When he was just a teenager, the Colombian-born and -raised Juan Esteban Lesmes would take notes in the kitchen as he watched his mother and grandmother cook. Soon after, Lesmes began concocting his own dishes. “I started doing food experiments,” he says. “I cooked using my imagination, taking whatever I found in the kitchen and mixing it together in ways I thought might work.”
And although some of his first culinary attempts weren’t the best, Lesmes says, “I was lucky enough to have such great parents that were always very supportive and commented about my food in an encouraging and funny way, even if it was a complete disaster.”
We should thank Lesmes’ mom and dad for not crushing their son’s dreams. After graduating from culinary school, Lesmes landed a job at Hotel Estelar La Fontana in Bogotá and then went on to work at the capital city’s popular Harry Sasson Restaurant. With a few more top-notch experiences under his belt, he made his way to ME Madrid Reina Victoria in Madrid, where he now serves as the executive chef (or as Lesmes calls it, “head of the kitchen”) of the boutique hotel’s happening restaurant, The Roof.
A fun place to grab a cocktail by day and to savor dinner (as well as the gorgeous city vistas) at night, The Roof is the place to be if you’re spending time in Plaza de Santa Ana. It’s no small feat to run the kitchen here, but chef Juan (as everyone lovingly refers to him) does it well. While we were in Madrid, the busy cuisinier took time out of his schedule to tell us all about how a cruise ship experience shaped his career and why he loves his job so much.
When did you know that being a chef was in your DNA?
One eye-opening experience I had when I was about 5 years old happened while I was on a cruise ship with my family. One evening during dinner, I happened to wonder off out of the restaurant and get lost. I entered a noisy room where everything was moving very fast. I accidentally ended up in the kitchen of the ship. I stood still for a few moments until a tall man leaned toward me, smiled and put his hat on my head. I remember I immediately felt better; he told the rest of the cooks to show me around the place while he went and phoned the captain to notify him of my whereabouts and to also look for my parents.
In the fast-paced place, there was still some kind of order because I remember every chef was working on something different. I happened to stand next to the pastry chef who was preparing a Chantilly cream. The head chef returned after a few minutes. He picked up a spoon, tried the cream, took a glance at me, smiled and winked all while he tasted it.
Now who would have ever known that today I would be wearing his same hat, the one that at that moment was way too big on my head and kept falling over my forehead?
What do you love about working at a ME by Meliá property?
It has a different ambience and concept and has its own personality. The quality of the food, presentation and service is what I am most concerned about. It has to be impeccable.
How would you describe The Roof’s personality?
The ambience is very chill during the day and party-like at night.
Does that vibe translate into your food?
Yes, sometimes. We try to make different kinds of food here. The food varies from elegant food to fun food.
Give me an example of a fun dish.
We have a smoked beef loin. We smoke it in house with rice and different kinds of herbs. So, it is different and very nice. Also, we make an appetizer — it’s like a yolk with tomato, and it’s called tomato choff.
What is your specialty?
Right now, it is probably the sushi. Also, another favorite dish of mine is the stuffed meat that my mother taught me to make. It’s stuffed with broccoli, beef, peas, onions, peppers, cauliflower and celery, and then we cook it in a pot — I think that is the best way to cook beef. It brings back the memories and flavors of my homeland. It doesn’t have a name — it is just my mother’s creation. It is a dish my mom made for the family when I was a child and lived with her in Colombia. Every time I prepare it, I get snapshots from the past. It is the first food dish I fell in love with and the food that inspired me.
Where is your produce sourced from?
The produce and vegetables mainly come from Spain, but some come from France, Peru and Colombia.
Do you also use locally raised beef and chicken?
Yes, we get it from País Vasco [Basque Country] in Northern Spain. It is the best meat in the country.
Why do you love what you do?
I love what I do because food makes me happy not only when I eat it but when I see the smile it puts on other people’s faces. When I think of food, I think of different flavors, textures and colors. It also reminds me of family and the way it brings people together. We can’t live without it, so might as well make it amazing every day.
Photo Courtesy of Melia Hotels International