Words Marisa Cutillas, Photography El Lago
Words Marisa Cutillas, Photography El Lago

Fernando Villasclaras, Chef of Michelin-starred restaurant, El Lago, could very well have ended up in the marketing industry had it not been for a trip to Liverpool, which he undertook when he was just 20. “I decided to live in the UK to improve my English, since I had studied marketing and I knew that it would be necessary for my career. While I was there, I realised that I didn’t want to be eating fast food all day, so I learned how to cook.”

In reality, Fernando, who hails from Nerja, had always been inspired by the home-cooked flavours and aromas of the traditional dishes prepared by his grandmothers. However, during his stay in England, he took up work as a dishwasher and kitchen assistant before studying to become a chef.

“I’ve always had a palate for good food, but when I returned to Spain, I enrolled in the cookery school in Benahavís,” he says. After obtaining his official certification, he honed his craft at a myriad of prestigious establishments, including 1870 (Chef Aitor Perurana’s celebrated restaurant in San Pedro), Mugaritz (under the guiding hand of Andoni Luis Aduriz), and Sollun in Nerja (whose Chef, Juan Quintanilla, was his first ‘maestro’).

His chance to shine at a Michelin-starred establishment came when he was contacted by El Lago after their Chef, Juan José Carmona amicably parted ways with the restaurant. Fernando tells me, “At the time, I was the chef of a restaurant in Alcuzcuz, on the Ronda road. I was attracted to the place because it was beautifully decorated. The lower floor had a décor shop and the upper level had been converted by the owners, who were members of the Spanish aristocracy. They opened a small restaurant serving a myriad of vegetable dishes made with produce grown in their own garden.”

This was a big learning experience for Fernando, who gleaned how to live in accordance with the principles of nature. “Throughout the seasons, I would visit the garden to harvest produce. There are little tricks you pick up along the way. For instance, the zucchini flower is best picked in the morning. The key is to prepare and present produce in its freshest state.”

Looking back on this special stage in his life, Fernando feels that the restaurant was very much ahead of its time. “Today, there are many options for signature vegetarian cuisine but back then finding a place that served freshly grown fruits and vegetables was quite difficult.”

He remembers that when he was called by El Lago in February 2020, he accepted their proposal without batting an eyelid, knowing that this stalwart on Marbella’s gastronomic scene shared his same passion for creative, fine cuisine made with zero-kilometer ingredients. “I simply carried on with what I was doing and was given carte-blanche to create my own menu. By that stage, I had 10 years of experience behind me, and I was already familiar with the demands of a Michelin-starred establishment.”

At El Lago, Fernando’s tasting menu changes every day, as it is totally dependent on the availability of ingredients. “My dishes are very natural. Diners understand what they are eating because the flavour is there and the produce we use is organic.”

The 14 dishes on the tasting menu are representative of Andalucía. Just a few items you might find include a beet and strawberry porra – “a typical Andalusian dish made with organic strawberries grown in Huelva.” Another highly in-demand choice is the grilled crayfish gazpachuelo, with its appealing spring-inspired colours. The Chef additionally prepares a to-die-for sashimi made with salmonete and smoked rosemary. As for meat dishes, the chivo de Málaga is a top choice if you’re after the perfect blend of taste and tenderness.

The dishes are healthy and fresh, with many containing an abundance of vegetables. The desserts are light and bear no or very little gluten or lactose. One dessert, for instance, is made of ‘huevo de toro’ tomato, English custard, tomato foam, and cane honey from Frigiliana.

El Lago also has an à la carte menu for those opting for a quicker meal. Whichever you choose, expect to feel energised and on top of the world instead of sluggish. In Fernando’s view, creativity, artistry, and taste make the perfect companions to good health.