José González – the third generation of the second family that runs the oldest restaurant in the world. Botín in Madrid, opened in 1725, is nowadays famous not only for its age but for its roast lamb and suckling pig. Meet the man who watches over the cultivation of tradition.
The Best Chef: How did your restaurant’s story begin?
José González: Well, I’ll be brief: this restaurant started in 1725. In 3 years we’ll be 3 centuries old. In the beginning, it was an inn, and people were coming here to roast their own food as well, their poultry, but sometimes they ate here. That’s why The Guinness Book of Records says this is the oldest restaurant in the world. Because it has been working without stopping in the same place, under the same name, and devoted to the same activity. Those are the four reasons that made the Guinness Book of Records give us this title. In our menu, you can read that we are the oldest, but those are the Guinness Book’s words, not ours. We received the award in 1987 and the book hasn’t changed it so I think it must be true. Back to our history: my family is the second family that has been running this place from the beginning. We have another 1887 picture with a descendant of the man that started the restaurant with all their stuff. And in the last century, in the 1930s, my grandparents arrived here and so I’m the third generation. We are continuing the tradition of roasting and we prepare the most significant dish – roast baby lamb.
The Best Chef: What is the secret to making a restaurant so successful it lasts for centuries?
José González: That’s a good question. In my opinion, it is the genuine view of our kitchen and service. Those two things and the most important ingredient of our success – the flavor – make this the second place in the world where you can eat the best suckling pig. Apart from other typical dishes we have on our menu. And also – the service! Because in our opinion, the best asset in a company is the staff.
The Best Chef: Where did the name come from?
José González: The name comes from the last name of a French cook that was named Botin (bɔtɛ̃) which changed the pronunciation to Botín (boˈtiŋ). In fact, my family name is González, but the name of the restaurant came from the nephew of that French man who came here in 1725. That’s why on the sign outside you can read Biotin’s nephew. That confuses some people who come here looking for Botín and don’t know the full name of the restaurant.
The Best Chef: How did you see gastronomy changing over the years?
José González: It’s changed completely. There are many new cooks and new ways of cooking and in my opinion, it’s the highest standard in the world. It does not resemble anything of the 1980s when I started working here and of course, nothing from the 60s and 70s, like from the stories my father told me. Gastronomy here, in Madrid, is a weird thing. But it has changed and, thank God, it is now in a very good place.
The Best Chef: Can we define Botín as a contemporary restaurant?
José González: Yes, but we know our limits. We try to create a more advanced cuisine, but… first of all, we don’t know that much about how to do that. And many people can do that better than us so we don’t try that. We are, as you said, contemporary, but we still use charcoal to cook. The oven works with woodfire. There will probably come a time in some years that charcoal will be banned, but until that day, we won’t change. We will stick to our old recipes.
The Best Chef: What is the secret of Botín’s flavor?
José González: The secret is the meat – pigs must be fed with good forage and we have to look for the very best farms that will breed enough pigs. And then, there is the wooden fire. Those are the secrets.
The Best Chef: We saw that there have been many famous personalities among your clients, like Hemingway. Who is your favorite client in the history of Botín?
José González: For me – Woody Allen. He is one of my heroes and I was able to host him, talk to him, and his producers. We took a photo with their camera and they never sent me the picture. So I can’t prove that!
The Best Chef: Any advice for the next generation of chefs?
José González: You must be true. As we say in Spain: “You can’t sell smoke”. You must be honest and try to sell food at an affordable price to get to the people. Of course, it’s nice to experiment with cooking. But apart from doing extraordinary, flamboyant things, you need to fill your stomach. In my opinion, it’s a failure if you enter a place, pay a lot of money, and are still hungry. Maybe you should have eaten a burger? My advice to the next generation is to be honest. To do things well.