Maria Marte migrated to Spain in 2003 and started washing dishes in a Madrid restaurant. She stayed despite the economic crisis and is now a head chef with two Michelin stars to her name. Guy Hedgecoe reports.
Maria Marte is delicately spooning a smooth parsley sauce from a blender into a bowl, in preparation for one of the most exclusive meals money can buy in the Spanish capital. In a couple of hours, lunch will be served at the Club Allard, the Michelin-starred restaurant run by this Dominican chef. Nicknamed the "kitchen Cinderella" due to her extraordinary journey to the top of her profession, Marte never forgets her beginnings.
"I come from a very humble family," she says, remembering her hometown of Jarabacoa. "My mother always used to tell me: 'you have to work hard if you want to eat, you've got to work hard.'" She adds: "I'm the living proof that if somebody wants something, they can achieve it."
Having arrived in Spain in 2003, in the middle of its decade-long economic boom, she has stayed despite the economic crisis which has hit the country over the last seven years.
The Spanish dream
An estimated five million migrants came to Spain between the late 1990s and 2008, when a property bubble drove a period of unprecedented growth. As well as Moroccans and eastern Europeans, many, like Marte, were Latin Americans. But after the bubble burst and the unemployment rate soared from 8 percent in 2006 to 26 percent in 2013, many returned to their countries, their Spanish dream in tatters.
Last year, over 400,000 people left Spain, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE), a figure that includes Spanish nationals seeking prospects abroad. Of that figure, 65,000 were foreigners.
"We Dominicans have returned home [from Spain] much less than other immigrants, we stay and fight," says Marte. "We have the faith and confidence that things here will get better."
Marte arrived in Madrid at the age of 24, dreaming of an economic stability that her native Dominican Republic could not provide. An extra incentive was the fact her son was already living in the city, but the move meant leaving behind her three-year-old twins. It soon paid off when she got a job cleaning the kitchen and washing dishes at the Club Allard restaurant in central Madrid.
"At that time Spain seemed like a great opportunity," she remembers. "To be able to leave the Dominican Republic and get into Spain - which wasn't easy - and get in legally and be able to stay here and get the job I got was a huge opportunity for me or for anyone."
A meteoric rise
Soon after starting the job, she asked the head chef, Diego Guerrero, if she could try preparing food. He eventually agreed, but on the condition that she continued with her cleaning duties. Marte's parents had worked as caterers and she had some experience of cooking, but it was a steep learning curve. For three months, she worked at the restaurant from 9.30 a.m. until 2 a.m., until Guerrero recognized her potential.
"After three months of cleaning and cooking, they said: 'This woman can cook, we need someone else to do the cleaning,'" she recalls. "That was one of the happiest days of my life."
By 2006, she had risen to become Guerrero's second-in-command. The restaurant earned its first Michelin star in 2007, followed by a second in 2011.
When Guerrero left in 2013, Marte was promoted to replace him and she immediately set about putting her own stamp on the restaurant, hiring her own staff and introducing her own Caribbean-inflected recipes. She made history the following year with the Club Allard becoming the first restaurant ever to retain its Michelin stars despite a change of chef. In May she received the National Gastronomy Prize.
A Latin idol
Marte's glittering reputation was highlighted earlier this year when she appeared with other leading chefs on MasterChef, a TV program in which amateur cooks compete with each other. One of the participants, a Paraguayan woman called Sally Caballero, admired Marte so much that she broke down in tears on meeting her. "I'm also Latin American, like Maria I came here looking for a better life for my daughter - I see myself in her," she said, between sobs.
Now reunited in Madrid with her twins, Marte and her staff are pursuing the holy grail of gastronomy: a third Michelin star.
Meanwhile, the Spanish economy is recovering, as can be seen from the flurry of bookings the Club Allard takes every day from high-end diners. And yet, many immigrants are still returning to their home countries having failed to find financial stability in Spain. Marte recognizes that she is an exception to this tendency.
"Some people call me the 'kitchen Cinderella,'" she says, as she looks across the busy kitchen has that changed her life. "I don't consider myself a kitchen Cinderella, I'm just someone who battles and works hard, who emigrated with a dream and that dream has become a reality, thanks to God."