“I’m Spanish to the marrow of my bones,” says Eloy del Castillo, chef and co-owner of Château Madrid Restaurant in Sweetwater. “And I’m so Spanish I had to become a bullfighter.” In the dining room there’s a photo of the young, trim del Castillo in a traje de luces, the costume of the trade. A quarrel with a manager drove him to break his contract and cost him his career. “I didn’t know anything except bullfighting,” he says, “so I left Spain for Belgium and started to work as a waiter.”
He I liked restaurant work so much that he’s been at it for the past 50 years. In Miami, he worked at traditional Spanish, French and Italian restaurants, assimilating recipes and techniques of each cuisine. But his true education was in Canada of all places, where he studied with a Basque chef. And that is why del Castillo, a man from the south of Spain, is trained in Basque cuisine, the most prestigious in his native country.
At Château Madrid, del Castillo makes the traditional salt-cod dishes of Spain’s Basque country, including the popular bacalao a la vizcaína, which del he insists is ruined at most local restaurants. I agree. We Latin Americans do not do justice to the noble cod, drowning it in a tomato sofrito that has nothing to do with the classic Basque sauce made from red peppers.
Del Castillo makes his with a reconstituted cod loin. Authorities are divided on this issue. Purists insist that the big, juicy loin is not the real thing, and that real salt cod is the thin, flat, bone-ridden side that is the terror of home cooks who have to debone it and diners who fear getting a bone stuck in their throats. Such are the perils of authenticity.
He also will make, with a day’s notice, the deviously simple bacalao al pil pil, practically nothing but cod, garlic and olive oil. “The cod must be in a comfit first,” he insists, meaning that once reconstituted it must soak for a long time in the olive oil that later will be used in the slow cooking, when a constant shaking of the pan will release the cod’s juices and create a sumptuously creamy emulsion.
No short cuts for del Castillo. “I make my demi-glace with veal bones. And my fish soup with fresh grouper heads.” And he hand-cuts his Serrano ham for tapas.
His tapas are very good, too, beginning with the classic tortilla de patatas, which he makes by … no, I think I’ll keep that small detail to myself, for I have spent a lifetime trying to perfect the simple potato omelet and will only “tell my song to whoever sails with me,” as the old Spanish ballad has it.
At any rate, what horrifies him is restaurants that boil the potatoes instead of frying them in olive oil, as God meant them to be. In fact, a lot of local “Spanish” cooking horrifies him. “They are choteando [disrespecting through vulgarity] Spanish cooking.” Mostly, he says, too many restaurateurs “raise the prices and lower the quality.”
Sweetwater is not prime soil for authentic Spanish cuisine, and it remains to be seen how del Castillo and his Ecuadorean partner, Ivan Vélez, whom he has taught his cooking style, will fare with their investment. Del Castillo is only beginning. He has enough recipes, he says, to cook for an entire year without any repeats. And his Spanish wine list is small but carefully chosen, with many more to come.
In the meantime, Château Madrid is a haven for those of us who worship Spanish tradition far above the dazzling innovations that have propelled Spain to the top of the gastronomic scale in our times. For those of us who already held la cocina española in the highest possible esteem.