The persistent image of the furiously ambitious, red-faced, white-hatted head chef is as sticky as liquid toffee. Thankfully, a shift in consciousness has emerged in recent years, as new generations cast aside the arrogance of the auteur to embrace collaboration and cooperation in their quest for culinary nirvana. Even so, the boss is the boss and one expects a certain level of aloof authority from a head chef – especially if that chef is in charge of one of the most innovative kitchens in Ibiza and slated to soon enter the pantheon of culinary greatness.
If you met Óscar Molina in a casual social situation, his status would not come up in conversation; such is his humility and grace. In real life, just as in his kitchens, this extraordinary chef is a genuinely nice guy. At just 42 years old, he oversees an enormous operation – Ibiza Gran Hotel is a glittering five-star mecca overlooking the glamorous Marina Botafoch. In addition to the challenging day-to-day logistics of his role as the resort’s executive chef, Molina also ensures its signature restaurant, La Gaia, constantly delights, intrigues and challenges.
The story begins, as so many chefs’ stories do, in the family kitchen. Molina was raised in San Andres, a working-class neighbourhood in Barcelona, where he spent weekends in the kitchen of his father’s small restaurant. “That’s where everything started,” he says. “I discovered it was more fun to work than study.” He was 14 years old when his father, also a chef, handed him an apron and pointed towards a sink of dirty pots. “My father didn’t want me to end up as a chef, because it’s a job where you sacrifice a lot,” confesses Molina, who refused to be deterred.
Molina’s father sent him to the coastal town of Blanes when he was 17 to spend the summer working in a hotel kitchen. Here, Molina, the boy began his transformation into Molina the man. “It was my first time away from home,” he says. “It was full of self-discovery and freedom.” In 1996, he moved to Hotel Rey Juan Carlos l in Barcelona – a beacon for ambitious young chefs. It was there he worked under the greats, Serafin Bueno and the late Jean Luc Figueras, and it was in the hallowed grounds of that magnificent hotel that Molina was introduced to a type of haute cuisine and a disciplined creativity that would act as the catalyst to where he is now.
Unfortunately, the Spanish military interceded and in late 1998, Molina left to complete his obligations to the state. After military service, he again found himself immersed in the world of Spain’s greatest chefs, specifically; Mey Hofmann. She was known as la aristócrata de la alta cocina (the duchess of haute cuisine) and had founded a culinary school in Barcelona back when nobody paid attention to who was cooking in a restaurant’s kitchen. A string of businesses across the city cemented her reputation as an astute entrepreneur but it would be her culinary creations, discretion, rigour and passion that her colleagues and students would remember fondly. To be under the Michelin-starred chef’s tutelage at Favaritx was considered the equivalent of having Rembrandt as an art teacher.
Molina was with Hofmann for just one year but it was a year of breakthrough. “Until then, I was cooking traditionally,” he says. “She showed me gastronomy in a totally new way. It was a full change of direction for me.” A role at the famous Hotel Arts was next, where he worked his way through the ranks, honing his skills and making contacts. “It was a tremendous team,” he remembers. “I was like a sponge – I learned so much. I consider myself a very lucky guy.” No doubt luck played a role, but it could only have been Molina’s in-born skills that saw him accepted to his next position.
Joan Piqué is one of the founding fathers of the movida catalana, which culminated in a surge of gastronomic creativity that captured the world’s attention and ignited a trend in food that still sizzles today. It was within this movement that the Adrià brothers gave us exploding olives, Arzak served seabass on an iPad and Etxebarri redefined barbecue with chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s handmade, steam-punk grilling contraptions. At Piqué’s Ruccula restaurant, Molina refined his vanguard tendencies and became more comfortable in the realm of Michelin-starred kitchens.
He was only 26 years old, but the foundations of his reputation were cemented when he was chosen to represent Spain and placed fourth at the Fifth International Chef Competition in Bari, Italy. It was the first of several awards that would dot his career in the coming years, including first place at the 2001 Annual Competition of Catalan Cuisine and first position in the 2004 National Gastronomy Competition among others. By this time, he’d been promoted from second to first chef at the venerable Hotel Casa Fuster in Barcelona. “Then the 2008 crisis hit,” he recalls. “There were a lot of interesting projects on offer but it was impossible for anyone to start anything new.” His good fortune continued despite the grim economic times, and he was headhunted for a new project in Ibiza.
It was February 2008 when Molina landed at Ibiza airport with his wife and children. The effects of the crisis reverberated through all parts of society in Spain, yet here in Ibiza, the aftershocks barely appeared to leave a ripple on the surface. Islanders visiting the mainland at the time would return with tales of middle class homelessness in the streets of Barcelona and quiet desperation along the boulevards of Madrid. But in Ibiza, daily life appeared wholly unaffected. It seemed the cranes over Marina Botafoch were swinging to the beat of their own drum and out of this global hand-wringing, Ibiza Gran Hotel emerged as a triumphant example of perseverance, gleaming and full of potential – not unlike its soon-to-be executive chef Oscar Molina.
Molina is responsible for all culinary services at the hotel, but it is the resort’s in-house fine dining destination, La Gaia, that heightened his reputation as a culinary innovator. “La Gaia’s style was an idea born from necessity,” says Molina. Originally, it was simply the lobby bar but when the hotel’s main restaurant was commandeered by HEART Ibiza – the Adrià brothers’ former collaboration with Cirque du Soleil – the space needed an upgrade. With no direct connection to the existing kitchen, which was located on the opposite side of the lobby, Molina was inspired to introduce a sushi bar to La Gaia. He added a selection of ceviche the following year to provide guests with delectable dishes without needing the infrastructure of a kitchen. Refurbishments ensued to turn La Gaia into a fully functioning restaurant and then came another stroke of genius.
An insatiable curiosity had Molina investigating the cross-cultural culinary traditions of Latin America and Asia. “My style of gastronomy had been primarily Mediterranean,” he says. “I started to study and learn more about Japanese and Peruvian cuisine.” It was a natural progression for the chef whose signature restaurant had migrated from sushi to ceviche; there was much to be discovered about how these particular two dishes and cultures had coalesced into a whole new cuisine. What Molina was doing at La Gaia was not Nikkei – that ubiquitous catch phrase popular in the early and mid-2000s. It was neither Japanese nor Peruvian but something within the spectrum that had emerged directly from Molina’s imagination. “That’s when we came up with the term Japeruvian, which best described the food at La Gaia in those early years,” he says.
The desire to learn is deeply rooted in Molina’s psyche and so a trip to Peru was organised. Under the guidance of internationally renowned, award-winning chef Gastón Acurio and his restaurateur wife Astrid Gutsche, the boy from San Andres immersed himself in the art of Peruvian haute cuisine. “That trip inspired me,” says Molina. “Peruvian cuisine is so deeply layered and I wanted to interpret it into a Mediterranean style. I saw that I could do more and break many more barriers. It allowed me to become more experimental within the Ibiza food scene.” A research trip to Japan followed where he became enamoured of the Kaiseki method. “I fell in love with Japan immediately,” he continues. “Everything about their culinary traditions is amazing: the fermentations, the processes, the flavours.” Molina took the immersive encounters of these two journeys back to the test kitchen, experimenting, concocting and transforming his experiences into Kaiseki-inspired dishes with the La Gaia imprint.
In 2017, Molina’s rise through the ranks of the country’s best restaurants and his unbridled creativity was awarded a Sol, Spain’s equivalent of a Michelin star. In 2021, a long held dream came true. After years of hard work and determination, La Gaia was finally awarded a Michelin star. This much coveted honour not only propels the restaurant, hotel and chef towards global fame but also bestows its gifts on the island’s growing reputation as a gourmet destination. And yet, despite joining many of his mentors among the most celebrated chefs in the world, Molina’s unpretentious reserve remains. Balance and inspiration comes in many forms for Molina, from memories of his father to moments spent with his family and the loyalty of his team.
“I think about him a lot,” he says of his father, who sadly passed away when Molina was just 25 years old. “He saw the beginning of my career and even though my training sent me on a different trajectory to him, he is always in me, in my memories and in how I interact with my kids.” Molina’s oldest child already expresses interest in becoming a chef at just eight years old. Together, the pair often end up in the kitchen cooking. “It’s beautiful,” he says.
Living in Ibiza has allowed Molina a kind of liberty that he had not experienced in Barcelona. He still works hard, dedicating much of his mental and physical time to his job, but there is a peacefulness he believes comes directly from the island. “Ibiza let me discover another way to live,” he explains. The island provides a backdrop of natural tranquility and freedom, while his work delivers excitement, challenge and inspiration. “Our objective is to keep reaching for the sky,” he says, hinting at the new plans and projects that keep his energy propelling forward. “I’m here for the long haul. I want La Gaia to become a reference for others.”
With the announcement that La Gaia has just received its first Michelin star in 2021, there’s no doubt that he has already succeeded in cementing its place in Balearic culinary history. Contentment is an attribute seldom associated with chefs but Molina exudes the self-confidence of a man who has found his place.