A Catalan’s struggle

Gerard Curto Rodríguez standing in Hanna’s bar, Epocha restaurant, Carlton. Photo: Lewis de Zoete
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Chef Gerard Curto Rodríguez has watched from afar the harsh response to moves in his native Catalonia to break away from Spain. Lewis de Zoete reports.

He says he was promised an easier life, shorter hours, better pay and conditions, the chance to improve his English and gain experience. But what he found when he arrived in Australia was the opposite.

Gerard Curto Rodríguez hails from a village on the east coast of Catalonia called Sant Carles de la Ràpita.

He trained as a chef at the University of Girona, Barcelona, before working at some of Catalonia’s finest restaurants, including El Celler de Can Roca, which topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2013 and received three Michelin stars.

While working in Barcelona, a former colleague offered Mr Rodríguez a job in Australia.

“He promises me an easy 20-hour week … and within two days of arriving in Australia I’d have a job. It wasn’t a 20-hour week, more like 50 hours.”

Mr Rodríguez says the kitchen conditions were atrocious.

“Potatoes? Frozen. Fish? Frozen. He wasn’t even cooking the paellas in the right kind of pan. They had more microwaves than chefs. I was supposed to be here for six months.”

Since Mr Rodríguez arrived in Australia in April 2016 he has been working his way through better restaurants, while still keeping up with the political situation unfolding in his hometown.

In October 2017, an independence referendum was held, asking whether Catalans wanted Catalonia to break away from Spain to become a republic.

The Spanish police intervened to try to close polling booths, with hundreds of civilians and police injured in the process.

“I was in Melbourne when the referendum happened,” Mr Rodríguez recalls. “I was following the whole thing from my friends on WhatsApp.

“In my home town, it started as a party, not to get drunk or festive action but to stop the police from closing the polls.

“Normally when you turn on the TV it’s people you don’t know, but when I was watching the TV it was people I knew.

“Before, the difference between Spain and Catalonia was bigger, but nowadays it’s more about political things, not about the society…We all felt like [the politicians] were abusing their powers.”

This sentiment is shared by Spanish-born social worker Lilian Zuniga, who works for the Spanish Community Care Association in Melbourne.

Spanish consulate gates, Elgin Street. Photo: Lewis de Zoete

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The backlash from Spain really drove the independence movement,” Ms Zuniga says. “The biggest difference is the language, but we’re all bilingual, so it’s never an issue.”

Ms Zuniga says people opposing Catalan independence are a minority who don’t really understand the issue.

Although the political climate in Catalonia is “a mess”, Mr Rodriguez has found his home in Australia. “For now, I’m happy.”