After working for seven years as a private chef for an ultra-high-net-worth British businessman and political donor, Aleixandre Sarrion Blesa is telling me about the time he cooked for Queen Elizabeth II, when he was just 24 years old, at a dinner hosted by his former employer. Now aged 31, the high-energy, Spanish-born culinary creative also counts British prime ministers Tony Blair, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, as well as Queen Noor of Jordan, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi and celebrities such as Dame Shirley Bassey, among those he’s cooked for.
Having worked and lived in a huge stately home for years, Blesa now finds himself worlds away, looking over a fresh seafood auction in his hometown of Dénia, south of Valencia. There are huge lobsters, shrimp, octopus and just-caught fish, and Blesa is enjoying battling against the supermarkets, local restaurants and chefs for the daily catch so he can cook later for friends and family.
I met Blesa at a private dinner in Central London earlier this year, a few weeks before the city was locked down due to Covid-19, when guests were mesmerised by his innovative seafood-heavy spread. Since then, he’s been in St-Tropez and the Côte d’Azur, meeting potential clients and connections for his newly launched private-dining experiences, where he schmoozed aboard luxury yachts with the well-heeled of Europe and was whisked around by helicopter.
But first back to Dénia. “It’s on the coast between Valencia and Alicante, very close to Ibiza and the Balearic Islands,” he explains. “I usually come for a while each summer, but this year I’m going to spend quite a lot of time here. The food is so good – and so cheap compared to the likes of St-Tropez.”
An ancient Roman port that’s also the site of Iberian ruins, the town’s long hot summers and blue Mediterranean are charming Blesa once again. It’s a place where there’s amazing fresh produce and plenty of Michelin-star restaurants – but, says Blesa, “everyone eats well here”. He tells me about the humble place he visited for lunch the day before with his mother: “It’s where all the builders go. I was amazed – we had an amazing lunch.”
Growing up here, cuisine wasn’t his first-choice career. Blesa had wanted to be an architect, but when he was 17 he was sent to London by his half-British, half-Spanish father to improve his poor English. “I was very hyperactive and bored with just studying, so I got a part-time job in a hotel. They thought I’d be good in the kitchen, so I did a trial in the kitchen and really enjoyed it,” he says.
His parents supported his passion for food, and soon Blesa’s sheer energy and determination got him an introduction and placement at chef David Pitchford’s one-Michelin-star restaurant Read’s, in rural Kent: “It was absolutely mental, everyone shouting … I was surprised I could get in, as the Michelin is like the Oscars of food. It was tough, 16-hour days, an insane schedule.”
In 2010 Blesa returned to Dénia to work at celebrated chef Quique Dacosta’s eponymous restaurant, then a two-star and now a three-star establishment. The latter remains one of his all-time favourite restaurants; even today, many of Blesa’s signature dishes and innovations are centred on the seafood that Dénia is famed for.
After Quique Dacosta, Blesa became chef at a large restaurant by the beach, where he learned more of the basics of cooking that he’d missed before. “That was also crazy – I wasn’t allowed to go on holidays, the boss was so tough. Obviously I was really young and he was pushing me, but after three-and-a-half years I left. I took just my bag and flew to London with nothing.”
After two weeks he found a job with Michel Roux Jr, which he loved initially but soon found dull, missing the “shouting and screaming of a high-energy kitchen”. Indeed Blesa, who tends to get bored easily, has hopped from one kitchen to the next, gaining experience in several critically acclaimed restaurants in just a few years: Las Rejas in Spain’s Las Pedroñeras, Michele Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche in London’s Mayfair, Nobu in London and El Viajante in Spain, as well as nine months working as sous chef with celebrity chef Tom Aikens. “I wanted to move to a really tough kitchen in London and was introduced to Tom,” says Blesa. “I went there and I loved the food and the heat in the kitchen – he’s a nutcase and a really tough guy.”
After touring multiple kitchens in quick succession, Blesa met and cooked for a wealthy individual – whose name he’d prefer to keep private – who went on to become his employer and patron. Hired as a private chef at age 23, Blesa was soon cooking for royalty, celebrities and “a lot of Conservative Party politicians”.
Going from working 14-to-16-hour days in a restaurant to a much slower pace with a private family – albeit one with some very important contacts – Blesa learned the differences in approach that the ultra-rich had towards private dining. With a gigantic kitchen and unlimited budget for produce at his disposal, he would get increasingly experimental and innovative with his dishes. His references and passions now stretch to French, Peruvian, Thai, Indian, Japanese and Cantonese fare, after being introduced to all types of cuisine in London’s globally gastronomical scene.
“We don’t have good Asian food in Spain,” he says, adding that each time his parents visit London he makes sure they sample authentic Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese food. Dishes such as roasted goose with plum glaze, Sichuan pepper and citrus zest, or Spanish tuna tataki with ginger soy dressing with rocket, Peruvian aji amarillo and fennel, point to Blesa’s increasingly diverse influences and creativity.
His love for seafood and freshness is a nod to his hometown, renowned “for seafood, shellfish and molluscs and fish … there’s not much meat in our diets here, so seafood is part of my upbringing”. The divine and grandiose lobster and abalone dishes he’s concocted will no doubt find fans among Asian and Western clients.
The training from more avant-garde kitchens brings a sense of newness and experimentalism to Blesa’s combinations and flavours, with charming aesthetic flourishes to please the most avid food-porn Instagrammers. I’ve been poring over images of creamy pots of sea-bass tartare with Australian truffle, Scottish langoustine tacos with caviar, Langoustine tartare, yuzu-mandarin emulsion, pickle cucumber, jalapeño chili and grapes. Then there’s the cod, miso with a side of Peking duck salad, leeks and parsnip crisps and oh-so-many varieties of innovative paella. There’s mouth-watering texture and flavour to Blesa’s dishes.
After being a private chef for years, his new chapter will be about hosting private dinners under his own name from an exclusive Chelsea residence, while doing some location dinners on the Côte d’Azur. “One of my new clients has a wine club, whose members travel and meet up around the world. It’s full of high-net-worth individuals who might do private dinners in mansions or yachts, I’m going to do dining experiences for them.”
Blesa’s plan is to be based in London with a second home in Monaco soon. And if it all sounds very luxurious, almost too “playgrounds of the rich and famous”, the young chef assures us that this is only one part of his life or even the way he eats. His favourite restaurants might include Barcelona’s famed joints Tickets and Disfrutar, Frantzen in Stockholm and Elkano in the Basque Country, as well as Quique Dacosta in his hometown, but Blesa can be very down-to-earth, more so in Dénia. “To enjoy a meal,” he says, “it doesn’t have to be expensive, obviously. You need good ingredients and produce … I love comfort food – as much as I like fine dining, I can enjoy a really simple, kick-ass Spanish omelette that just makes you cry with joy.”