Spanish culinary talent flourishes in the Big Apple
New York, a city where Spanish gastronomy is succeeding. Image: Shutterstock
Although in Spain there hasn’t been much noise about their work, a chefs regiment in New York has become one of the most influential group of ambassadors for Marca España and the food and wines from Spain.
It’s a boom many have been working for since long ago. Even José Andrés, Spanish cuisine’s most prominent face in the United States, who entered this country via New York in 1990, a metropolis where he worked at El Cid, El Dorado Petit and Paradis Barcelona, prior to moving forward and opening a suitcase of culinary dreams that launched a new era for the foods from Spain in America.
Those were just some of the popular Spanish names in New York City’s dining scene back then. A panorama where traditional cuisine and the classical ambiance welcomed expats and those interested in Spain’s very ethnic savors.
In the past decade, though, the international exposure of Spanish cuisine, fostered by Ferran Adrià’s culinary revolution, ignited a contagious fever which made New Yorkers more and more interested in the food and wines from Spain, thus taking them from their initial ethnic entourage to a new path that appears to bring them mainstream.
This has not been accidental, but the result of hard work years of Spain’s official promotional efforts in the Big Apple led by the country’s New York Trade Office, and of Spanish and non-Spanish chefs and entrepreneurs living in the city, with a passion for the taste of Spain, and the strong desire to communicate it and make it a worthwhile business model.
This army of culinary ambassadors has grown larger as Spanish restaurants have begun to proliferate, and concepts as tapas, churros or paella have notably expanded, thanks to their talent and a noteworthy exposure in American media which has converted them into an incipient gastronomic force to be reckoned with.
A new era
In a recent article for Spain’s Club de Gourmets magazine, New York-based Spanish journalist and wine educator Helio San Miguel explained how this Spanish cuisine revival started in 2004 with the opening of Tía Pol, a tapas bar where American born Mani Dawes partnered with Heather Belz and Argentinean Chef Alex Raij. This, as other similar establishments, was born out of the Spanish travel and living experience of its owners, which made them familiar with and passionate about Spanish cuisine.
This ladies’ trio also opened a second restaurant, El Quinto Pino, but later Chef Raij decided to undertake her own route, partnering with her husband-to-be in the opening of their own place, Txikito. Having retained El Quinto Pino, Raij opened a third locale. La Vara, while Dawes pursued her wine interests and opened Tinto Fino, a Spanish wine bar.
“Ours is a world class cuisine that generates interest not only in New York, but in many other places too. One of the best things is that not only Spanish chefs are opening Spanish restaurants; others as American Seamus Mullen or Ecuadorian-American José Garcés, are opening them as well,” declared Spanish Chef Jesús Núñez, Corporate Chef of Quimeria, a restaurant group that owns Spanish restaurant Barraca and Mediterranean Melibea, both of which have received rave reviews in US media.
Núñez, the passionate and provocative artist-chef, arrived in New York some four years ago from his native Madrid, where he started combining flavors, textures and street-art style to perform creations that lead to new sensorial directions. In New York, he opened avant-garde restaurant concepts as Graffit or Gastroarte, and even appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef, where he had a very well rated performance and has been the only Spanish chef, in addition to José Andrés, to compete.
Discovering Spanish cuisine
According to Núñez, highly modern Spanish cuisine is still difficult to sell in New York because Americans lack a good base of traditional Spanish cuisine, which they are just beginning to discover.
"New York diners are simply looking for food that tastes delightful, and typically Spanish concepts as paella and tapas,” he tells. This is why Spanish professionals have focused on offering genuine Spanish food executed with premium Spanish ingredients to help build those Spanish references in the American palates and help them understand much better Spanish cuisine, culture and lifestyle. This may explain why Spanish restaurants in the city still don’t reflect the dramatic evolution level Spanish cuisine has accomplished in Spain.
“We must understand the American palate. I can create the best pollo al chilindrón, but Americans understand chicken differently because their references are fried chicken or buffalo wings. We must therefore try to bring our Spanish concepts closer to their own memories so that our creations somehow remind them of the flavors they are familiar with, like relating barbecue to smoked pimentón. Spaniards have the references that help them understand and enjoy innovative interpretations of our food, but we still need to make Americans build their own canvas of Spanish flavors, so that they can identify them in ways similar to how they recognize other world tastes. It’s a matter of time,” reasons the chef, who in Barraca now offers a more traditional menu, executed with impeccable technique.
American- or Spanish-born chefs?
Traditional cuisine is what also inspires Manuel Berganza, Executive Chef of Andanada 141, another exponent of Spanish flair in New York. He arrived there months ago, with a professional development aspiration of expanding the horizons of the solid culinary career he had in Madrid. At Andanada 141 Berganza offers what American diners seek, typical Spanish stuff, but also some creative recipes.
“Spanish cooks in New York are now younger and better trained, with a broader gastronomic culture and a desire to innovate stronger than that of those who preceded us, who arrived in the city and simply began working in a kitchen and cooking what they knew, a simple cuisine with strong cultural roots,” Berganza points out.
Interestingly enough, the recent passion for Spanish cuisine has been kindled by non-Spanish chefs and entrepreneurs. One of this has been French Yann de Rochefort, who opened Boqueria and other tapas restaurants. Boqueria, now led by Marc Vidal, was the platform for American Seamus Mullen, who had lived and worked in Spain and after leaving this restaurant opened Tertulia, a tapas bar inspired in traditional Asturian flavors which has become a NYC favorite. Two other popular Spanish restaurants are Casa Mono and Bar Jamón, owned by Italian Chef Mario Batali, who years ago starred with actress Gwyneth Paltrow in the TV series, “Spain: On the Road Again.”
Spanish-born chefs don’t make a distinction of nationality based on the origin of chefs leading restaurants devoted to Spanish gastronomy. They consider part of their collective everyone who respects it and feels it close to their hearts.
Among the Spanish indispensables, Socarrat, owned by Lolo Manso and directed by José Menéndez; Jennifer Cole’s La Mujer Gala; Salinas, with Luis Bollo at the helmet; Macondo, directed by Josep Coronado; Alberto Astudillo in charge of the day-to-day operations of Barraca; and Alex Raij’s Txikito, La Vara and El Quinto Pino. But there are many others that serve regional Spanish specialties and have been in business many years, being instrumental in the appreciation of Spanish cuisine in a market as difficult as New York’s.
In this sense, Spanish chefs are grateful for the support American media has offered their culinary projects because this allowed people to learn about their work and helped them start building a reputation in a very large city. Publications as The New York Times, Zagat, Eater, networks as CNN, Food Network and many others have been key in this effort.
This interest has had repercussions in the appreciation of Spanish ingredients, which owe much to Spanish chefs in New York. Olive oil is on top of the list, followed by pork products, saffron, cheeses, pimentón, bomba rice and Spanish wines, which are now easier to find in the city because of the appearance of new importers and stores.
Learning to sell Spanish talent
Spanish chefs do participate in many city and state culinary events, including those of the James Beard Foundation. Some work on prospect appearances in international culinary events as Star Chefs Congress and hope they can also have a greater role in culinary programs in the academia. Instituto Cervantes, with a stellar Spanish wine program, also plans to strengthen ties with the Spanish chefs’ community in the city.
For a city with a population of millions, still not many Spanish chefs have prominent leadership positions in the city’s restaurants. Their number, though, is increasing throughout culinary brigades. Language is not considered a problem because most kitchens in New York speak Spanish due to the great number of Hispanic workers.
One of the biggest challenges of Spanish cuisine in America is precisely to make the market distinguish its individuality, as Spain’s is often considered part of the big block of Latin American cuisines that speak Spanish, and so are Spanish ingredients.
Spanish chefs in New York City are currently working in the launching of SPAIÑYC, a professional organization where they will join forces as a collective to promote Spanish gastronomy in the Big Apple.
“We must keep struggling to maintain our roots, our flavors, our products, and also to learn the ins and outs of New York’s dining scene, the language, its culture and palate,” declares Núñez.
He and Berganza believe there is a promissory future for Spanish chefs in New York, as there is a boom stimulating many new Spanish restaurant openings in the city. “We are learning to sell our talent,” affirms Berganza. A challenge may be to stimulate not only Spanish professionals to cook in the city, but to also find Spanish restaurant entrepreneurs, so that there may be more establishments owned and run by Spanish citizens.
Editor of www.viajesyvinos.com and contributor to other international lifestyle, business, and food & wine publications, Rosa María González Lamas is a Spanish-born, Puerto Rican raised and based communicator specialized in food, wine and travel marketing and writing.