Little-Known but Important (and Excellent) Barcelona Chef Calls It Quits

Fermí Puig might be the most important contemporary Spanish chef you've never heard of, and Drolma in Barcelona is quite possibly the least-known, least trendy Michelin-starred restaurant in town — but the fact that Puig is closing Drolma (at the behest of its owners) at the end of this month says something significant about the state of food in Catalonia today.

Puig (pronounced approximately "pooch") is a key figure in recent Spanish culinary history: As a young man with limited restaurant experience in the early 1980s, he found himself in the Spanish navy, cooking for an admiral alongside another young recruit named Fernando Adrià. He and Adrià — today world-famous under the Catalan form of his name, Ferran — became fast friends, and it was Puig who first suggested to Adrià that he do a stage, a sort of unpaid kitchen internship, at an isolated German-owned French restaurant on the Costa Brava called El Bulli. The rest, as they say…

The two chefs worked together for a time at the restaurant, and then Puig moved on to other establishments, in Barcelona and beyond. During the period when Adrià, Santi Santamaria (in another fashion), and other Catalan chefs of a similar vintage were beginning to foment the culinary revolution that subsequently galvanized Spanish and then international cuisine, Puig was out of the mainstream, running several restaurants in the Canary Islands. He made a lot of money there, he once told me, and had a lot of fun. (Adrià and Santamaria used to take vacations there — at the same time, before their feud developed.)

In 1999, he returned to Barcelona, invited by the proprietors of the Hotel Majestic to install an upscale dining room there. The result was Drolma — the name isn't Catalan, but is rather the Tibetan name of a female Buddha — a small, elegantly appointed restaurant on the second floor of the hotel, overlooking the stylish Passeig de Gràcia. This was probably the city's first serious restaurant in a luxury hotel. While other chefs in the region had embraced and modernized traditional Catalan cuisine, or gone off exploring in the kitchens of the avant-garde, Puig instead produced sophisticated French food, served by white-gloved waiters. A typical menu might include a salad of artichokes, guinea hen, and foie gras; leek and lobster ravioli; sole with green and white asparagus; and milk-fed veal with spinach, wild mushrooms, and sweetbreads. It was all pricey, but all impeccably prepared, and the restaurant soon earned a Michelin star.

In the mid-2000s, Puig opened another place for the same proprietors, a restaurant called Petit Comitè, this time a casual establishment with counter seating (apparently inspired by that at Joël Robuchon's L'Ateliers) with a menu that was very much traditional Catalan.

Now, coincidentally, just a few months after El Bulli closed as a restaurant, the Hotel Majestic has decided to shutter Drolma, turning the dining room into luxury suites and putting a new, informal eatery, without Puig's involvement, off the lobby in a space now occupied by a cigar lounge. The change is part of a new direction being taken by the hotel, in an effort to engage a younger clientele. Haute cuisine is not part of the new strategy. "Times have changed," says Puig, "and cuisine has to mirror society."