You could probably pick out from any spread the dishes made by Michelin-star Spanish chef María José San Román. If the strong aroma of saffron doesn’t give it away, then the generous use of olive oil – delicately rolled in an ice cream dessert, for example – would certainly tip you off.
The 51-year-old from Alicante, dubbed the “Queen of Saffron”, is now championing another cooking staple.
“I am not into food trends,” she says. “I want to be the trendy one and I want it to be trendy to be cooking with extra-virgin olive oil. It has so many qualities and is one of the key ingredients in Mediterranean gastronomy, but nobody knows anything about it, and I want to be an ambassador for it.”
Extra-virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties. It is also a good source of Vitamin E, K and essential fatty acids.
It will be the star ingredient of all her dishes during a special tasting at Morah, a new Mediterranean restaurant at the JW Marriott Marquis hotel in Dubai – even the dessert.
“I will be making ice cream with olive oil, honey and strawberries. I think this will amaze guests the most,” she says.
Other healthy specials will include appetisers made with artichokes, which are in season in the south-east coast of Spain, plus red mullet, and black rice with tuna for main courses.
“There will be saffron breadcrumbs with the mullet,” says Roman. “Even the rice, though it won’t look yellow, will be made with saffron. I will also be cooking a new dish of beef with bone marrow and tapioca saffron.”
Each dish will be paired with extra-virgin olive oil to enhance the flavours.
“Even the Béarnaise, which is traditionally made with butter, will be made with olive oil,” she says.
Under the tutelage of the Michelin-star brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Catalonia, Spain – Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca – Román polished her hearty cooking techniques and established the Grupo Gourmet Alicante gastronomy project with her husband in 1975. They are proprietors of the Michelin-star Monastrell, La Taberna del Gourmet, the grill La Vaquería and hamburger bar Tribeca, all in Alicante.
Román has also researched the health benefits of using ingredients such as saffron and olive oil, sharing her findings at conventions and talks around the world. She is involved in the OliveToLive project, which focuses on conserving the qualities of extra-virgin olive oil in premium condition.
“There was no other reason to become a chef than for the love of food – that’s the first thing you need to be a chef,” says Román. “I’ve always loved cooking for my family but it was only after my children were grown up that I thought of becoming a professional.
“I studied and went to work with Michelin-starred restaurants in Barcelona. After that, I decided to do it on my own because I learnt this wasn’t rocket science. It was something you can learn and incorporate your own background.”
Her travels around the world sampling cuisines with her husband became the foundation for setting up a home-grown restaurant with an international appeal worthy of a Michelin star.
“I continue to scan what everybody is doing in and around Spain and how to be more local,” she says. “That’s how olive oil came into the picture. We are the number-one producer of it in the world. Italy is thought to be number one, but we are far bigger than them, producing four times as much. When people come to my restaurant they need to find Alicante or Valencia on a plate. I don’t want them to find New York there.”
At the heart of her cooking is its health benefits.
“I wouldn’t cook anything that my children wouldn’t be able to eat,” she says. “My food has to be good for your body and visually pleasing. I am very concerned about health and nutrition.
“But I’m not a fan of too much show and fancy food. Chefs should not forget their roots and must cook normal things.”
Román acknowledges that she stands out as a woman in a male-dominated industry, but believes that will change.
“Because there are such few well-known female chefs worldwide, we are very much in the spotlight,” she says.
“But I also believe that it is just a matter of time before women will be equally represented in the culinary scene. Even now, if you go to a kitchen in Toronto, you’ll find many more women working, so in the coming year there will be plenty of women in charge because we are smart.
“Medicine is now a woman’s domain and cooking is a woman’s art. Being a caregiver, she knows how to cook for her family.”
She also points to Alicante as a trailblazer.
“In this area we have four Michelin-star women chefs and only three men, can you imagine?,” she says. “So we do have a lot of power in this industry.”
• Maria Jose San Roman will prepare a five-course menu at 8pm and 10.30pm on Thursday, January 26, at Morah, JW Marriott Marquis Dubai. From Dh300. Call 04 560 1799 or email email@example.com