We all know that Spanish food is delicious. But in the hands of Spanish chef Luis ‘Tigretón’ Leon, it’s also joyful and playful and pretty much guaranteed to make you happy as well as hungry.
Take his roast chicken (and believe us, you WILL want to take his roast chicken, all golden and good and drizzled with garlic aioli). The very likeable Leon is one of the three hosts of new SBS Food show The Latin Kitchen (catch it 4.30pm weekdays, or on SBS On Demand) and in an episode devoted entirely to recipes that use garlic, he not only makes a superb-looking roast bird, but is smile-inducing pretty much from start to finish – not jokes, just joy, and a wonderful way of describing what he’s doing.
His recipe has double garlic – as well as the aioli, there’s also garlic in the marinade. And what’s the best way to apply a marinade to a chicken? With your hands. “Massage. Everybody loves massage, even a dead chicken loves a massage!”
After it marinates, the chicken goes off to the “chamber of secrets” (the oven). And when it’s done, he digs into the pile of juicy, golden-skinned chopped-up chicken pieces with his hands. “If I was in Spain, I wouldn't need fork and knife, because this is going to be my fork, and this is going to be my knife,” he says, waving his fingers and tapping his teeth.
Sadness enters his kitchen chat only when he warns against overcooking prawns while making cambas al ajillo – and again, he’ll make you smile: “They cook very fast, and they get rubbery. And rubbery means sad and depressive!”
His joy in the kitchen is genuine, not just something he turns on for the cameras.
“I love cooking. It’s fun … what makes me giggle, dream and allows me be my true self,” Leon says when SBS Food chats to him about the show. “A space where I’m strong and confident. It is like dancing. I had a tough childhood and cooking is what saved me and made me the man I am today.”
Originally from the Catalan Pyrenees, his love of cooking started early, learning the basics as a child from his father, who ran a restaurant.
His nickname – he’s widely known as Chef Tigretón, or just Tigre – came years ago, when he was a chef de partie in a Spanish restaurant and, he tells us, “feisty like a tiger… Spain is very much about nicknames!”
Leon is now based in Montreal, in Canada, where he’s busy with the final preparations for opening a Spanish croqueteria: “The first Spanish croqueteria on Canadian soil!” he says.
And while he may take a light-hearted approach to his cooking, it’s clear he also has respect for Spain’s culinary heritage.
“The reason why I’m using tomato for the sofrito,” he says in The Latin Kitchen, while making a seafood paella, “our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great-great-great-great-grandmothers, they’ve been doing it forever. And this is the right way to do. When you cook traditional, you have to respect, always, the learnings from your elders.”
Another traditional recipe in the show is his garlic soup.
“In Spain, we love our garlic. We love it so much that it's part of almost all of our recipes,” he says. “Sopa de ajo … is basically garlic soup. If you go to Spain in the winter, this is the soup that you're going to have, because it's comfort food. It's full of flavours, textures, and a lot of personality. It's a great soup.”
It’s hard to disagree, looking at hearty soup ladled over thick slices of bread, which have been fried in oil that’s already full of flavour from cooking jamon and garlic.
It’s a dish that represents a lot of the food he cooks in The Latin Kitchen: hearty, full of flavour. And of course, fun (look out for the excellently descriptive sound effects to show how stale bread soaks up all that flavour!)
Watch Luis ‘Tigretón’ Leon in The Latin Kitchen, as he and fellow hosts from Venezuela and Mexico cook their favourite dishes weekdays, 4.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33. Spanish week runs Monday 15 July to Friday 19 July. Episodes will also be available on SBS On Demand after they air.
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