“Who says that fruits are not more delicious than cakes,” Juan Manteca exclaims…
From Madrid to Dublin, well-known chef Juan Manteca is no stranger to switching up his location, or his eating habits for that matter. We caught up with the former Wagamama Head Chef to chat about his plant-based diet, his new Head Chef role and some of his favourite recipes.
Juan Manteca grew up in Spain, where he clung to the apron strings of his mother and was always fascinated by the cooker, long before he was even able to see what was going on atop the hob. “I spent a big chunk of my childhood in the kitchen watching my mum cooking and all those smells, colours, flavours and textures were imprinted in my five senses,” Juan explains. He talks passionately about food and you can tell that his real education was in the kitchen – “that was my first and my best school,” he adds.
Building upon his passion and deciding to lead the life of a chef, he worked his way through restaurants and cafés in his native Madrid until a decade ago, when he realised he had become complacent and bored in the big city so decided to embark upon a career break and begin travelling. “Dublin seemed to be a good option,” he remembers, “though let’s not talk about the weather”. Travelling through Ireland, Juan found lots of exciting opportunities and a welcoming, friendly people, not to mention a far more manageable city (one third the size of Madrid) and so he decided to stay put, rather than continuing on his travels. It was the next logical step, he explains, though adds “what was temporary time off has because home!
Juan settled into a role in Wagamama, the international chain of Japanese restaurants, where he quickly progressed and became a trainer for the company, taking him on a travel-heavy role with experience in both Cork and Belfast. He’s spent the last few years as both Group Trainer and Head Chef of the flagship Irish restaurant on Dublin’s South King Street but has recently had a lifestyle change, nutritionally and professionally…
As a Wagamama trainer you specialised in leading staff training and delivering nutritional master classes. What makes the Japanese diet so comforting and inviting but healthy as well?
The first way we eat food is probably with our eyes. And Japanese food has mastered it! You only have to look at most of the Japanese dishes and they look delicious. Japanese cuisine is an almost perfect combination of simplicity and complexity. What looks very simple becomes a universe of flavour in the mouth. It’s the simplicity that makes a Japanese diet healthy as well: loads of vegetables cooked in a healthy way (steam, stir fry, boil…) predominate over big portions of meat with no healthy cooking methods (like deep frying).
What led your recent switch to a vegan, plant-based diet?
It was a healthy option. After much reading and research, I found that a whole food, plant-based diet, low in fat and sugar is the best healthy diet we can have. And in my case, it’s not a sacrifice as fruit and vegetables (together with grains and legumes) are as delicious and complete as an omnivore diet.
Tempting food all the day surrounds me (as a chef), especially delicious fruit and vegetables. Aubergine is one of my favourite vegetables and who says a steak is more tempting than an aubergine? Or that fruits are not more delicious than cakes?
Now you’ve recently had a major career change. Talk us through how you came to the decision to leave Wagamama and take up your new role as Head Chef at whole food, vegetarian/vegan restaurant The Happy Pear in Greystones?
Wagamama has been a great experience for the last nine years: I’ve learnt many things, had great time and worked with wonderful people. But it was time for a new challenge and I was offered this position at The Happy Pear. I knew the restaurant for quite a while and I always enjoyed the food and the experience, it’s a place that suits my philosophy of life and food, and taking the role of Head Chef at this time when the company is growing, it was a challenge that I couldn’t say ‘no’ to.
You’ve also begun blogging while juggling a highly pressurised job, what got you into blogging?
I love everything about food: cooking, dining out, reading, etc. and one thing I was missing was sharing my experience – the food that I really like and that I cook at home for myself and my close friends. That was the main reason to start the blog. The blog (Juan’s Food Journey) began before I committed fully to a whole food, plant-based diet, so you can see there are still a few recipes with meat and fish. My favourite recipes on there include some of my favourite ingredients: Ras Al Hanout Lentil Stew and Black Olive Sourdough Bread. Since starting this new job, I’ve not been able to blog much, but my plan is to get back blogging regularly very soon.
If you could only live on one fruit or vegetable for life what would they be?
That’s probably one of the most difficult questions ever – I love them all! But if I have to choose one, I’d say artichokes. Ask me tomorrow, and I’d probably say another one!
Do you have any interesting or fun ways to get more fruit into peoples diets in unique ways?
In food, like in most of the things in life, we have to think outside of the box. Fruits are not only dessert or an ingredient in some of the salads: they are very good as well when you cook them: soups with oranges, stews with pear, apples with your roasted vegetables! – If you’re feeling fruity, take out a subscription to our fruit delivery service for your office.