Her voice competing to be heard over music blaring from the stereo, María Marte weaves her way through a dozen cooks readying their stations and heads to a stairwell behind the kitchen at Madrid’s El Club Allard restaurant.
More than a decade ago, when she was working here, one of the Spanish capital’s top restaurants, as a dish washer, Marte would curl up on the red-tiled staircase for a few moments of sleep between her near constant chain of work.
Today, she is the restaurant’s head chef – and the only female chef in the Spanish capital with two Michelin stars. “My story is one of the most beautiful in the world,” says the 37-year-old. “Now I can say that those days of napping in the stairwell and working double shifts were worth it. I wasn’t crazy.”
Marte’s story starts in 2003, when she left her home in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, to be closer to her oldest child in Madrid. With little more than “a suitcase full of dreams,” she became one of the millions from around the world who poured into Spain during the country’s boom years, helping to push the population’s proportion of immigrants from 2% in 1999 to 12% a decade later.
When she arrived in Madrid, she had one goal: to earn a living. She took work wherever she could get it, from a hair salon to El Club Allard, where she was offered a job washing dishes by the hour. “Some days it could be three hours or two hours and sometimes they wouldn’t need me at all,” she says. Still, it was familiar ground to her as she had spent most of her life working in kitchens, starting with her father’s restaurant when she was 12.
Marte’s perspective quickly began to shift. “I had arrived in Madrid as a fighter, and once I was here I turned into a dreamer,” she says. She became fascinated with what she was seeing of high-end cuisine. “When I saw how beautiful the food was, the care given to every detail, I realised that cooking could be something spectacular. It became something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
After months of working as a dishwasher, she applied for a job preparing food. “And they told me no,” she says. “It was sad, but the story didn’t end there.”
Soon she heard of another job opening in the kitchen. Steeling herself for rejection, she applied again. This time it worked. “They said they would give me the job, but on one condition: I couldn’t leave my job as a dishwasher,” she says. She said yes. “I didn’t care; I wanted the job so badly.”
Marte soon became the first to arrive at the restaurant in the morning and the last to leave. “It was incredibly hard. I didn’t have one free moment – I would work one shift after another from 9.30am until 2.30am the next morning,” she says.
The stairwell behind the kitchen became her quiet reprieve between shifts. “People would say to me, ‘You’re crazy, how can you work like that? It’s not worth it,’” she says. “I didn’t even have the time to explain to them why I was doing it.”
After three months of working both jobs, she was freed from dishwashing duties. An upwards path finally presented itself and by 2006 she was the restaurant’s second in command. One year later, under head chef Diego Guerrero, the restaurant earned its first Michelin star, the second coming in 2011.
When Guerrero announced his departure in 2013, Marte stepped up as head chef. Her first big test soon followed, ending with El Club Allard becoming one of the few restaurants to retain its two Michelin stars after changing head chefs.
In May this year, Marte cemented her place among the country’s top chefs after being awarded Spain’s National Gastronomy prize. One of the few female chefs and immigrants among her contemporaries, Marte credits her success to her days of sleeping in the stairwell: “It was a crucial step in my life. It was something very important that I had to go through to get to where I am now.”
Marte – the lone female in her team of 14 – now oversees about 1,000 plates sent out from her kitchen each day as part of the 10- to 14-course menus. Each dish reflects her story, blending together Caribbean and Latin American ingredients such as yucca and hibiscus into Spanish high cuisine.
It is Marte’s way of paying tribute to her heritage. As Spain’s economy went from boom to bust and unemployment soared, hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had arrived alongside Marte were forced to return home, giving up on their dreams of making a life for themselves in Spain.
For those who decided to tough it out in Spain, though, Marte has become a symbol of what is possible. In June, Sally Caballero, a Paraguayan contestant on Spain’s Masterchef broke down in tears when Marte made a guest appearance on the show. “I’m also Latin American,” explained Caballero. “Like María I came here looking for a better life for my daughter – I see myself in her.”
Being an immigrant in Spain’s cut-throat kitchen scene has been both a challenge and a source of strength, says Marte: “You have a different mentality. If I hadn’t come from a family that was so humble, so poor, it might have been easier to say ‘I don’t have to kill myself to work this way’.”
These days she still sleeps very little, often waking up in the middle of the night to scribble down ideas for new dishes. A mother of three, her only complaint is the difficulty of striking a balance between work and family life. “The world that chefs live in demands a lot from you,” she says.
She still regularly ducks into the stairwell for privacy – although these days it’s to brainstorm ways to reach her next goal rather than catch a bit of sleep. “That third Michelin star is obvious,” she says. “What chef wouldn’t try for that?”