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Exploring the Spanish art of jamón carving with the first Filipino master carvers

Michael and Mark Lopez carved a niche for themselves in Spain then eventually ended up carving jamón for celebrities and high-profile chefs around the world

The Lopez brothers have never been the kind of people to shy away from a challenge.

Michael in particular had a knack for absorbing everything his new surroundings have been showing him since moving to Madrid in 1993 and then working as a waiter at then Mesón Cinco Jotas (now called Restaurante Cinco Jotas) in 2000. When the restaurant’s Maestro Cortador De Jamón (master carver) Pedro Seco saw potential in the older Lopez, it was clear to him that this move was taking him into a distinct direction that he didn’t think was possible in the first place

“He trained me and assigned me to take over for him during his days off,” says Michael. “After a few months, Cinco Jotas—arguably the best in the jamón industry that has been operating since 1879—deployed me to a different restaurant branch and made me the Maestro Cortador De Jamón there.” His younger brother Mark followed suit in 2002, training under Antonio Vara before eventually being assigned to his own branch.

“In 2003, I received my Maestro Cortador certificate after Cinco Jotas sent me for training at their headquarters in Jabugo. Mark got his certificate in 2007. During the training, we carved jamón all day and were exposed to the entire production process of jamón ibérico de bellota deemed as the Beluga caviar of hams.”

That being said, Michael says that there isn’t a standard period of how and when an apprentice can achieve mastery of the art.

Mark and Michael Lopez

“It depends on the person, kapag may ‘kamay’ ka madali kang matuto. For me, within a month, nakita na may potential ako to carve a ham. Ngayon na-try ko rin ‘yan since nagturo din ako, may mga taong isang beses mo lang turuan, matututo na.”

In their case, Michael and Mark learned carving and all the different techniques and skills that come with it within six or seven months. “Mabilis na ‘yun. That time at Cinco Jotas I was carving two to three legs every day [because they were selling so many hams]. That was our practice. You wouldn’t be able to do that in a restaurant that would only sell two to three plates of ham.”

In addition, not everyone has the ability to be a master carver given the natural feel required to adroitly strip the leg down to the bone. “‘Yung younger brother namin tinuturuan namin, hindi talaga matuto,” says Michael. 

The brothers’ story could have fit perfectly in a Netflix food documentary with its striking highs and punchy plot that involve carving jamón for celebrities like Penelope Cruz and Julio Iglesias and high-profile chefs such as Pedro Subijana, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, Joan Roca, and Jordi Cruz, and even demonstrating their skills at major sporting events like the Union of European Football Associations Champions League since 2013.

The brothers’ story could have fit perfectly in a Netflix food documentary with its striking highs and punchy plot that involve carving jamón for celebrities like Penelope Cruz and Julio Iglesias and high-profile chefs such as Pedro Subijana, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, Joan Roca, and Jordi Cruz, and even demonstrating their skills at major sporting events like the Union of European Football Associations Champions League since 2013.

But the brothers are equally more than happy to establish their presence in the Philippines and take a bold new direction in the business they have created for themselves, Maestro Cortador Filipino. “We want to share the art of appreciating jamón with our fellow Filipinos. And this gives us a reason to come home more often,” says Michael.

What is a Maestro Cortador De Jamón?

Maestro Cortador De Jamón means jamón master carver. In the same manner that Japan has its sushi chefs, Spain has its jamón master carvers. It is the master carver’s job to make sure that the jamón is served properly so that every bite will be fully appreciated. Carving a jamón requires impeccable knife skills and precision, which takes years to develop. And since the jamón is very expensive, it is also the master carver’s job to optimize its consumption and put every morsel on the plate.

How is your business doing in Spain?

We already have roughly 100 event bookings for 2019. Aside from Mark and I, we have three other master carvers in our pool. Social media helped in growing our business because events that serve jamón but do not have a master carver are being criticized, so more people are hiring master carvers now.

How does your business work?

You can hire us just for the carving service or you can just buy jamón from us. Or you can avail of both. In 2015, we added ‘Selección Privada’ to our name. It was then that we started with our Cinco Jotas Private Selection, meaning, we personally inspect the quality of each Cinco Jotas jamón ibérico de bellota that we provide to our clients.

Jamon iberico de Cebo

What makes the jamón ibérico de bellota special?

The quality of the jamón is based on the breed and origin of the pig, how the pig was raised, what the pig was fed, and the curing period. In Spain, the jamón ibérico de bellota is considered a treasure. It is much revered and handled with respect. It comes from 100 percent black Iberian pig found in the village of Jabugo, grown free-range, acorn-fed, and cured for a minimum of 36 months. The supply of jamón ibérico de bellota is limited because the availability is also dependent on the weather, if it doesn’t rain and acorns don’t grow, then they cannot produce the jamón. Its taste is an intense nutty flavor, it is sweet and salty like buttered almond. And it lingers in the mouth. 

One jamón is good for how many persons?

Our jamón weighs seven to eight kilograms, which is good for a maximum of 120 persons.

What is the proper way of storing unopened jamón?

Keep in a cool, dry place with temperature of 19 to 21 degrees Celsius. But do not put in the refrigerator or freezer. Also, the jamón needs to breathe so do not wrap it in plastic.

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