Last winter Sergi Arola became the first Spanish chef with an Alpine presence, launching two restaurants in the new W Hotel in Verbier. A few months later he opened a casual vermuteria next door to Sergi Arola Gastro, his two Michelin star flagship in his hometown Madrid. A tapas bar followed near the beach in Ibiza, then an upscale outpost high above the Bosphrous in Istanbul’s new Raffle’s Hotel.
Arola may not be the best known chef from Spain, but in recent years he has quietly become the most prolific, launching more than a dozen high-end restaurants in luxury hotels from Sao Paolo to Mumbai and a chain of low-key brasseries that he’s hoping to expand across his homeland next year.
“I always compare my career to fashion,” he says. “I have my haute couture, my prêt-à-porter and my jeans line.”
The amply tattooed, Harley-driving chef is best known in his own country for playing the “bad guy” (assuming Gordon Ramsay’s role) on the Spanish version of Hell’s Kitchen. But it’s his eclectic, elegant cooking style—a mix of haute French sensibility and modern Spanish technique that he honed working under both Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire—that’s earned him a place at the table in some of the world’s finest hotels, from Ritz Carlton to Shangri-La.
Though the chef would love to open his own hotel someday, his focus remains on restaurant expansion for now. “I’m interested in developed unexpected concepts,” he says, and a host of new projects in the works for next year, including a jazz-themed venue in Abu Dhabi and a Luxembourg restaurant attached to a cabaret show, illustrate his point.
To bolster his holdings, and to refine and revise after expanding so fast, Arola plans to shutter his Madrid flagship for half of next year, only opening in spring and autumn when the ingredients he most prefers to cook with become available. The Gastro’s tasting menu has long been an incubator for ideas he exports to his other projects around the world—signature dishes like his scallops on black pudding, octopus gyoza floating in a Catalan-style fish soup and a finger-food spin on a classic Spanish tortilla topped with tiny spherified caramelized onion “yolks.”
Like most chefs with vast global empires, Arola is adept at adapting his food to a particular locale. “In Mumbai 80 percent of my guests are vegetarians,” he says. “In Istanbul they don’t eat pork.” In the Alps, where he’ll be spending Christmas this year, he serves locally sourced deer, cured meats, wild mushrooms and cheeses.
These flavors, and others from across the Arola universe, will soon make an appearance at his most casual concept, Vi Cool—a brasserie chain with three branches in Spain (and five or six more in the works). He’s planning to introduce a new international line of cocas, or griddled flatbreads, there, including the “Verbier” topped with Raclette cheese and viande secher.
How does the chef, who also splits his time playing in a rock band as a serious side project, balance so many simultaneous ventures across the globe? According to Arola, “all of this travel has only made me a better chef.”