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1/14/2017

The Padre's Tavern


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The Story of Luís de Lezama, a Basque Priest, 
Who Became One of Spain’s Most Celebrated Restaurateurs
Revised article (first published in Food Arts)


 Material from a book-in-progress
 
by Gerry Dawes ©2016


Former New York Times Restaurant Critic Bryan Miller, Padre Luís de Lezama, D. Ramón del Hoyo López (Bishop of Jaén)and Gerry Dawes, Il Circo, NYC.

One night in the early 1970s, Luís de Lezama, a Basque priest who would subsequently (and improbably) become one of Spain’s top restaurateurs, was invited to go to the gypsy caves on Sacromonte hill in Granada by a group of students with whom he had spent three days encouraging them to join the religious orders.  It had been a long day, but it was his last with this group of young people, so he joined them as they made their rounds of Granada’s tapas bars and the touristy, but colorful zambra flamenco performances. 

Along the way, Padre Lezama was approached by a gitana, a gypsy woman.  She showed him an old intricate piece of wrought-iron, which could have been a trivet, except that it had no legs; it was an ancient hierro, the facing for an cattle brand. The gypsy implored him, “Padrecito, buy this hierro from me, it will change your life.”

Padre Lezama declined, but as the group continued their tapas prowl, the gitana continued to appear, nagging him to buy her hierro. Each time Lezama refused her offer. Finally some of the students intervened and the gypsy woman left Lezama alone. At the end of the evening, some of the students accompanied the priest back to the religious residence where he was staying and said their adioses. When Lezama entered his room he found the hierro on his night table with a thank you note for his service signed by all the students.  It said, “Don Luís, here is the hierro de la gitana that will change your life.” 


Luís de Lezama.
Photograph by Gerry Dawes
 
Lezama’s personal stories—triumphs, misadventures and sometimes tragedies—as recounted in this autobiographical book, are at once intimate and at the same time mirror the history of the rise of modern Spain and its democracy.  

Lezama’s life as a young boy in the Basque Country, first in the village of Amurrio, where he was born and predominately in Bilbao, was marked by the fact that his family was branded as “rojos,” reds on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War.  This meant that his father was perpetually unemployable and the family often lived hand-to-mouth.  In his later teen years, to deflect the advances of young woman pursuing him, to dissuade her Lezama proclaims that he is going to enter the priesthood, an idea that sticks in his head—he had an ongoing internal battle  throughout his youth concerning his beliefs about God.  In his insightful, moving, often humorous book, Hablemos de Díos, Lezama insightfully chronicles his often quite surprising thoughts on God, the Catholic church and society.
After studying with the Jesuits in the Basque Country (Ignacio de Loyola, founder of the Jesuits was a Basque), Lezama attended a seminary in Madrid, was ordained as a priest in 1962 and became coadjutor of Chinchón, a 16th-century storybook town an hour southeast of Madrid with excellent typical Castilian restaurants and a remarkably picturesque town square that is converted into a bullring for summer bullfights.  

While co-adjutor in Chinchón, one day Lezama discovered sleeping under the portal of his church three young maletillas—impoverished bull bums, down-and-out young men who roamed the roads of Spain in the Franco era following the bullfight fiestas in the almost always vain hope of getting a chance to become a bullfighter (the famous so-called Beatle Bullfighter El Cordobés was a maletilla).   Padre Lezama decided to help them and soon befriended other maletillas to come.   

Lezama opened up his home in Chinchón to the maletillas as a place where they could get a bed and a meal.  Lezama worked with the maletillas and other poor young men, helping them to find employment and change their lives.    Soon he became known as El Cura de las Maletillas, "the priest of the bull bums."

“The maletillas took possession of my living quarters and of my life,” Lezama wrote in his book, La Taberna del Albardero

Once in Chinchón, during one of the bullfights in the Plaza Mayor that town is famous for, one of his protégés, El Bormujano, bravely challenged a big bull and impressed the crowd, but he was gored and carried bleeding out of the ring on a stretcher.  Lezama comforted El Bormujano as the doctor’s worked on his horn wound.  El Bormujano recovered—and eventually became an important part of Lezama’s restaurant team at La Taberna del Alabardero in Madrid and a life-long friend who is still with the Grupo Lezama—but that day that he was gored made a profound impression on Lezama.
Lezama gave numerous aspirant bullfighters food, shelter and encouragement and even drove them to bullfights.  Once he and El Bormujano rode the padre’s Vespa 14 hours to Sevilla and slept the first night on park benches in the Parque de María Luísa in a successful  attempt to get his torero his first formal appearance in a bullring, in Álcala de Guadaira, a town just outside Sevilla.  But realizing that the odds against achieving success as a bullfighter are enourmous, Lezama decided that he must find other work for his young wayward and usually homeless charges.  

The mayor of Chinchón*, who was displeased that Lezama was attracting so many down-and-out maletillas to his village, basically invited the priest to leave and take his bullfighters with him, so Lezama moved his scruffy band to one of the poorest barrios of Madrid, Vallecas, where he organized them into a group of paper, scrap metal, bottle and glass collectors for recycling and earned enough money for subsistence support of the young men from1965-1968. 

In 1968, in Vallecas, Padre Lezama founded the Albergue de la Juventud, a safe haven where he worked with young people until size limitations caused him to begin looking for another solution.  Lezama thought that a restaurant would provide jobs for the troubled young Vallecas albergue men, many of whom, besides the would-be bullfighters, were also homeless castoffs and delinquents.  Lezama hoped to channel their energies into gainful pursuits that would allow them to lead useful lives.  Teaching his charges how to earn a living by working as a restaurant professional seemed to mesh perfectly with Lezama’s philosophy of “don’t  give the poor fish, teach them to fish.”   
 
The albergue was the pre-cursor to the opening of La Taberna del Alabardero in Madrid.  In October 1974, Lezama indeed began to undergo a major life change.  For Lezama, a native of Almurrio and Bilbao in the food-loving Basque Country of northern Spain, opening a restaurant seemed a logical, if unorthodox way of achieving further his work in ministering to his flock of downtrodden young people.  He went from passing out communion hosts at mass to hosting a restaurant.  He obtained a bank loan, co-signed by a wealthy friend, and with no prior practical restaurant experience except for a one-year stint at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, he opened his first restaurant, La Taberna del Alabardero (Tavern of the Halberdier, or Palace Guard) in Madrid, just off the Plaza de Oriente, which faces the huge 18th-century baroque Palacio Real (the Royal Palace). 


Padre Luís de Lezama and Gerry Dawes at La Taberna del Alabardero, Madrid, 2006.

In yet another counterpoint for priest-restaurateur-maletilla patron Lezama, La Taberna del Alabardero is ensconced in a house purported to have been the home of a palace guard, whose wife was the lover of Spain’s King Alfonso XII in the late 19th century.  The opening of La Taberna was the year before Generalissimo Franco died.  Lezama foresaw the coming modernization of Spain and the advent of democracy as creating a business environment that called for new forward-looking ventures.  A comfortable, upscale restaurant with good, reasonably-priced, Basque-influenced food should be a natural gathering place for the busy area around the Palacio Real and the nearby Spanish Senado (Senate). 
 
“In the beginning, it was not easy,” Lezama said of the opening of La Taberna del Alabardero, “I started with 16 employees, most of the young men from the Albergue who had never held a job.  Many of them were marginal kids with a lot of problems, kids without a future, which was why I was working to help them.  Finally, I enlisted Francisco Pena, a restaurant professional and now the General Manager of La Taberna del Alabardero in Washington, D. C., to train them.  And I was on the phone regularly with two of the Basque Country’s greatest chefs, Juan Mari Arzak of Arzak in San Sebastián and Genarro Pildaín (the legendary bacalao maestro of Bilbao’s Guria restaurant).  They gave me a lot of good advice and were kind enough to take in some of my young people to train them at a time when the idea of stages were not so widely accepted as they are now.”    





Former New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller, Padre Luís de Lezama 
and Paco Pena, Director of La Taberna del Alabardero, Washington, DC 
at a James Beard Foundation dinner hosted by La Taberna in 2005.
 
Despite that problematic beginning, it is this diamond-in-the-rough “human capital,” as Lezama refers to the young people who work for him, that is responsible for the success of his  restaurant and hotel empire that now employs 700 people.   “From the beginning, my most important mission was to see that these unschooled young people got formal restaurant training.  I sent them to get experience in many of the best restaurants of Spain and France.  It has paid off and this human capital is the most important resource the Lezama Group has.”  



Camarero, La Taberna del Alabardero, Madrid.

Grupo Lezama now includes nearly 20 businesses, including the original La Taberna del Alabardero
(still going strong after 35 years) in Madrid; its nearby sibling, the highly regarded Café de Oriente with its modern cuisine restaurant-within-a-restaurant, El Aljibe in the centuries-old, brick-lined cellars of the Café; and the new seafood-and-arroces (rice dishes, paella) restaurant also on the Plaza del Oriente, La Mar del Alabardero.  Grupo Lezama also operates  El Obrador de Oriente (a specialty food store) alongside Madrid’s Teatro Real (royal theater), around the corner from the original Taberna del Alabardero.  

At either the original Taberna or the Café de Oriente in Madrid you are apt to see long-time patrons such as Spain’s former President Felipe González (who went under his clandestine name, Isidoro, when he was an habitué of La Taberna under the Franco regime, well before he was elected to run Spain), current Spanish cabinet ministers, Spanish senators, authors, artists and bullfighters.


The Lezama group also owns hotel and restaurant schools in Madrid and Sevilla.  El Club de La Playa Taberna Alabardero in Marbella (opened in 1975) and the Alabardero resort in Benahavis near Marbella, where he also has a restaurant in Puerto Banus and another hotel-and-restaurant school.     

La Taberna del Alabardero in Sevilla is in a 19th-century mansion that also houses the hotel and restaurant school and a ten-room hotel.   The La Taberna del Albardero restaurant is now rated by Spain’s Gourmetour Guide as one of Sevilla's top restaurants, only scant points behind the über-chef Ferran Adrià-coached restaurant, La Alquería, at the Hacienda Benazuza (in nearby Sanlúcar la Mayor).  

Lezama’s first American venture La Taberna del Alabardero, on 18th Street in Washington, D. C., which he says he opened because the capital needed a great upscale Spanish restaurant, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and has received numerous accolades from Washington publications.  Lezama says one of his great joys was seeing Alan Greenspan order calamares en su tinta (squid in ink sauce).   Last year, the Lezama Group branched out to open another American Taberna del Alabardero outpost in Seattle.


Also among Grupo Lezama myriad of enterprises are Hotel Miranda Suizo en San Lorenzo de Escorial (Madrid); Caserio Iruaritz (three oaks), a country hotel in a renovated, large, stone Basque family homestead in Lezama (Álava);  Arroz María, a new restaurant in Lisbon’s pleasure boat port and Mesa Real, which runs the dining rooms in the Royal Palace and the Spanish Senate.   Lezama, with his brother chef Patxi de Lezama, also ran La Carmencita, a popular stand-alone Madrid restaurant near in the back streets off the Gran Vía, one of Madrid’s most important thoroughfares.

And, for a number of years in the 1970s, Lezama had an award-winning religious radio program and he has also authored a number of books–his “Hablemos de Dios" (Let's Speak of God) is in its third printing. For more than thirty years, the indefatigable Lezama, was more apt to be found in a straight-laced business suit rather than wearing his collar, which he often donned to preside over mass in Chinchón many Sundays, to perform wedding ceremonies (he recently married Julio Iglesias and his long-time companion, the mother of five of his children in Marbella), to preside at christenings and funerals, and to bless the openings of new buildings and business ventures, some of them undoubtedly restaurants.




*A mural in the entryway of the atmospheric Café de la Iberia in Chinchón features Lezama, in his formal priestly robes (center), along with other habitués of the Café, town notables and historical figures.   Chinchón, famous for its production of anís licor and garlic, awarded Lezama the “Ajo de Oro” (Golden Garlic Award) and named him an adopted son of the pueblo.
All photographs by Gerry Dawes©2010.

For most of the past three decades, the indefatigable Lezama was more apt to be found in a straight-laced business suit rather than wearing his priestly collar, although he was known to carry his priest’s collar stashed in a suit pocket and continued to don the cloth and perform the duties of a priest.  


Padre Luís de Lezama at the Madrid Fusión International Gastronomic Summit.
Photo by Gerry Dawes.

“Many would like to have seen more of me in church, a place where others never come to visit me,” Lezama wrote in his book Taberna del Alabardero: Historias y Recetas de mi Taberna (Histories and Recipes from my Tavern / PPC, Madrid 1995).

Still, all during his career as a restaurateur, Lezama could often be found saying Mass in Chinchón and other churches, presiding over christenings and funerals, performing wedding ceremonies—including the recent wedding in Marbella of Julio Iglesias and Miranda Rijnsburger, his long-time companion and the mother of five of his children--and blessing the openings of new buildings and business ventures, some of them undoubtedly restaurants.

  
After being a restaurateur and part-time priest for more than 30 years, a few years ago Lezama set up a board of directors to handle the day-to-day affairs of the Grupo Lezama and went into semi-retirement.  We say “semi-retirement” since Lezama went back to being a full-time priest at the Montecarmelo parish in Northwest Madrid and has already been responsible for building a new Catholic school associated with the parish for 1,500 students.  

Nevertheless, he can still be found most days having lunch or dinner in one of his Madrid restaurants, the original Taberna del Alabardero or Café de Oriente, when he is not traveling to Sevilla, Marbella, the Basque Country or Washington, D.C. to check up on his establishments there. And one is apt to see him dining with the friends such as Julio Iglesias, Plàcido Domingo or former President Felipe Gonzàlez.  Lezama says one of his greatest joys at La Taberna del Alabardero in Washington, D.C. was seeing Alan Greenspan order calamares en su tinta (squid in ink sauce).

Luís de Lezama in a light-hearted, off-duty moment in New York.

Padre Lezama has written seven books the colorful anecdote-and recipe-filled Taberna del Alabardero: Historias y Recetas de mi Taberna (Histories and Recipes from my Tavern / PPC, Madrid 1995) and Hablemos de Díos, which is in its third printing. He has also written several novels, including La Rosa de David, in which one of the characters is based on former New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller, who once was a student in Salamanca.

 

 
The gyspy hierro cattle brand that became the logo for the Grupo Lezama.


The gyspy hierro cattle brand that the students in Granada gave him is one of the most treasured momentos of Lezama’s life.  It so affected him that he used it as the logo for Grupo Lezama, his ever-growing string of restaurants, hotels and hotel-and-restaurant schools.   Staffers, cooks, waiters and maitre’ds who complete ten years in Lezama’s restaurant, hotel and hotel-and-restaurant school group receive a pin whose design is taken from that gypsy brand that not only changed the priest life, it has changed the lives of the hundreds of young people who have been transformed by working in the Padre's tabernas.


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