Interview: Jèrome Palayer

Head chef Jèrome Palayer stands at the passe bent over a tray of succulent tuna steaks, inspecting each one as a master jeweller might scrutinise a precious gem. Each summer he brings this exacting methodology to every plate that makes its way from the kitchen to the tables and sunbeds of El Chiringuito. Behind him his loyal kitchen team move between steaming pots and fiery ovens in a harmony of unspoken words, seemingly communicating via telepathy. This is no red-hot kitchen full of egocentric prima donnas. It’s a smooth machine with one goal – to create a beautiful experience.

Jèrome’s kind face, warm eyes and broad shoulders emit the reassuring wisdom of a man who knows how to wield a knife. Originally from Roman sur Isère in the south of Lyon, he started his career as a teenager with some of the top chefs the world has seen. He is the master of his kitchen; ruling with a gentle yet firm temperament, highly regarded amongst his peers and staff yet quick to shine the light on others. Here he talks food, origins and what makes him tick.

What brought you to Ibiza and El Chiringuito?

I’ve known Olivia [Fleury] for many years. We worked together before. I set up a restaurant in Palma called La Poule Tocqueée then I came here to work with Olivia. I love Ibiza and El Chiringuito. It’s a pleasure to come here everyday.

How did you come to be a chef?

I started cooking at four years of age. My grandmother had nine children and she was always cooking, everything from scratch. As a child, my grandfather took me out to eat in fine restaurants. So, when I was really little I saw the life of the cook and from that point I loved it. I started working at 15. At that time you would work three weeks in a restaurant and spend one week at school. It’s the best way to learn. My first job was in a two Michelin star restaurant, I worked with Pierre Gagnaire at St. Etienne in Lyon, at Hotel Negresco in Nice… it was very good training.

Are there any dishes from your childhood that invoke nostalgia?

There is a country chicken dish that is typical of my city, its called poêlée de trévise in French. That dish is… when I talk of it I can taste it, it comes right back to me. I made it here one year when we had a big party; it’s like an homage to my grandmother.

What is your kitchen philosophy?

The hardest thing is to keep things simple and pure. We have a lot of respect for each other, for the food and that makes it easier. Every dish that goes out has to be something that I want to eat myself. You have to respect the dining room, the staff. It’s the details: from the flowers on the tables to the cleaners. All those things make the experience. Nothing complicated but always the best quality.

Tell us about your team.

There are 24 people in the kitchen. We are so lucky here at El Chiringuito – it’s a pleasure to work here, which makes it a pleasure for the customers too. The best tool I have is my team. I am a bit manic sometimes; there are two or three things in the kitchen I obsess over. But I have a base team that have been with me for five years. Each chef has their own style; I like to hear their ideas. I have so much trust in them and it’s mutual. It makes it easy to be here, to get good results.

How has Ibiza influenced your style of cooking?

Each place has its own flavour. I love Mediterranean cooking, and here we are in the centre of it. It’s a true pleasure to cook here.

Is there any local produce that really excites you?

The fig season here is the best. I have a friend who lives in the centre of the island who has about 500 fig trees of all kinds, from all over, and when the Ibiza figs come in, I love it. There is lots of wonderful produce here, the potatoes are amazing, the tomatoes are amazing – it’s incredible how good they are.

What’s new this season at El Chiringuito?

This year we changed the menu quite a bit. We’ve added fourteen new dishes. We have some new sharing dishes, Chiringuito Antipasti, marinated anchovies, a Nebraska Black Angus for two… we have very loyal clients that come every year and we wanted to give them a few new things.

If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self what would you say?

I would tell my younger self not to change jobs. It was the best decision for me! But I would advise him to take a little more time for the family. To try and find a balance, although it’s hard. Nowadays it’s good. I don’t work in winter anymore. I get to rest, to recharge myself. I have a house in Palma, I split my time between here and there.

What do you do when you are not working?

Every night I go out and eat somewhere different. In the end, I am very simple. There’s a tiny restaurant run by a local Ibicenco guy, and he makes me a few small dishes, rabbit, country chicken, salad. Very simple and very good. Or I’ll often go to BEACHOUSE to see what Sebastian [Altimari, head chef] is up to. I am very easy to cook for. You can give me a baked potato with a fresh salad and I am the happiest man in the world. I have a wide taste; I like to travel, to see what is happening elsewhere. Every country has something amazing to eat.