Catalan chef to earn three Michelin stars. He was originally from Sant Celoni, a small village outside Barcelona where his family had lived for over 200 years. During the 1980s he opened a restaurant in his family’s farmhouse, El Roca de Can Fabes, which became more elaborate as the years passed. Can Fabes was awarded three stars in 1994 and added a small number of rooms for guests to stay overnight, boasting about its status as “the smallest Relais & Chateaux in the world.” His Madrid restaurant, Santceloni, held two Michelin stars.
As a chef, he stressed the importance of using market-fresh ingredients, particularly those that were organic or naturally produced. I dined at Santceloni in 2005 and was impressed by Santamaria’s ability to take earthy and rustic ingredients and transform them into a refined, elegant style of cooking. Despite his aggressive promotion of Basque cuisine, the dishes were delicate and understated. Unlike his celebrated colleague Ferran Adria, Santamaria’s presentation was almost classical.
Unfortunately, he will be best remembered by many people for his attacks on Adria’s molecular experiments. He was critical of the chemical emulsifiers, gelling agents and liquid nitrogen used by Adria and his disciples, even going so far as to accuse them of “poisoning” diners and asking the Spanish government to investigate. Although he claimed that his primary concern was the preservation of the Catalan heritage and his respect for the integrity of raw materials, his protests were taken by some observers as evidence of jealousy.
The quibbling was forgotten in the aftermath of Santamaria’s death, as tributes poured in from Adria and his fellow chefs. Santamaria had recently opened restaurants in Dubai and Singapore, and was believed to be cooking for a contingent of food critics when he suddenly passed away.