Meet Willy, the impish chef behind the sensational El Willy in Shanghai
If you live in Shanghai, or have visited often, there is no doubt you have heard of Willy and his popular Spanish tapas restaurant El Willy. Located in the French Concession in an old villa, is a warm and welcoming place (just like Willy) that has won numerous accolades in local Shanghai media and was also listed in the top 100 Restaurants in the Miele Guide. If you have been to El Willy, you have no doubt seen Willy. He moves from kitchen to dining room, bringing his infectious energy, impish smile and laughter to all he comes in contact with. He is easily recognizable not just because of his big smile and big personality, but also because of his signature cap and colourful socks pulled up over the calf. But while Willy keeps it light and free and easy, he is no lightweight. Willy’s distinguished background in Michelin-starred restaurants and even training at the infamous El Bulli very clearly sets him apart in Shanghai. I had a chance to talk to Willy recently about his history of cooking, his philosopy and about one of his favourite summer dishes, gazpacho. And here’s what Willy had to say…
When asked how he came up with the concept for El Willy, Willy says he wanted to make sure the place was fun, because that’s the kind of place he likes. Inspired by his hometown of Barcelona, Willy brought traditional Spanish tapas to Shanghai. But having traveled extensively Torres Wines across China, it was not going to be satisfying for Willy to have an expat-only restaurant. He wanted to adapt the tapas dishes and tapas culture in order to make sure Shanghainese people enjoyed it as well. While the tapas concept already fits quite well with the Chinese tradition of sharing many dishes, Willy made sure to add more rice dishes and make food bite-sized so it could be easily eaten with chopsticks. The result is today, El Willy’s is packed out with expats and Chinese alike and there is a large group of loyal customers (including myself!)
Willy ‘s food philosophy is all about bringing the culinary traditional of Spain alive in China in his own unique style. He prefers to combine interesting and unexpected flavours , for example one of my favourite dishes which is the Beef Cheek cooked for 5 hours with Banana and Passion Fruit. “It’s all about taste,” says Willy, “it’s not enough for the food to look good, it must taste good. And that’s also why I try to use as many local products as possible.”
Willy’s style is uniquely his own, but his training is clearly traditional and gold standard. Willy’s CV is too long to enumerate but highlights include working at 3-star Michelin Georges Blanc in France, at the NY Times 4-starred Aquavit in New York, and time spent cooking with the culinary gods, Alain Ducasse and Feran Adria. This guy knows his stuff – and it shows. Soon to come is a new restaurant called Elephante, with a Spanish / Meditteranean concept restaurant with a little take away deli where customers can purchase some of the same ingredients and homemade dishes that will be served in the restaurant.
So when asked what Willy cooks on his days off at home, he talks about simple dishes that highlight the ingredients, like ceviche, pasta and gazpacho in the summer. Being a gazpacho addict, I couldn’t resist asking for Willy’s recipe and he gladly shared it. Now for you to try at home and enjoy, Willy’s gazpacho.
Willy’s Traditional Gazpacho (makes 1,25L)
9pcs medium-sized tomato
1⁄4 of a white onion
1⁄2 of a green bell pepper
3 cloves of garlic
60ml red wine vinegar
25g day old bread
1 cucumber peeled
50ml extra virgin olive oil
5gr diced green bell peppers
5gr diced red bell pepper
5gr diced cucumber
5gr small croutons
Cut the tomatoes, white onion, green bell pepper, garlic, old bread and cucumber into big dices; put the vegetables in a bowl and keep for 2 hours in the fridge.
Take out from fridge blend the soup at high speed. Put the soup in a big bowl, mix the extra virgin olive oil and salt with a whisk then keep the soup in the fridge for 1 more hour before serving.
Present 250mL of gazpacho in a bowl with a finishing dash of olive oil and pinch of fresh herbs, and a plate of diced cucumber, green & red bell peppers and small croutons.