Thousands of tourists fly into Palma Airport every day yet few take the time to explore the capital city of Mallorca. This is a pity because Palma should be a destination in itself rather like Barcelona, a city with which it has so much in common. Both are major Catalan-speaking ports with centuries of history. Like Barcelona, Palma has striking modernista (art nouveau) architecture. There are two world-class art galleries, Es Baluard and Museu Fundación Juan March, containing works by Picasso, Dali and Mirò. Its boat-lined harbour, dominated by the Gothic cathedral, is one of the prettiest in the Mediterranean. One man who was seduced by the city’s charms is English chef Marc Fosh who runs three restaurants in Palma. He arrived on the island 22 years ago to open a country house hotel. At the time it was something of a novelty having an Englishman in the kitchen, but he was already steeped in Spanish cuisine, having worked with legendary Basque chef Berasategui in his eponymous three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Sebastian.
“MALLORCA IS A PARADISE FOR CHEFS. WE HAVE ALL THE INGREDIENTS ON OUR DOORSTEP. OLIVE OIL, SEAFOOD, LOCAL SALT… THE WHOLE MENU IS LITTERED WITH LOCAL INGENUITY”
Marc was in his early 30s when he arrived in Spain. He spoke no Spanish so initially he and Berasategui communicated in French – the international language of food. Fosh’s training was classically French. Kent-born Marc moved to London in the early 1980s to work at the Greenhouse two-Michelin-starred place in Mayfair that’s still going today. From London he moved to a restaurant “in a boring village in the middle of France,” as Marc puts it. Spain was a complete change of pace. It was the early 1990s and, according to Fosh, “there was something extraordinary happening in Spanish gastronomy. The whole El Bulli thing was starting to happen.” This was long before the lifestyle pages of newspapers had picked up on it. “There was something in the air. San Sebastian was a fantastic place to be,” Marc reveals. In the heat of the kitchen he quickly picked up Spanish and fell in love with the food: “I realised they had a different way of cooking: you could cook great food with no cream or butter.” It wasn’t just food though. Fosh loved the Spanish nightlife, such a change from rural France. Ten years ago, Fosh opened his own restaurant in Palma with a shop and cookery school attached. Marc wanted to make cooking and eating fun; he had an open kitchen so diners could see what was going on.
Marc explains that Simply Fosh was designed “to get away from Michelin stars. I wanted to strip everything back. Some restaurants take themselves too seriously and people can’t relax and have fun. We had no sommeliers, no big wine list, no tablecloths. Just a focus on great food.” It was on a back street in the middle of Palma with no passing trade but, by word of mouth, it quickly became very successful. Despite the stripped-back style, after three years Simply Fosh (now known as MARC FOSH) did indeed get a Michelin star, which it still holds. Today he has two other places in Palma: Fosh Kitchen, a healthy-eating restaurant; and the experimental Fosh Lab. Marc explains the Fosh Lab concept: “It’s a pop-up, in a location that will be redeveloped at some point. Originally it was just going to be one season but then we went on with it. It was about having a restaurant where the menu wasn’t fixed, the style wasn’t fixed. We do different types of cuisine. We don’t even know what we’ll be doing next week.” Here Marc can experiment: “I have loads of ideas about dishes in my head; flavour combinations.” He tells me about a dessert he was working on based on “flavours that you might find in various coffees, for example, dandelion or liquorice,so without using coffee it tastes like coffee.”
Mallorca is a paradise for chefs, Fosh adds: “We have all the ingredients on our doorstep. It is a small island with fantastic produce all around: olive oil, seafood, local salt… the whole menu is littered with local ingenuity.” Even the wine list is largely Mallorquin. The island is becoming a culinary destination. In 2015 a gourmet market opened in Palma in a former abattoir, the Mercado Gastronómico San Juan, offering street food and wines from the island. Many of Mallorca’s top chefs originally trained with Fosh: “It’s really gratifying, he said. Lots of young chefs come through my kitchen and are now doing exciting things on their own.” There are nine Michelin stars on the island. I ask Marc about the Spanish food scene today. He tells me “For eight-10 years Spain was the most exciting country in the world for food. There are restaurants continuing to push the boundaries but Spain doesn’t stand out so much now because, inspired by the Spanish example, we now have people making exciting food all over the world.” This is particularly noticeable, Marc reveals, in Scandinavia.Scandinavians, along with tourists from Germany and the Spanish mainland, certainly appreciate the more sophisticated side to Mallorca. Outside Palma there are agroturismos, beautiful shady beaches and unspoilt fishing villages. According to Fosh, however, the British still have a rather outdated idea of what goes on on the island, remarking: “A lot of Brits still think it’s a bucket-and-spade destination.” When he tells people in Britain he runs restaurants on Mallorca, “they think I’ve bought a bar in Magaluf!” Fosh is part of a long line of visitors – Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs and Catalans – who have fallen for Mallorca’s charms. “The people are very open and there’s lots of foreign influence,” he explains. The island has always been a cultural melting pot. His three children from his previous marriage are very much Mallorquin. He’s now married to a German lady and can’t see himself ever leaving: “I love to travel, but when we come back and land at Palma it’s great to be home.”