Traditional dishes, landmark tapas bars, vermouth on tap and Spanish pickles were just a few of the things on the frenetic gastronomic agenda of this New York chef in Madrid.
Eldridge Betts (C-CAP), Óscar Velasco (Santceloni) and Jonah Miller (right) at Santceloni restaurant in Madrid
In 2008, a young man from New York named Jonah Miller ventured to Spain for the first time to spend a semester studying Spanish language, history and culture, while living on a well-known Madrid street named Calle Huertas. Today, if you put the names "Jonah Miller" and "Huertas" together in any search engine, or in the presence of a Spanish food-loving New Yorker, you will be bombarded with news about his popular Manhattan restaurant, Huertas, which opened three years ago in the city's East Village.
This hip, casual eatery serves up a selection of pintxos and raciones, including familiar Spanish dishes like patatas bravas, tortilla española, huevos rotos, albóndigas and croquetas, as well as beloved Spanish ingredients like Manchego cheese, membrillo (quince paste), Serrano ham, piquillo peppers and chorizo. It also stands out for its vermouth on tap and selection of Spanish conservas (top-quality canned fish and shellfish).
Incidentally, Huertas was also the site of a February 28th presentation of the names of seven young American chefs who would be travelling to Madrid this past spring as part of culinary internship program organized by Olesay and the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), and sponsored by the government of the Community of Madrid. As an added bonus of this program, Jonah Miller made an appearance in Madrid during its final week, where he devoted four days to getting his fill of Spanish gastronomy on Spanish soil for the first time since 2012. He also spent an afternoon in the kitchen of one of this city's most iconic restaurants, two-Michelin-starred Santceloni.
Foods and Wines from Spain talked to Jonah about Huertas, this whirlwind trip, and particularly where and what he ate and drank for inspiration in the Spanish capital. Here’s what he had to say:
In such a short visit to Madrid, what were some of your goals in terms of seeing and eating things while you were here?
After my trip in 2012, it took more than a year to open Huertas, so this was my first chance to eat and drink in Madrid and then return to my restaurant with the ability to experiment and add new dishes immediately. I was very interested in drinking “vermut del grifo,” in Madrid, as we serve tap vermouth at Huertas, but I’d never had it in Madrid before (I never really knew what it was during my previous visits). I’ve also never had the opportunity to “stage,” in a restaurant in Spain, let alone one with two Michelin stars, so it was a great opportunity to experience modern Spanish cooking from behind the scenes.
Was there any dish or restaurant that you remembered from your previous time in Madrid that you were dying to revisit or taste again?
One of the dishes that we’ve gotten the most press for at Huertas is our take on “Huevos Rotos,” but really I’ve only had it two or three times in Spain, so it was great to have that again (at Casa Lucio). I wanted to try a few places known for their tortilla to see how our version compares (Bodega La Ardosa, Casa Dani in Mercado de la Paz) and also eat churros. I don’t have a sweet tooth, so I rarely ate churros when I lived in Spain, but now we serve them at Huertas, so I wanted to make sure we were doing a good job. Generally, I tried to avoid places I’ve been before – it’s so tempting to go back, but I want to explore the spots I’ve never been to!
What other restaurants did you go to while you were here? Any impressions?
Lots! El Doble, Sala de Despiece, Casa Camacho, Taberna Angel Sierra, La Tasquería de Javi Estevez, La Venencia, Los Asturianos, Santceloni, Casa Revuelta, El Anciano Rey de los Vinos, Casa Toni, Chocolatería San Gines and Casa Alberto
I really enjoy the old-school spots. For me, they are more applicable then modern Spanish [restaurants] because our food at Huertas is more influenced by tradition. Really, the food we serve is more traditionally Spanish than what is being served in the modern creative restaurants of Madrid. The creativity of the food and the service at Sala de Despiece was definitely a highlight. La Tasquería was also great to see because I think it’s similar to Huertas in that it’s ambitious, but somewhat casual – we’re not going for Michelin stars.
At Santceloni, they fed me almost the entire menu in the kitchen, with a couple of glasses of wine – all of which were really amazing. I tried a dessert wine from Galicia, “Alma de Reboreda,” that was really unique and delicious.
How would you describe the type of Spanish cuisine that you serve at Huertas?
Greenmarket Spanish. In New York and the USA generally, “greenmarket” (the outdoor markets in cities where local farmers come to sell their product directly to restaurants and home cooks) has come to signify a larger approach to cooking that puts ingredients, seasonal cooking and often simplicity first. We cook a lot of classic dishes, but we find ways to lighten them (Spanish food can tend to be very heavy) and we change our menu to match the seasons in New York.
Did you pick up any new techniques, products or inspirations in Madrid to take back to Huertas with you? Like what?
I had forgotten how many different pickles you see. That’s something that is very trendy in New York, to serve many different styles of pickles, but sometimes we avoid that in order to not seem “too New York,” and not Spanish enough. Likewise, smoked salmon is so common in Spain, which makes me want to serve it at Huertas.
We’ve sometimes served “Gambas al Ajillo,” here, but it’s been a while since we’ve had it on the menu. We’ve toyed with the technique of bringing it to the table raw and having the server pour hot oil over it. I liked the approach at Casa Lucio – they added shrimp to the hot garlic and chili oil in the kitchen at the last second, covered the cazuela (clay dish) with a plate, and the server brought it to the table, removed the plate and stirred it the rest of the way to cook it. I brought back about 10 bottles of red vermouth for my staff to try and to pour for our VIP guests.
What are some of your favorite Spanish products to work with?
We use a ton of Spanish octopus (about 90 pounds/week) and only use Spanish olive oils and vinegar. We are one of the few restaurants in New York that serves conservas – which I love. We use a lot of Guindilla peppers and Manzanilla olives. Marcona almonds are always in one or two dishes on the menu. I love to cook with Amontillado sherry, I think it gives a nutty sweetness and depth so many dishes.
Are there any products in Spain that you would love to work with back in New York but that are still hard to find?
Fortunately, in the last ten years we’ve seen so many new Spanish products being imported – it feels like a new importer or distributor stops by Huertas every week, so we can find almost anything. One exception is the fresh produce. Most of the year, it’s hard to find Padrón peppers and I’ve never seen fresh piparras [peppers] here. It can also be difficult to find the diversity of seafood – we get most of the varieties of shrimp and prawns (frozen), but not all the different types of clams. We used to sometimes get percebes [goose-neck barnacles] from one of our suppliers, but I think they have a hard time selling enough of them to import.
What was your experience like at Santceloni?
I had a very nice (and luxurious) time there. I was able to spend a couple hours prepping (butchering some pigeon, suckling pig, lamb legs) with two young cooks (one from Toledo and the other Segovia) and enjoyed chatting with them about what it was like to work there. During lunch service, I was able to both move around and observe service as well as taste most of the menu.