Yo soy un gato,” says Paco Pajares, chef at Poncelet Cheese Bar in Madrid. Gato, or “cat,” is what multigenerational madrileños (Madrid locals) call themselves. It’s a nickname inherited from a legend about an 11th-century soldier who climbed the wall of Moors-occupied Madrid like a cat. “My mother, my grandmother, my great-grandfather [were all born here]. I’m one of the very few [true locals] nowadays.”
We meet in the main dining room of Poncelet, an open, airy space with colorful geometric decorations and a decidedly sixties vibe. In front of a living vertical garden with over 500 varieties of plants lies the cava de quesos—the cheese cave. Kept between 41 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, it can hold up to 150 wheels.
Pajares’ interest in the culinary industry began at a young age. “We thought Paco would go into computers,” says Victor Pajares, Paco’s older brother and de-facto father figure since the death of their dad in 1996. “But he said he wanted to study cooking. Back then—in this country—no one even touched the topic of gastronomy. Working in hospitality was even looked down upon. He started when no one understood, and it was difficult.”
When Pajares enrolled in IES Hotel Escuela (a popular school for chefs) in the late 1990s, he quickly realized that theory wasn’t for him. “To be seated for six hours didn’t appeal to me,” he says. “If they had explained things during the practice hour, that would have been much better.” He failed his first year.
But giving up wasn’t an option. “I’ve been raised to finish everything I start,” he says. True to his word, he repeated that year and eventually graduated. Making food was the highlight of his studies, and as time went by it became the focus of his life. “I’ve had to leave behind many things: friends, weekends,” he says. “It’s kind of like when you get a girlfriend—you start dating and slowly leave everything else behind.”
“He’s always been a very humble, dedicated chef, and that’s what makes him great.”
Pajares’ dedication piqued the interest of Joaquín Felipe, one of Spain’s top chefs. Felipe hired him as a kitchen assistant at East 47, a local landmark, and Pajares quickly ascended to section chef. When Felipe moved to another restaurant, he took Pajares with him. “Paco is very responsible,” says Felipe, now the executive chef of Florida Retiro, a culinary complex in the middle of Madrid’s iconic El Retiro Park. “He’s always been a very humble, dedicated chef, and that’s what makes him great.” For Pajares, working with Felipe was a gift: “He’s the one who taught me to be responsible, to be a zealot when it comes to cleanliness and order,” he says.
For many Spanish chefs, training isn’t complete without a stint in the Basque Country’s San Sebastián region. With Felipe’s help, Pajares secured a position—once again starting as a kitchen assistant—with Juan Mari Arzak, a legend of the Spanish restaurant scene. After 10 months, Pajares came back to Madrid ready to run his own kitchen.
At Poncelet Cheese Bar, curds are the focus. Pajares’ recipes run the gamut from risotto to Spanish croquettes made with four kinds of cheese to tuna tartare with guacamole and Manchego. His inspiration comes from moments of lucidez, or “lucidity”—instants that appear during the normal day-to-day routine. “One moment you are with friends at a neighborhood tapas bar and something catches your eye,” he says. “I believe the more you think about things and try to find them, the less they’ll come to you.”
While spontaneous in his creativity, Pajares is more particular when it comes to attitude. For him, elegance is important, and arrogance doesn’t belong in the kitchen. “You have to treat everything with love—treat 300 grams of caviar with the same love as one carrot. Elegance is working with precision so that you aren’t too sure of yourself when you’re in it.”
His co-workers agree. Sous chef Pedro Delmas has worked with Pajares since the beginning. Brought on as a kitchen assistant, he admits he’s had a lot to learn. “For me, Paco is a reference,” he says. “I came in from a cocina de batalla [restaurant where speed overrides quality and presentation], and here everything was completely the opposite. Paco got the best out of me.”
Pajares knows that many see him as a serious person, but admits he is more of a trozo de pan, which literally means a “piece of bread” but is used to describe a loving and caring person. Among his dreams are to finally bring his 92-year-old grandmother to his restaurant, to cook for Karim Benzema, a Real Madrid soccer player, and—at some point—to work abroad. “You have to have an open mind,” he says. “And [I’m from] a very open-minded city.”
Two Recipes by Chef Paco Pajares
The smoky flavor and buttery texture of Idiazábal complement the tartness of the tomatoes and pickled peppers.
Simple yet still indulgent, this salad can also be made with prosciutto instead of jamón.
Photography by Ivan Raga