Interview: Michelin-Starred Chef Romain Fornell on Barcelona’s Culinary Chops

Insight on Fornell's forthcoming Barcelona restaurant, Grand Café Rouge, opening in Odile Decq's Antares

In 2001, at 24 years old, chef Romain Fornell won his first Michelin star (for Chaldette in Lozère, France) and became the youngest person to achieve the honor. Four years later, Fornell earned his second, but it just so happened to come by way of a restaurant in Spain. This restaurant, Caelis (now a Catalan institution) embodies the exemplary, international cuisine of Barcelona. Since, it has become one of 13 restaurants in Fornell’s beloved international portfolio.

Born in Toulouse, Fornell studied at his birth city’s illustrious hospitality school, Lycée des Métiers d’Hôtellerie et du Tourisme. From his first professional role in 1996 onward, he has amassed accolades and crossed milestones. His latest development, Grand Café Rouge, will open at the base of the stunning Odile Decq-designed Antares residential tower—set to be complete by year’s end. This 200-seat endeavor will explore the capabilities of Spanish cuisine today. Enamored by the concept, we took time to speak with Fornell about working with an icon like Decq, the difference between French and Spanish dining culture and where he’s looking for inspiration.

Barcelona’s food scene is appreciated internationally. Can you explain why you think that is? And does the creativity of chefs in Barcelona challenge and stimulate other chefs in the city?

To me, there are many factors that influence it, such as the location and the people. It has been over 30 years since a group of Catalan chefs, conducted by Ferran Adrià, led what we consider to be the third gastronomic revolution. The first being with Auguste Escoffier, the second “la nouvelle cuisine.”

They’ve changed the paradigms of culinarians, changing the code based on the French cuisine to develop something more contemporary, which matches these newer times.

You earned a Michelin star at such a young age. Did this apply pressure on you moving forward?

It actually was the opposite! It was motivating. The recognition of a job well done was an encouragement to keep my eyes open and become ready to face new challenges.

You’ve been successful in France and Spain. Can you tell me about some of the differences in owning and operating restaurants in both of these nations?

They are similar countries because of their proximity in location, culture and lifestyle. Both countries count a strong international audience and demanding local customers.

How have you managed to keep Caelis so cherished for so long?

It’s all because of the team and their capabilities to adapt, and motivation to learn and evolve. We are constantly learning. We need to stay humble and always listen. I am not in my home country here, and even if I consider Barcelona as a home, I clearly understood the importance of listening.

Can you share with me the origin of the opportunity to open Grand Café Rouge in Antares?

It all started when I met Philippe Camus and Odile Decq when they came to share Antares with me and we all got along. I immediately fell in love with Antares because of its distinct design and location. Barcelona is one of the most vibrant and creative cities in the world and this is an exciting opportunity to have a restaurant in the highest residential tower in the city.

Can you talk about the development of the concept and menu for Grand Café Rouge? 

Antares’ homes will have views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Catalan capital, so we wanted it to be a contemporary brasserie, modern and with influences from Barcelona, France and the Mediterranean. It is going to be a fusion between the popular French and Catalan cuisine and all made exclusively with local products.

What is your process like in developing a menu? Where are you looking for inspiration?

It starts with the experience and knowledge we acquired through the 20 years we spent in Barcelona. We have a vast repertoire of recipes that we adapt upon. We like to play and create dishes by mixing a maximum of four flavors with one item being the center.

Did you work with Odile in any way? 

Yes, we worked together throughout the project and created the concept of the restaurant together. It’s an interesting and inspiring joint-venture in which we combine our ideas and perspective from the experiences in our respective fields. The space and location of Antares was a great inspiration to me. Antares is located in what is the newest and most cosmopolitan district of Barcelona. It is a futuristic building and Grand Café Rouge is also going to be modern and state-of-the-art. With an open kitchen, DJ… it is going to be a place where something always happens.

You’ve also got a strong, large roster of restaurants. How do you successfully oversee all of these ventures?

The key is the team. The team allows us to develop the concept and redirect it if necessary. Each space is an adventure, with its own identity and soul.

Is there something in the food world you are looking to explore or learn about?

Of course, we’re constantly learning. Every day we learn, we make mistakes, and every day we move forward. I never want to stop learning. The training is constant.

 Images courtesy of Studio Odile Decq / Antares