A Catalan Dish for My Country, 43 Years After the Spanish Dictatorship

The revolution of home cooking.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

All kids are born with different inquietuds, yearnings, and food is definitely one of mine. So is travel. I had a fire inside me to see different places, meet new people, and learn new languages. Also, I longed to escape the oppression of Spain's military dictator, Francisco Franco.

When I was born, Franco was in power. I was from Catalonia, so there wasn't much to like about him, and as a kid I didn’t know much about Spanish history at the time either. But I knew enough that there was a dictator ruling the country and that a better way of life had to be possible.

My parents would take us on little trips to France and other countries that exposed me to a different way of life (human behavior that wasn't "Spanish," so to speak). I'd go to France and see how people dressed: Women weren't as expressive with their clothes in Spain as they were in Paris. Couples were kissing in the street in Paris. Not in Spain; that would never happen in Catalonia.

Not that I knew any better. I lived in a country where the government even censored movies. Growing up I loved music, art, and theater—and all of that was forbidden at home. Spain, a place that inspired Miró, Picasso, and Dalí, was also the same place where those artists had to escape to France because their government would persecute them otherwise.

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“Thank you so much for reading it, HalfPint. As always. The fideua is divine.”
— Eric K.

Spain was still a completely repressed country in the middle of the 1970s, recovering from the height of Franco’s reign in the 1950s and 1960s. It became clear to me, even as a child, that there was something wrong happening in my own country, next to one where everything was significantly more modern, more progressive.

I've always said that the gap between my parents' generation and my own was more than one. That is, though we may have only been apart by one generation physically, our experiences could not have been more disparate mentally, emotionally, and politically. For all intents and purposes, we were epochs apart.

My mother and father were raised very conservatively in ways that were hard for me to imagine. In Catalonia, women were servants to men; when a woman lost her husband, for instance, she'd dress in black for the rest of her life. If you didn’t go to church, you were full of sin. I, on the other hand, was part of the first post-Franco generation and so saw my future very differently.

I had a fire inside me to see different places, meet new people, and learn new languages. Also, I longed to escape the oppression of Spain's military dictator, Francisco Franco.

For years my dad and I struggled in the face of our differences, not understanding each other.

My mom and I, however, were always very close. She understood me better back then and tried to teach me things, go out of her way for me, especially in the kitchen. She'd get carried away cooking, making fresh dishes for me with inspiring ingredients like local sausage, rabbit, rooster, and chocolate. On weekends, we'd cook paella together as a family, starting the dish with my mom’s sofrito and picadas and finishing it with my dad’s perfect allioli. Sometimes we'd do this with rice; other times with fideo noodles. We didn’t have enough money to go to restaurants, so we stayed at home and ate well like this for years on paella, even on days when I felt suffocated by a political landscape that seemed constantly to be changing.

By then I was about fourteen and just waking up to my surroundings, itching for a new life and environment. Little by little, I became angry with Franco. The way he was ruling the country felt backwards even to me, a kid who knew nothing about politics. My friends and I were stubborn and bursting with opinions. We didn’t think our opinions were dangerous—just right and worthy of an ear.

We joined this political Marxist-Leninist youth group. From the moment you joined a group like that, you were part of the plan whether you knew it or not. We'd have these clandestine meetings in warehouses and in the corners of bars. We all had nicknames—like war names, you know. Mine was El Salvador. They taught us useful things like how to speak up in a crowd, how to protest productively, even how to hide from the police at demonstrations using a reversible coat to disguise yourself. All we knew then was that we wanted to fight. We didn't know much, but we knew that it wasn’t right for us Catalans not to be able to showcase our culture and language just because Franco told us we couldn't.

During one of these demonstrations in a town next to ours, the police attacked our crew. It turned out that the police had a tip about our tour of the neighboring town. They blocked all the exits leading back to Vilafranca, and the police caught my friends.

I've said before that I'm lucky to be a chef. Well, this was the day that my luck began. It just so happened that I wasn’t a part of the rounds that day like I had been so many times before. I had the flu.

It was a Monday, my first year of high school, when I found out that my friends were arrested. When I arrived at school that day, everyone was surprised to see me because they thought I was one of the guys thrown in jail in Barcelona. One of the guys was the top soccer player in my town. When he was finally released three months later, I saw that he was swollen from the beatings he had received, and that the police had burned our other friends with their cigarettes. Living in a dictator-ruled country, acting against the government was the last thing you wanted to do.

This was the moment when I realized the protests were too much for me and my family. Luckily around that time, my cousins and their family were visiting from Chicago. My uncle had a restaurant, and my parents spoke with him about my going to work there for a year. They hoped that maybe the time away could be good for me and help me learn English, keep me out of trouble.

So my parents sent me to Chicago.

In Chicago I found the freedom I had been fighting for in Catalonia: I had long hair; I was a musician; I was eighteen years old. My cousin was a guitar player and all of his friends were artists. We'd have these parties where everyone would play music, draw, and paint—things I could never have done in Spain. Even though there were things I missed about Spain, especially traditions with my parents and of course the food of Vilafranca, coming to Chicago was a wake-up call for me.

It became clear to me then that I could never go back.

Years after the protests, through opening B44 as one of the first Catalan restaurants in the U.S., I was able to showcase my heritage in a way that made my parents proud. It was there that my father began to see what I was doing, some version of what I had been fighting for as a kid.

In Spain we were humble and never went to the one restaurant in town. Little did we know that, decades later, my dad—a man with whom I had very little in common as a kid—would go to his son’s restaurants and order everything off the menu. But the one dish he loved ordering most was my fidueà, a rich, briny reminder of home and everything we had left behind.

We didn’t have enough money to go to restaurants, so we stayed at home and ate well like this for years on paella, even on days when I felt suffocated by a political landscape that seemed constantly to be changing.

Fideuà is similar to paella, but it's made with short toasted noodles called fideus, which you can find at Hispanic markets. You can also toast the noodles yourself as described in the recipe below. The dish starts on the stovetop just like paella, but then it's finished in the oven. You can tell it's done when you look into the oven and the noodles are standing up—or trempant, as we say in Catalan, meaning “with an erection.”

My restaurants now are the only places where I can make my own little difference. Though I am called "Executive Chef," the truth is I'm still cooking the way my mama did when I was a boy...gathering the best local ingredients, preparing them simply, and infusing them with Catalan attitude. At its heart, Catalan cooking is down-to-earth home cooking, often done slowly while you relax and take care of other things around the house. Cooking authentic Catalan food is my own small way of continuing the revolution, I guess—through food.

More Catalan Recipes

Recipe reprinted from Catalan Food: Culture & Flavors from the Mediterranean.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Olivella and Caroline Wright. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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Daniel Olivella is a chef born in Vilafranca del Penedes near Barcelona and has nearly 40 years of experience cooking authentic Catalan food for the American palate. Considered an authority on Mediterranean cuisine by many, Olivella worked for some of the best chefs in San Francisco, where he opened the popular Catalan bistro B44 in 1999. He is currently the chef and owner of Barlata in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his family.


Chef S. January 10, 2020
Great story Daniel, very similar to mine.
HalfPint October 25, 2018
This is such a wonderful article. I am a big fan of B44 (I use to work in the SF Financial District) and its Arroz Negro. I cannot wait to try this fideua.
Eric K. October 25, 2018
Thank you so much for reading it, HalfPint. As always. The fideua is divine.