Danny Lledó, a Michelin-starred chef raised on Spain’s ‘gamba roja de Dénia’, has never wavered in his journey to be the first to bring the prized shrimp to American diners.
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IIt was impossible to miss the prawns. I had made my way to the seafood section of Mercado Central, the main market in the port city of Valencia, Spain. Immediately my senses were overwhelmed by the smell of the sea emanating from the glistening piles of fish and clams on the beds of ice. Among them, a patch of red shrimp stood out like a bright red beacon.
Each was the length of a human palm, with a luminous shell, a burgundy head, and a fiery sunset of a tail. A small sign revealed that they were Red prawns from Dénia, named after the fishing village where the prawns come from. Hypnotized, I asked the salesman how much they cost, and my jaw dropped when she revealed the price. During the peak summer season, shrimp sell for $40 each, making them the most expensive in the world.
A sweet and sweet story
I was in Valencia to meet star chef Danny Lledó, who grew up eating joyas rojas (“red jewels”) straight out of his uncle’s fishing boat. As we sat at a local restaurant, Lledó shared his childhood memories of looking forward to his uncle coming ashore – if there was a good catch, he could look forward to a special dinner tonight -the.
Decades later, when he opened his restaurant Xiquet DL in Washington, DC, Lledó was determined to create a menu that would honor his beloved hometown. It meant doing something no chef had ever done: bringing the rare Dénia prawn to America.
I wondered: What makes these shrimp so special?
“There’s a surprising sweetness to the head,” Lledó told me. “If you go slightly north, you will find the same species living in colder waters. But you won’t get the same sweet flavor in your head as the warmer waters of my hometown.
I looked at my small plate, which contained my first Dénia prawn, while Lledó showed me how to rip the head off and squeeze the brown and pink juices. I slowly savored a bite, captivated by the flavors: a concentration of salt and iodine that gave it a remarkably marine taste and yes, a pronounced sweetness.
About this award
There’s a reason I’ve never heard of those red jewels. Historically they were only sold near the port city and they are extremely hard to find. Only prawns caught in the 80 miles of Balearic Sea that stretch from Dénia to the island of Ibiza have that deliciously sweet head. As a result, only four or five commercial vessels are allowed to fish in this limited area. Although prawns can be purchased year-round, the size of the transport fluctuates considerably.
“I saw boats going out and coming back, and none of them caught a single shrimp,” Lledó recalls.
After leaving Dénia, Lledó became a chef, honing his craft in Spanish restaurants including Cafe Atlántico, Jaleo and MiniBar by José Andrés. At each location he tried to persuade his bosses to import and serve Dénia prawn but could not convince them that it was worth the price and hassle. (Gourmet restaurants tend to buy the well-known Prawns from Palamosfound in waters near Barcelona and the Costa Brava.)
In 2013 Lledó moved to the United States, and in 2019 he became the sole owner of DC’s Slate Wine Bar. The following year he opened his Valencian restaurant Xiquet above. Finally, he was ready to fulfill his decades-long dream and prove to American diners that his hometown red shrimp deserved the title of the best in the world.
From the Spanish sea to the American table
Straight away, Lledó encountered choppy waters. It took him months to find a reliable importer and convince Dénia fishermen to sell the prawns to someone based in America.
“They are usually not available to anyone else,” he said, explaining that the limited catch was traditionally promised to long-time buyers in Spain. Lledó had to earn their trust, which he did through his connection to his hometown and his uncle’s heritage, and accurately determine the timing and order quantities to stay within budget.
“I couldn’t buy all summer because the price was so high due to increased tourism resulting from the pandemic,” he said.
After much trial and error, a shipment of shrimp from Dénia has arrived in America for the first time. In May 2021, Lledó added the decapods to the Xiquet tasting menu so that every diner could try one at no extra cost. He chose to present them as simply as possible because “the beautiful thing is that there is very little to do”, he said. “You can either boil the prawns in seawater for a more cocktail experience, or sauté them with olive oil and sea salt.”
To the chef’s delight, his customers were amazed. “They could really make a difference,” he says. “It was something they had never tasted before.” The 2021 Michelin Guide inspectors were equally enthusiastic about Lledó’s vision and awarded it a star.
Xiquet remains the only restaurant in America to serve Dénia red prawns. However, as a restaurateur who aspires to perfection, Lledó feels his journey is far from over. He returned to his hometown in November 2021, intending to find even bigger ones this time and have more available to customers.
“I feel proud and lucky to be able to share Dénia’s gamba roja with my guests,” he said. “Partly because it’s Spain’s most beloved prawn, but also because of the bond it creates with my family’s hometown.”
Although he now lives halfway around the world, Lledó has found a heartfelt way to stay connected to the flavors of his childhood.
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