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Basque-born Diego Guerrero had to leave home to create his own food story. At his DsTAGE restaurant in Madrid, it's an acronym for Days to Smell Taste Amaze Grow & Enjoy, the chef has carved out his own culinary identity, pushing boundaries and riding the wave of contemporary Spanish cuisine.
DsTAGE doesn't take itself too seriously, despite holding two Michelin stars. There's no soothing Bach music, stiff service or starched white tablecloths. Instead, a lively open plan kitchen, a team of young chefs and a boisterous playlist. Guerrero was also one of the first fine dining restaurants in Spain to close at the weekends to give his chefs a "normal" life.
Diners eat at tables made by Guerrero's own hands, rock to Bruce Springsteen or the Red Hot Chili Peppers during their dinner and even take a trip into the kitchen to experience the "natural empathy" Diego creates between the restaurant and the diner.
We meet after Guerrero's presentation at Identita Golose at the end of the day. He's still buzzing, his enthusiasm infectious and he has that easy confidence that comes with having found your "calling". At 18 years old, the chef chose cooking as a career, against his parents' advice, and now, twenty six years later can confidently say he's proven them wrong.
Hitting the magic five year benchmark since opening his restaurant in 2014, he's all about taking risks and thinking outside the box.
Creating a New Identity
Guerrero defies being pigeon-holed with his cuisine, style or his restaurant. Despite counting Andoni Aduriz, Albert and Ferran among his biggest inspirations and "lucky enough" to call them friends, he's found a way to tell his own story, a long way from home, and without imitation.
"You have to create your identity because you don’t want to follow people just that others are doing, you have to be different from the others but not just for the sake of being different. So you can tell and defend to the others, this is my fight, I try to find and create this."
"I’ll always have my Basque roots inside of me and inside of my cuisine, but it would not make sense to stop my experience just at my roots and memories. It would not be the reality I’m living in actually."
His dishes reflect both his travels and the multicultural location of a capital city ”I share my life with Chinese people, Colombian people, with people from all over the world ... I live in the middle of the entire world, and I have to put my cuisine right there."
He defines his cooking as "natural, honest, creative and without rules."
Diego is forever motivated by pushing creative boundaries, a philosophy he shares with fellow Basque chefs. "My dishes are different" he explains, we try to use a lateral way of thinking things. If it’s done, then it doesn’t work for us. When we think about working with a product, we're probably going to throw away the first ten ideas because the first ones are the obvious ones, so we have to look at some others."
When Diego checks in with customers, he doesn't ask them for a critique of their dinner, afterall this is "subjective", he reminds us. Instead, he asks "Did you enjoy yourself?", "Many customers love saying they've been in many places with Michelin stars, but I like this one because it's "different". Maybe that's the best feedback we can have. We take it in a very positive way" he enthuses.
DStage is also closed at the weekend. A brave risk for a fine dining restaurant in a capital city, and Guerrero who owns the restaurant takes the burden of the financial risk single handedly in the pursuit of the happiness of his staff.
"I decided to take the risk, I said “hey guys I’m going to close some weekends” because I would like everyone here to feel happy. I want happy people working with me, not tired and angry people. And to show others that maybe if we work hard, we can build a different future. Why can’t we close the restaurant?"
"It's not a one way street" he goes on to explain, "it's giving them an opportunity to live in a different world. But at the same time, it's saying I gave you this what are you going to give to the profession, what are you going to add to this profession, because you are the future1"
Engaging with the future
Guerrero is also honest about his fears for young chefs entering the trade, "I don’t know, I think we feel that their values have changed, they are different to our values. We come from old school with old rules that maybe young people don’t buy." Instead of ignoring young people, he's engaging with them and giving them a voice. At Dialogos Cocina he invited young people on stage to give them a voice.
"We never hear the young people and maybe they get confused as they are looking at people that they admire, and maybe they’re confused they think they are like them or can be like them, maybe they don’t know there’s a jump of 25 years in between. Maybe they’re confused. I learnt this technique and this technique and now I’m like this one. No, you are not like this one."
The cutting edge issues affecting the industry are close to the 44-year-old chef's heart. He's recently returned from a conference exploring the most poignant issues. "How can we make gastronomy the future, gastronomy sustainable if we’re not able to be sustainable in our own restaurants?"
So, there's not just the sustainability of the chef to think about but also about the menu. Diego is working on a number of alternative proteins already and during his talk demonstrated a prawn dish using parts that are usually discarded.
How do his customers respond to the zero waste concept? "Our customers understand, but once again its more risky, the more traditional ones think you are giving them garbage, things that you throw away. They want to see big shellfish, caviar."
"Maybe If you tell them you’re doing something with the small legs of the prawn they want to know where the rest of the prawn is!"
How can you explain? For me this part is tastier and more creative to use this part than the meat. You have to tell them. It’s a process to educate. It’s the only way to walk forward. Take risks sometimes and then let’s see what happens.
"Identity can tell a story in its own way, if you do it honestly and with your heart and with work, I buy it" he concludes.