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The Story of Luís de Lezama, a Basque Priest,
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.
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.”
Photograph by Gerry Dawes
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.