Man of Principal
Jonay Armas found his calling thanks to mum’s ultimatum
Mealtimes were a painful experience for Jonay Armas when he was a boy growing up in Spain’s Canary Islands. With his fascination of food not developing until his teenage years, meals would sit untouched on his plate for hours. These days, however, Armas – the 31-year-old chef de cuisine at The Principal in Wanchai – loves to go back for a taste of home cooking and especially misses the native tomatoes that grow in his motherland.
At The Principal, Armas serves up a mix of modern European food with a distinct Spanish twist. He is a self-confessed taskmaster of his 13-member team, but the hard work has paid off. A year after opening The Principal, Armas was awarded his first Michelin star in the 2013 edition of the Michelin Guide Hong Kong & Macau.
Despite the accolade, his feet remain firmly on the kitchen floor. “We don’t work to achieve the stars, we work so our daily customers are happy coming to the restaurant,” he says. “On the other hand it is a big recognition and in some ways a payoff for all the effort we have put in.”
Armas started cooking in his teens and enjoyed helping his mother prepare meals in the kitchen. It was just as well he did. He wasn’t a good student – a point of embarrassment for his teacher mother – and eventually he was given an ultimatum. “She said if I didn’t study, then I needed to get a profession,” he says.
He studied at a cooking school in Tenerife for a year before moving to Spain at the age of 23. In Spain he was exposed to the skills and techniques of two of the country’s finest chefs: Juan Pablo Felipe, chef at El Chaflán in Madrid, and Santi Santamaria, chef at El Restaurant Can Fabes in Barcelona. Both used very different techniques.
“Felipe was the first big chef I worked with,” he says. “I think in certain ways he was a mentor. He made me work harder and challenged me to take up new roles in the kitchen. One day he said that there was not much more he could teach me there. He really pushed me to go to the US, but I really wanted to stay in Spain.”
In the end he moved to Barcelona. There he learned under Santamaria, who is regarded as having introduced Catalan cooking to the wider world. “With Santamaria it was all about the ingredients and very simple cooking. He wrote a book where he complained about molecular cuisine and all those molecular ingredients. But he was another one of my big mentors and he taught me about the quality of the ingredients and how to respect them.”
The chefs’ two completely different styles bestowed Armas with both a traditional grounding and a love of invention – both of which contribute to the creative flair of his dishes today. He has chosen, however, to avoid the molecular route.
“Here we try to do something a bit contemporary, but it is nothing crazy,” he says. “We create flavours that you can recognise. We do a bit modern food and have a little fun, but at the same time we have dishes with traditional flavours. I feel that every single ingredient deserves the same respect, whether it is a sardine or a truffle.”
Some of the more adventurous dishes Armas serves up at The Principal include the “Foie” – escabeche foie gras with pickles and candied kumquats, where the texture of the foie gras is very different from when it is served as a terrine – and the “Rapa Nui”, a chocolate dessert based on the strange Polynesian stone carvings on Chile’s Easter Island.
“I found these moulds like the forms of the Rapa Nui carvings in a shop one day,” Armas says. Although the moulds were intended for ice, he uses them for chocolate mousse. A chocolate crumble imitates the soil while palm leaves become the grass. It’s a divine dessert and a geography lesson at the same time.
“I was looking to do something that wasn’t just about taste, but also about aesthetics and playfulness,” he says. While the dessert is an Armas original, he says it was the pastry chef brother of Ferran Adrià – of iconic Spanish restaurant elBulli fame – who first came up with the concept of expressing a landscape on a plate.
Creating dishes is Armas’ main passion in life, but he warns would-be chefs that there is little room for anything else. “It’s a profession that takes up your whole day and consumes your whole life,” he says. “You need to be clear that this is what you want, and be passionate about it. You can learn something every day, but it’s very challenging.”
With his experience covering a wide range of countries including Spain, India, Indonesia and now Hong Kong, Armas has discovered that he loves to experiment with the different ingredients available in each new region. Not all of his creations, though, are instant successes.
“Behind every dish are five or six dishes that didn’t work out,” he says. “I love tom kha kai [Thai coconut] soup, for example, and I have been trying to do a dish with Thai influence. The whole way through [to the final result], though, can be really frustrating. There’s trial after trial, and then having to order the same ingredient again and again and waiting a week to get it. But at the end you see the result and you really enjoy it. It’s also fun when you see the guests appreciate it.”
Armas remains a Spanish boy at heart and prides himself on how chefs such as Adria stole a bit of power from the French chefs and the dominance of French cuisine. “Although I wouldn’t say our cuisine [at The Principal] is Spanish, there is a bit of influence,” he says. “I hope people will see that it is a different restaurant to what is understood as fine dining in many five-star hotels.”
When Armas heads home to put his feet up after a hard day’s work, his choice of reading is always the same. “One of my biggest hobbies is to read cooking books. It’s a way of getting inspiration,” he says.
“The good thing nowadays is that everybody shares their techniques. Chefs used to be much more jealous of one another and it was all about competition rather than working with one another and sharing ideas. I think it makes it better to share what your experiences are as well as your skills and tricks.”
ARMAS’S (KITCHEN) WEAPONS OF CHOICE…
Olive oil “Like wine, it has many varieties and flavours. My favourite is Arbacina from Spain.”
Saffron “Because it’s commonly used in Spain and it enhances flavours.”
Eggs “I love to eat fried eggs or done in any other way.”
Pork “I love it because it’s a very family-orientated meat, used at many gatherings in Spanish culture.”