Javier Sanz and Juan Sahuquillo

Manchegan territory

05/20/2022 · By Eva Melchor
Javier Sanz and Juan Sahuquillo received the Breakout Chef Award at Madrid Fusión 2021
Javier Sanz and Juan Sahuquillo received the Breakout Chef Award at Madrid Fusión 2021. © Peter Marconi

These are the chefs on the lips of the gastronomic circuit. Javier Sanz and Juan Sahuquillo thrived at the latest edition of Madrid Fusión and will continue consolidating a dazzling career that’s on track to carving a niche for themselves in the Michelin Guide. The keys to their success? Devotion for the product, an iron will, and an unshakeable connection to La Mancha.

“They’ve burst onto the haute cuisine scene like a whirlwind,” noted the jury of Madrid Fusión when awarding them the 2021 Breakout Chef Award, a prize already bestowed on none other than Dabiz Muñoz or Ricard Camarena, and which represented their definitive leap towards success. Javier Sanz and Juan Sahuquillo (Casas-Ibáñez, 1999) are the chefs on the lips of the gastronomic circuit. Their project Cañitas Maite has placed Casas-Ibáñez, a village in Albacete of barely 4,000 residents, firmly on the map of Spanish haute cuisine. And with good reason.

Javier is the third generation of restauranteurs within the Sanz family and, as he says himself, “I was practically born in the restaurant”. As for Juan, he comes from “a family of big cooks”. Friends since childhood and insultingly young —they’re barely 23 years old—, they’re here to shake up the Spanish culinary scene with a fresh and innovative approach based on local products, recovering ancient techniques, and a homage to their region.

Manchegan memory
If there’s one thing Sanz and Sahuquillo exude, it’s love for their roots. Avoiding trends and more commercial cuisine, they want to recover the real Manchegan tradition at the stove: “La Mancha cuisine stems from necessity, from placing value on humble products. Strong, rainfed cuisine. Our menu doesn’t include deconstructed and restructured dishes, we’ll never serve gachas that aren’t oatmeal. We want to highlight Manchegan cuisine, but also its values.”

“We want to highlight Manchegan cuisine, but also its values”

Cañitas Maite is an example of this, a family-run business that started to shine thanks to the new generation taking over and is already a place of pilgrimage for lovers of gastronomy. After the success of Cañitas Maite, this January they decided to take one step further and open Oba, the chefs’ particular homage to their roots and compatriots from Albacete. A thoughtful project that goes back to the source, where their gastronomic proposal is based on natural elements and recovering that connection to La Mancha: “From the tablecloth to the plate, from the floor to the ceiling, the entire room is decorated with natural materials handmade by small artisans from the area,” they tell us. Teamwork with small producers, local farmers, and organic kitchen gardens, always respecting the season, to create a cuisine based on the product’s excellence, which preserves the taste, and seeks balanced combinations and textures through technique and creativity.

Even its name is meaningful. Oba is a word that comes from the universal language created in 1855 by priest Bonifacio Sotos Ochando in Casas-Ibáñez, the birthplace of Sanz and Sahuquillo, which means “root and subject of the most essential principles of the human being. Spirit, instinct, soul, or thought.” This is why their dishes transport us to that natural environment of La Manchuela, the valleys of Júcar and Cabriel, with the smell of oak casks and horizons full of sunflower fields.

Devotion for the product
One of Sanz and Sahuquillo’s strongest and most distinguishing proposals is recovering unique products and forgotten varieties that, in many cases, are practically endangered species. “It's not about having a million products, but rather giving them all the same value. We receive nourishment from the ingredients from our surroundings, from crushed mixes, brines, or marinades,” they specify. Raising the bar of inland cuisine with traditional products such as Celtic-Iberian kid, game meats, crayfish, hand-watered garden vegetables, hanging melons, or sheep’s milk products. The purest La Mancha.

They also promote relationships with small local producers from outside the region, and thus, bring seafood from Ría de Arousa or the fish markets in Huelva; bombita rice from Albufera, matured for 12 months and polished to 60%; fish from O´Grove, Ribeira, and Vigo, caught using traditional techniques... Even aromatic herbs and green pinecones collected by themselves in the mountain range of Júcar. All this to make dishes based on the excellence of the product and flavour at its finest, but also with that sacred connection to their environment: “Working directly with local producers is beautiful, each week we visit the fields, we talk to the farmers... The best reward is feeling that you’re doing something good for your area and that those people know that beautiful things come from their products,” they declare.

“Creativity isn’t something you’re born with; it takes daily work and cultivation”

Tradition but without leaving innovation behind, since they’ve decided to constantly invest in R&D to create the highest-quality culinary experience without giving up on the ancient techniques of local cuisine. An extremely personal project that combines equal parts tradition and innovation: “Our cuisine is constant R&D. At Oba, we close for two months of the year to devote ourselves exclusively to developing new dishes and experiences, which in turn have been created slowly throughout the year. Making yourself change the menu every season is a bonus that helps you develop creativity. Creativity isn’t something you’re born with; it takes daily work and cultivation,” they declare.

Dazzling talent
As well as the highest recognition as 2021 Best Chefs, at Madrid Fusión they also received the Jamón Joselito World’s Best Croquette Award and won the Best Brine competition. A catapult to success that they celebrated in style: “Madrid Fusión gave us life, it’s allowed us to make our dreams come true. We work for seven months without skipping a single service, promoting creativity every day to improve our proposal.” Full of excitement, they tell us the team was pivotal in this process: Twenty people from the team went to Madrid to work hard together, as always. Everyone’s commitment was crucial. Talent and inspiration are necessary in the kitchen, but then comes gruelling study and research work.”

“Talent and inspiration are necessary in the kitchen, but then comes gruelling study and research work”

The next step is the coveted Michelin star, something that both critics and the public agree on. “Since we were little, we dreamt of being among the great chefs and this year we hope that Oba will appear in the Michelin Guide somehow.” That hunger for reaching the top comes from surrounding themselves with the best, since Javier trained in gastronomic spaces like Casa Marcial or Atrio, while Juan went through Mugaritz o Andreu Genestra. These renowned talents are their role models: “From Andreu, we take his passion for nature and the environment; from Atrio, how to organise a restaurant like a luxury hotel and for everything to run like clockwork; from Nacho Manzano, his humanity with workers, he’s just another friend; and from Mugaritz, we always take their perfect way of working, passion for constant innovation, and making guests think, beyond just feeding them.”

Tradition and innovation, respect and rebellion, support and projection. Javier Sanz and Juan Sahuquillo: dazzling Manchegan talent whose work we definitely need to keep an eye on.