Until recently, directing films seemed off-limits to women in Spain, but a new generation of filmmakers —Carla Simón, Pilar Palomero, or Paula Ortiz, among others— have broken through that glass ceiling.
He has become the first contestant from a cooking talent show to achieve a Michelin star with his restaurant ‘Raíces’, but Carlos Maldonado is much more than that: his wild spirit, desire to improve, and the passion he has for his land have made him break the stereotypes of the gastronomy scene in Spain.
“Let me into your palate and I’ll give you a piece of my soul.” This is how Carlos Maldonado (Talavera de la Reina, 1991) invites guests to discover his gastronomic temple and reveals what this young rebel who we met on the set of the ‘MasterChef’ TV programme is really like: wild—as he defines himself—, passionate, and determined. After a professional career worthy of a film, in 2020 he bet all or nothing on opening his own restaurant and the pandemic almost made him close down. Who’d have told him that, a few months later, Raíces would receive a Michelin star —which has just been confirmed for the second year in a row— defending, now more than ever, the connection to his land and betting on equal parts vanguard and tradition.
You’re the picture of reinvention: ham seller, CrossFit trainer, security guard... What’s left of all those Carlos’ before becoming a chef?
I’m not sure if I’m really reinventing myself... I’d say that I’ve wandered from job to job out of necessity. They’re all very different jobs and the result of not finding a place where I felt useful, I didn’t feel comfortable. Then I’d change course and look for another way out. What’s left of that Carlos? Everything. I’m the same person, it’s just that now I have a different job.
When you won the third edition of ‘MasterChef? You talked about the responsibility that having the audience’s unconditional support entails. What’s that feeling like?
It’s scary, you have the responsibility of reaching everyone and you don’t want to let down all the people who’ve supported you. This can make you feel trapped, but you realise that they’ve supported you because of what you’re like and you have to enjoy yourself. It’s important to never stop growing but, at the same time, to not lose sight of who you are and always keep your feet on the ground.
“Raíces would make no sense in Madrid, it had to be where I grew up, where I’ve grown... At home”
And then came the time to open your own restaurant, something that isn’t limited to just knowing how to cook.
Yes, it was another change of course, also out of necessity. Nomadic life is beautiful, but I had to settle down and create something physical, something tangible. That’s why we decided to set up Raíces, a project that has evolved into what it is today.
Which is the concept behind Raíces? Your entire menu has a common thread that connects the gastronomic experience. You even have a pottery workshop to create your own dinnerware.
The concept behind the restaurant is based on our roots, our history, and our experiences and leaving a part of ourselves on each plate. We work on selecting local products, even our own ceramics. We also try to reflect that part of the world.
Many prestigious chefs try to conquer Madrid or Barcelona after a success like yours. Nevertheless, you still bet on your region. What do Talavera de la Reina and La Mancha have that no other place in the world has?
Talavera has given me everything. It’s true that 90% of my guests come from other communities, but I think that Raíces would make no sense in Madrid, it had to be where I grew up, where I’ve grown... At home.
Does knowing where you come from help you to know where you’re going? Do you need to be humble to continue learning?
I don’t think of humility as such, I’m aware of what I’m good at and what I’m bad at. What I’m good at, I expose to the public, and what I’m bad at, I try to rectify. I think that every day, we need to grow and never believe that we possess the truth. Truth is very relative; you must question everything.
“I don’t think of humility as such, I’m aware of what I’m good at and what I’m bad at. What I’m good at, I expose to the public, and what I’m bad at, I try to rectify”
You said you were 15 days from closing Raíces in 2020 due to the pandemic restrictions.
My father always says: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I didn’t take any notice. With Raíces I went all in, and it didn’t work out at the beginning, because we started construction work on the 2nd of March of 2020, to open the restaurant on the 19th, and we were unlucky and had to go into lockdown on the 14th. So, yes, exactly, we were 15 days from closing the restaurant.
Nevertheless, just a few months later... the star came along. What was that like?
It was crazy, a turning point. I knew that it’d have huge professional repercussions, but I didn’t believe it’d have such a big personal impact. It changed everything, it’s very overwhelming. Imagine: major chefs have a star. You’re given one and you think: “Oh my goodness, what have a gotten myself into?” But it also helped us get out of a hole.
Now, is the fear of falling greater or, on the contrary, does it give you a safety net?
We go back to not letting anybody down. At the beginning there was a lot of tension and stress. We were vulnerable, more fearful, because we wanted everything to go perfectly. We had to stop, look in the mirror, and remind ourselves that we’d gotten this far because of who we are. We still fight for our dreams, our concept, and our vision of gastronomy. And then we came back stronger and with more joy.
“After winning the star, we had to stop, look in the mirror, and remind ourselves that we’d gotten this far because of who we are”
Many already predicted your success because of your creativity, in and out of the kitchen. Do you think that talent is an innate gift, or in a discipline like gastronomy, do you work on it daily?
In our case, there’s no gift that counts. We work really hard and surround ourselves with a wonderful team. We believe in what we do, we work passionately, and that’s not a gift. We spend a lot of hours a day on it because we enjoy it. We have the gift of hard work, of sacrifice, of fighting, of risk-taking... And sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. But I think the gift is working hard and enjoying what you do.
What inspires Carlos Maldonado?
You don’t look for inspiration, it finds you. Inspiration comes from every step you take daily, every person you cross on the street, a look, a random day sitting on a terrace drinking a beer... I believe inspiration comes from stories, experiences, people... If we transfer that to a plate, we make a soulful dish.
Spain has a lot to say in terms of gastronomic talent; do you think there’s a glass ceiling or it can continue evolving?
Spanish chefs are the best. We have the best products, wonderful settings... We have variety, quantity, quality: all the ingredients to be the richest country in the world in terms of gastronomy. All Spanish chefs have unbeatable potential, and we just need to continue growing like up until now.
Many will consider you an obvious example of that, with hard work, you can achieve anything. Any advice for future chefs?
For me, the best advice is to be happy with what you do. You’ll go through many different moods, and you’ll never be 100% happy, but it’s important to spend the most amount of time possible at that end of the spectrum. Walking the path, enjoying it, falling down... That’s the time to reinvent yourself and continue growing with excitement, joy, and a smile. That’s the best advice I can give.