Carles Abellán has been one of the ‘sacred cows’ of food and restaurants in Barcelona for over 20 years. Born into a middle-class family, his father was totally opposed to him becoming a chef under any circumstances. However, he had his mother’s support and thanks to her trust and his own perseverance and hard work, Abellán created a culinary empire in Barcelona of five restaurants with over a hundred employees and an astronomic turnover.
He won a Michelin-star; he lost it. He won it back with a restaurant he was thinking of closing and then moved it to a new location. His passion for traditional tapas inspired him to exalt this typically Spanish way of eating and make it an art form.
Abellán was unable to side-step the disastrous side-effects of the pandemic that have crippled the hotel and tourism sector and was forced to close three of his five restaurants in Barcelona. It’s been a tough year that has made him weigh up his priorities and turn his life upside down as a result. Taking a step back in Barcelona, two months ago he packed his bags and he and his wife decided to leave the big city and come and live in Formentera, where he’s opened Tapas 24.
Today, Carles Abellán has reinvented himself and is a totally different person. His relaxed face, calm voice and deliberate gestures show that Formentera has succeeded in getting under the skin of this city businessman who now has no need to hurry. With a broad smile and a twinkle of joy in his eyes, Abellán exudes a contagious happiness. Seated at one of the tables of his Formentera restaurant, he welcomes us to talk about the past year, his new life in Formentera, his upcoming goals (including the imminent opening of a Tapas 24 in Singapore) and how to face the future.
Carles, when you came to the last WE ARE FACEFOOD two years ago, the subject of Formentera and how wonderful the island is for opening restaurants came up when we chatted. You swore to me that you were never going to open a restaurant in Formentera. And yet you’ve ended up opening a restaurant in... Formentera.
(Laughing) It’s true, I didn’t want to open a restaurant in Formentera, I didn’t lie to you... (more laughter) What happened? The Barcelona business and hotel sector started to suffer from 2017 onwards after the attack on the Ramblas. That’s when things started to go sour. Then in 2020, this whole pandemic appeared and it caught us when we were heavily investing, leaving our business in intensive care with a dire prognosis. At the start I put 90 people on temporary redundancy. We thought it would be for a couple of weeks because they pulled the wool over our eyes a bit and I didn’t have enough vision. After the second lockdown and second restaurant closures, I clearly saw that, of the five restaurants we had, three were going to go bust. And from then on it was a battle over taxes, with the tax office, with social security, the city council, suppliers... Basically, an epic battle. During that time, I was looking for escape routes to move forwards; a friend called me from Formentera and suggested opening here. At the beginning I said: “Listen, I don’t want to open a restaurant in Formentera.” But I thought about it and called him and said: “What the hell, let’s open a restaurant!” He showed me this place and I said: “But it hasn’t got a beach or anything...” But then I thought to myself: “Carles, you know what? Even better! We don’t need a beach and to kill ourselves working only five months a year...”
But you haven’t just opened in Formentera, you’ve also moved to the island.
The thing is, I don’t just want to get through the pandemic, we’ll overcome that, what I really want is a change of lifestyle. I don’t want to work 16 hours a day like a madman. I don't want to have all the anxiety I went through during the pandemic. It was really tough psychologically, so much so that I even thought I might have a stress episode and wouldn’t make it. When the chance of setting up here came along I thought: “Great, we’ll open a Tapas 24, we’ll open all year round apart from three months, I’ll move here and run things from here, and it’s going to change my life.” I’ve been in Formentera for two months now and that’s how it’s been: I’ve changed my life. I get up at 6 or 7, do some gardening, errands, some cycling... It’s all at a different pace, there isn’t that force of habit, that city rush, that panic of “you’ve got to improve production, you’ve got to make more money…” Calm down! Let’s cook, enjoy ourselves, do it well and have a good time. You’ve got to make money, but enough to live! I love that about the island.
What short term goals have you set yourself?
The truth is I want to focus on Formentera and the Singapore project and that’s it. I’m after quality of life. Meeting friends to go cycling, going out with my wife for lunch, that’s quality of life. You have to learn to say no, because money is important but you need to learn to live with less and here, in Formentera, less is more...
How do you see the food scene in Formentera?
Better every day. There are people who are doing amazing things. I’ve known the island for fifteen years and things are being done better and better. Lots of great chefs from outside have come here such as Nandu Jubany and local people have pulled their socks up too.
What’s different compared to the hotel and catering sector in Barcelona?
You know another thing I really like, compared to Barcelona? Customers come to me totally relaxed, to enjoy themselves, they’re calm and taking it easy, there isn’t that stress, that inertia of Barcelona that affects everything, and if you pay them a little extra attention they leave delighted. And that’s our job, to make people happy. Something that we’d kind of forgotten. Now I’m moving away from being a businessman to be more of a chef, or restaurateur, and I really want this change because there came a moment when everything was numbers and percentages, which is fine, you have to take care of the operating accounts, but I spent long hours every week doing the numbers. And now I see that you have to enjoy your family, friends, work, I had to get rid of the stress that was weighing me down because I’m almost 58, and although I feel like I’m 30 in my head, I’m not.
Now I’m moving away from being a businessman to be more of a chef, or restaurateur, and I really want this change
So you’re happy in Formentera...
I’m going through a professional change, and a personal change too. I’ve been alone on this business adventure for 22 years. I’ve always done what’s right, religiously paid my taxes, and then this happens (the pandemic and subsequent economic crisis) and you say to yourself: “I don’t want to be in this race, I want to have a job that earns me enough to live and ciao for now!” Two years ago, when we were in Ibiza for WE ARE FACEFOOD, I did a study for the event and realised that in 18 years, I’ve created 19 brands, 19 businesses, and it made me think that we live as if life goes on forever.
It almost sounds like you’re grateful for the pandemic...
I’m grateful to the pandemic for this, not because we’ve taken a huge hit to the business but for making me realise that you have to think about what really matters, that I had to change my life. There are only 24 hours in a day and at the end you think “we’ve done this, this and this...” But in the end, when you see what you had to give up to achieve something, you often think: “What was it for?” I’m so happy to be living here! Now we go to Barcelona for short breaks, to watch films at the cinema, go to the theatre, eat out with friends, but we know that in a couple of days we’ll be back in paradise.
Now we go to Barcelona for short breaks, to watch films at the cinema, go to the theatre, eat out with friends, but we know that in a couple of days we’ll be back in PARADISE.