Spanish top chef teaches underprivileged young people how to cook

by Lorraine Williamson
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MADRID – Chema de Isidro is one of Spain’s most popular chefs. His restaurant Bellalola in Madrid, his cookbooks and his program on Canal Cocina are all successful. And he can count famous chefs such as Dabiz Muñoz and Alberto Chicote among his friends. 

But where other top chefs are working to get Michelin stars, he prefers to train his stars. In his cooking school and through his charitable organisation Gastronomía Solidiaria, he allows problem youth to escape a life of poverty and crime. And with success. He has now trained around 4,000 young people, writes El Mundo. More than 90% of them then find regular work and two-thirds finally manage to leave their hard existence behind. 

Specified by the rest of the world 

His students come from the lower echelons of Spanish society. Refugees, foreign youths without papers, prostitutes, and members of Latin American street gangs such as the Trinitarios, the Ñetas and the DDP – all young people who have been abandoned by the rest of the world. At Chema de Isidro they get the chance to make something of their lives. 

Junkies and Sushi 

It once started very simply with cooking courses in his own restaurant Bellalola. One day he had a few spots left on a sushi class and he asked two junkies from the neighbourhood to join. They were immediately enthusiastic. It was then that Chema realised he could change lives by teaching people how to cook. That same year he founded his cooking school in the poor Aluche district of Madrid. And not much later, in 2012, he was approached by the organisation CESAL asking if he wanted to do something for the local youth. And so it happened. 

Folk boy 

Chema de Isidro himself did not have an easy childhood. The tattooed chef, who throws curses as easily as spices, is a real working-class boy. He grew up in the working-class Vallecas district of Madrid. His parents were at work all day and he had no talent for school. He played truant a lot and spent his time loitering, shoplifting and foot

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ball (he even became champion of Madrid). Until one day he saw the well-known chef Iñaki Izaguirre on television and, in his own words, ‘the light went on’. After convincing his parents that this was his life’s purpose, he was able to become an apprentice to Izaguirre. A few years later he graduated with excellent grades from the prestigious chef’s school in Madrid. His results were so good that his mother came to ask the teachers if he had not cheated with his grades. 

Steaming ready 

Then his successful career as a chef began. If necessary, he can easily prepare a fried egg with onion and truffle, a veal tartare or a sea bass ceviche. But preparing an exquisite dish is the easiest part of his job. The hardest part is preparing these problem youth for life outside poverty. That requires patience, slow cooking and a very good knowledge of the basic material. 

There are now plenty of examples that he has succeeded. Take the boys who were members of a Honduran street gang and now both have regular jobs. Or the girl who wanted to commit suicide and was apprenticed to Chema. According to him, she is now “like a daughter to him”. Or the Moroccan immigrant who came to Spain without papers ended up in his cooking school and now helps other young migrants to get ahead. 

Seafood Festival 

The top chef’s greatest success was perhaps in 2018, at the prestigious Seafood Festival in O Grove (Pontevedra), one of the most important culinary events in Spain. The top chef and 15 of his students were invited to cook seafood rice for the festival guests. Some students had only completed two weeks of cooking school. 

Applause 

But everything went well and afterwards the students received thunderous applause from the guests present. Chema de Isidro: “One of the young people, a Colombian, burst into tears. I asked him why. He said: ‘No one has ever clapped for me before’.” And that’s what the chef does it for. Perhaps that is more important than any Michelin star. 

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