The prestigious Paris-based cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, has chosen him for four years in a row among its top 50 young chefs in Spain. Noureddine Jalloul Ratbi won a BBVA-El Celler de Can Roca scholarship last year and has been working in the Roca brothers’ kitchen since August. The four-month scholarship is now coming to an end and he is ready to begin a new international adventure.
How did you come to specialise in halal?
When I was studying for a degree in cooking in Castellón, a colleague, Sandra Pérez, insisted that my religion and my family’s country of origin could help me find my personality within the world of cooking. And that was how I stopped copying others and reached maturity and began creating my own dishes. I’m inspired by Moroccan cuisine, especially my mother’s, but I apply what I know about modern cuisine to it.
How is you’re at El Celler de Can Roca
While I studying, was entering competitions. I think that for a chef, a competition is like a master’s degree: it forces you to think of new ideas, to experiment, to break your limits. One day, when I was in the second year of my degree, I found out about the BBVA-El Celler de Can Roca scholarship and applied, along with 400 more people.
Which dish did you enter?
A sequence of prawns. The first was some raw prawns marinated in fig vinegar. The second was a 25-centimetre prawn from the Ràpita area, where I’m from, which I dressed in only with oil and salt. The third was a tagine of prawns with horn of plenty mushrooms and a sauce of dates, honey and chestnuts, along with sautéed and raw chestnuts.
What a great dish!
I also put a dried prawn head, fried and crispy, which added all the essence of the sea. This is the dish I won with. I didn’t expect it, because there were colleagues who put forward some scary dishes! From August last year until December I did the scholarship and now I’m at El Celler until the beginning of May. I’ve learned so much!
And have you been able to develop your cuisine?
Yes! The Roca brothers tell us it doesn’t matter who you are, even if you’re an intern, if you have an idea for a dish, you can try it out and get it on the menu.
Tell me about your signature dishes.
One is the prawn tagine, which I do whenever I can. Tagine is a stew traditionally made with lamb. It has onion, tomato, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, a little pepper and salt, peas, fried almonds and aubergines. I make a different version from prawns, as not everyone likes lamb. Also, the prawn is a local product for me and it’s easy to cook.
Did you learn to cook at home?
Yes, my mother is always cooking, which is typical in Morocco. My mum taught me a lot. When I started studying cooking, my brother always told me to look at how our mother cooks and do that. But I didn’t see it, I didn’t care. Eventually I realised that hers was the best food and that without knowing what she did I couldn’t move on. That’s why I say that when that classmate made me think that I had to go back to the cuisine of my origins it was a turning point.
Another dish of yours?
My mother also taught me how to make pastilla. It looks like a round loaf of very crunchy phyllo pasta that is cooked in the oven and stuffed with chicken, spices, olives and toasted almonds. I make it my way, and instead of chicken I put partridge in it. I do it as if it were a mille-feuille [a type of layered pastry], at the base I put the partridge and then, in layers, the different ingredients. This dish was my idea, but its origin is in my roots, from my mother. It’s a dish that is made a lot in the north of Morocco. It’s like paella here, which we find everywhere but each one is made differently.
And all halal. What is halal food?
The word halal means what is allowed by the Islamic religion, while haram is what is not allowed. For example, stealing is haram. What is allowed and what is not allowed also applies to food. Halal, where meat is concerned, are all animals that are sacrificed in the name of Allah, all that is sacrificed for the purpose of survival. We can’t kill an animal for fun we can only do it if it’s for food.
Are there many restaurants here that serve halal food?
Some, but no quality halal restaurants. Most are usually kebab restaurants, although in Barcelona there are some pretty good restaurants that have halal food. And I know a few restaurants with Michelin stars that, if you call and ask, can do it for you.
Is that why you are working to bring excellence to halal food?
Yes. We’re working with a group of colleagues so that there’s a growing range of restaurants where you can eat halal. Today we’re limited and when we go to a restaurant we have to look very carefully at the menu, to see what it says about fish, for example, because sometimes they cook it with bacon or with a sauce made with wine. We have to be careful and ask a lot of questions.
It’s Ramadan until mid-May. When the sun sets, how do you break your fast? What food is on the table?
The first thing we eat is dates, a good source of energy, which we need to hold out without eating for a whole day. Then we drink a fruit shake and then we eat the tomato soup harira. After the soup we eat other dishes, which could be pasta, pizza, or pastilla.
What is Ramadan like for a cook? Cooking but not being able to eat or drink…
It was hard because you see the food and your mouth waters. I started as a cook at 16, and there were days when I’d work all day. I had to sit down because I was dizzy, but now I’m used to it.