José Chesa, the Spanish Chef Who Is Triumphing in Portland, Oregon
From Catalonia to Oregon, chef José Chesa has seduced diners, critics and the media thanks to his excellent work at Ataula restaurant in Portland. In this interview, he shares his views on the rising popularity of Spanish gastronomy in the United States.
Text: Spain Trade Commission in New York.
Born in Catalonia, chef José Chesa has had a passion for cooking since childhood. His father was a chef and José always smiles when he remembers his grandmother’s skill at preparing traditional Spanish recipes at home.
His first professional contacts arrived when he started working in prestigious French restaurants and Spanish temples of haute cuisine, including Can Fabes (the restaurant of the late Santi Santamaría) and Can Jubany (under the orders of Nando Jubany).
Back then, he never imagined that he would end up, years later, putting the quality and variety of Spanish gastronomy on display in the United States. Specifically, José Chesa has found his calling reigning over the kitchen at Ataula restaurant in Portland, Oregon. In addition to winning over the public, José has racked up recognitions that include being named Portland Monthly’s “Chef of the Year” in 2014, and two nominations for “Best Chef in the Northwest” by the James Beard Foundation.
How has your restaurant Ataula evolved?
The evolution has been very positive. Since the time I opened the restaurant until now, my work has always (focused on) taking advantage of local ingredients and the fantastic products imported from Spain. Perhaps the most complicated thing has been defending authentic Spanish flavors without masking them, allowing the pure and essential flavor of a product to come through.
What are the most popular dishes among the clientele at Ataula?
Some of the most popular dishes are our patatas bravas (deconstructed and cooked at low temperature) and the xupa xup of chorizo with quince and goat’s cheese. We have been lucky enough not to take any dishes off the menu; our dishes have always appealed to customers. In any case, I always try to create new dishes, using a creative approach that respects the product.
Do you have any plans to open more Spanish restaurants either in the short or medium-term?
For the time being, I am focused on maintaining the restaurant’s consistency on a daily basis and then we’ll see. I also run a churrería called 180 Xurros, a unique concept in Portland where we transport people to Spain by offering freshly-made churros. I do think about making plans to expand this churrería concept, given how well it is doing.
How would you rate the presence of Spanish gastronomy and products in the United States?
The evolution of Spanish gastronomy and products has been very noteworthy. The American public is more and more interested all the time about everything having to do with Spanish cuisine and products. I am absolutely convinced that there is a lot of future in this, but that, like everything else, it is a process that takes time. Our gastronomic culture has a shorter trajectory in the United States than those of other international cuisines.
What Spanish products do you think have the greatest potential to attract consumers from the United States?
On the tables of American consumers, I think that one of the star products would be Iberico ham, Ibérico products in general, as well as everything having to do with paella, which is one of the most famous Spanish dishes here. The most attractive thing about our gastronomy and products is, above all, the quality that we offer. We are incredibly privileged to have such high-quality products, from fresh foods to derivatives. Something that is very attractive on the American market are our canned fish and vegetable preserves.
Who are our biggest competitors?
Our greatest competition comes from cuisines like those of Mexico and Italy, two gastronomic cultures that have been in the United States for a long time and that are universally accepted thanks to their adaptation to American palates.
The evolution of Spanish gastronomy and products has been very noteworthy. The American public is more and more interested all the time about everything having to do with Spanish cuisine and products.