Born in Chicago to Argentinean parents, Alex Raij is, together with her husband Eder Montero, the chef and owner of El Quinto Pino, Txikito and La Vara restaurants in New York.
Born in Chicago to Argentinean parents, Alex Raij is, together with her husband Eder Montero, the chef and owner of El Quinto Pino, Txikito and La Vara restaurants in New York. Her interest in Spanish cuisine started after reading an article about Ferran Adrià published in 1997 in Food Arts magazine. “I was really struck by the fact that nobody here was talking about him. I loved his inspiration and efforts in the search for authentic flavors. At this moment, I decided I wanted to go to Spain to experiment with textures and distill flavors. I never thought I would end up falling in love with traditional Spanish cuisine”.
Though Adrià was important to her interest in Spanish gastronomy, Alex Raij claims that her first point of reference is her family: “We always had Spanish food at our home in Argentina. We made paellas with the wrong kind of rice and adapted dishes to the ingredients that were available to us. However, we always started cooking with the traditional sofrito (a base for dishes typically made using onions, garlic and tomato) and by taking into account other key elements of Spanish cuisine – influences that were brought over by immigrants from Galicia and Basque Country”.
Her professional foray into Spanish cuisine began with the opening of Meigas restaurant, which coincided with the end of her studies at the Culinary Institute of New York. She met her husband in Meigas’ kitchen and the pair went on to open El Quinto Pino, Txikito and La Vara restaurants. The latter of these, located in Brooklyn, offers Spanish cuisine that reflects its Arab and Jewish roots. “Spain is lacking in a reference point that highlights the similarities between traditional Spanish cuisine and that of the Jewish and Arab cultures. The influences can mostly be seen in the way that spices are added to foods or in the culinary technique of escabeche, she points out, adding that, “La Vara provided an opportunity to look to the Middle East and Africa to add new flavors to our cuisine. This is what differentiates this restaurant from other Spanish restaurants in New York”.
For its part, the cuisine at Txikito is based on the idea that, “There are few national dishes in Spain and a lot of regional dishes. Therefore, we have integrated these dishes into the menu through tapas, which are, in fact, a national tradition from north to south. We wanted to choose new dishes to represent Spain – not just paella – in the same way that we wanted to offer wines from regions other than just Rioja”, she explains. She also insists that Txikito’s clients come to try new flavors, meaning that we have to adapt the dishes to the American palate, “although, at times, it can be very gratifying”. Another key point of her gastronomic vision: “We don’t hide the ingredients: if it’s morcilla, it’s morcilla; if we are working with sweet breads, they’re sweet breads”, she affirms.