Clara María González de Amezúa has lived many lives, but they have all been related to her passion: cooking.
Clara María was born to a cultured and affluent family in Madrid, shortly before the start of the Spanish Civil War.
"My father was an intellectual. He was a writer and historian who went on to direct the Royal Academy of History. But I wasn't allowed to get a degree. He thought I should learn to play the piano, speak foreign languages, and get married."
And so she did. "I married a very intelligent and competent man who was very good at doing business. But there came a time when I thought, 'If I ever have to take over everything that my husband has set up, I wouldn't even know where to begin!'"
She was the mother of 8 children, and decided to devote herself professionally to something that she cared about. "From a very young age, my 2 passions had been gardening and cooking."
First Steps in the Kitchen
"Ever since I was a little girl, I liked interacting with the people who worked in our house. They were the ones who paid the most attention to me. I was very willing to learn and I watched everything that went on in the kitchen."
But it was a request from her father that led her to spend hours watching what went on in the kitchen of one of the best restaurants in Madrid at the time: Horcher. "I asked Otto Horcher, the owner, to help me. He agreed, and he allowed me to be in the kitchen while they prepared serving dishes that I brought from home."
"My father was amazed! He thought I was a wonderful cook. And I learned that cooking was a wonderful thing."
From New York to London, via Chicago
While in New York, a friend suggested that she attend a bread-making course. In the small store there, they also sold various kitchen utensils.
"I stocked up on things that hadn't reached Spain yet, like a garlic press."
The first Crate and Barrel store in Chicago was also a huge source of inspiration.
And on one of her trips to London, she visited the shop owned by her friend Elizabeth David, who was "an institution in England, and wrote dozens of books."
I told her, "I'm going to set up something like what you have here." And so, Alambique was born.
Without any business training, Clara María trusted her instincts. "I wanted to see how the world of business worked, what I needed to do, and face the world of money. And I discovered that running a company was practically the same as running a home: the important thing was to negotiate with people."
The next challenge was to make her enthusiasm rub off on her friends, who would later become her business partners, and to convince the ladies and young women of Madrid that they had to learn to cook.
Clara María's partners were her friends Helena Lind from Sweden, Giuliana Calvo Sotelo from Italy, and the book editor Amparo Soler.
A Romantic Little Place
She opened Alambique with these friends in 1975.
"I looked for a place in Madrid's old town, because a business has got to have a bit of mystery; a bit of romance. Everyone told me I was wrong."
Forty years later, Alambique remains in the same location, very close to the Royal Palace.
"I was responsible for the management, the franchises—there were eventually 22 all over Spain—running the schools, and buying the products."
The first items of kitchenware came from England and France. This was no easy task, given that Spain was not yet part of the European Economic Community, so she had to manage import licenses and keep an eye on exchange rates.
Learning to Cook Different Things
"How are you going to teach cooking in this country when you click your fingers and a thousand cooks come running?" some friends asked her.
She replied that these cooks only knew how to prepare traditional Spanish dishes: "cocido" stew, "ensaladilla" (a potato salad), pinto and navy beans, breaded meat, macaroni in tomato sauce, or rice dishes.
"The first teachers were my business partners, who taught classes on how to make paella, as well as Italian and Nordic cuisine."
"The Spanish food scene was very stagnant. Our chefs did not travel or speak foreign languages. They did not know what was being done outside our country."
So, Clara María decided that if the Spaniards would not leave Spain, she had to bring French chefs to Madrid.
"They came in winter when they closed their restaurants on the French Riviera."
Among them were Laurent Tarridec (1983 and 1984), Alain Ducasse (1984 and 1985), Alain Gigant (1985 to 1991), and Claude Maison D'Arblay (1993 to 1997).
Clara María knew that cooking could be explained from a range of perspectives, delving into the origin of the produce and dishes, and discovering its many cultural and social facets. And she found a way to pass this knowledge on to Alambique's students, paving the way for other cooking schools that were starting to emerge.
"I never felt that I had competition. It is a question of character. I was so sure of what I was doing. I had so many ideas; so much passion and conviction for what I was doing."
"The demand for international cuisine began when Spaniards started to travel. I relied heavily on the embassies."
Into the school came Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese chefs, such as Hiroko Shimbo: a Japanese chef, professor at the International Culinary Center in New York, author of 3 Japanese cookbooks, and an expert in Japanese cuisine. Then, there was Tony Tan: a chef, owner of several restaurants, contributor to the Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, and creative director of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. This was completely unprecedented in Spain in the 1970s and 1980s.
Clara María's daughter María Llamas currently runs Alambique, although most of her daughters have spent time in the family business in one way or another.
Ambassador for Food
"As I knew about cooking and spoke languages, which was quite unusual, jobs kept coming up for me to go and showcase Spanish cuisine around the world for the Ministry of Agriculture, the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX), and particularly the International Olive Council. I worked for them for 18 years, traveling all over the world to talk to people about the extra virgin olive oil produced in Spain."
Her daughter María Llamas says that Clara María "saw it as her personal duty to introduce the foreign press to the long history and quality of Spanish olive groves. She convinced friends to open up their farms and teach the rich heritage of olive production and its importance in Spanish cooking and cuisine, at a time when only Italy was considered to be a quality producer."
Of the 4 books she has written, 2 are about olive oil.
"For decades, my mother selected and arranged for Spanish chefs to represent Spanish cuisine in different countries, and she edited the menus that they prepared.
Throughout her career, she has selflessly advised and supported young chefs who she could see had a special talent, and she sometimes still does. Over time, chefs like José Andrés, Toño Pérez, Carlos Posadas, Juanjo López Bedmar, Manuel Domínguez, and many others became her friends.
She has also been a great enthusiast and champion of Sephardic cuisine and its importance in the history of Spanish cooking."
Her View of Cooking Now
Although she has retired from managing Alambique, Clara María keeps up to date with the latest happenings on the food scene. And she remains faithful to her vision of the world of gastronomy.
"Practically everyone thinks they know how to cook, but it requires a sensitivity like that of an artist. Cooking is like playing the piano: you have to do scales and exercises all the time. Otherwise, you lose your shine; your edge; the thing that makes your dish different from the hundreds of others who make it."
The best known names on the Spanish food scene have taught at Alambique, and still do. They include Jesus Almagro, Segundo Alonso, Dario Barrio, Ivan Cerdeño, Fernando Cerro, Alberto Chicote, Joaquin de Felipe, Clemencio Fuentes, Salvador Gallego, Abraham Garcia, Angel León, Andrés Madrigal, Maria Marté, Fran Martinez , Adolfo Muñoz, Benjamin Urdiain, Fernando Sáenz, Isabel Maestre, Pepe Rodriguez Rey, Paco Ron, Ricardo Sanz, Samantha Vallejo-Nagera, and more.
International chefs have also taught there, including Mark Furstenberg (judged best baker in the US in 2017 by the James Beard Foundation, and former baker at Chez Panisse); Christina Tosi (Milk Bar and MasterChef USA judge); William Wongso (Indonesiam Street food expert); Tamasin Day-Lewis (English food writer); Moha Fedal (Dar Moha in Marrakech), Jean-Michel LLorca (Patissier to Le Moulin de Mougins and Llorca) and Deniz and Adnan Sahain (Chef of Kiva and Bomoti and Factotum of traditional turkish cuisine).
Text: María García Muriel.
Image: David de Luis / Sandra Jiménez Osorio / P. Sancho Mata / Alambique / Clara María González de Amezúa
Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García Muriel and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.
This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.