A few months ago, the chef Alex Raij and her husband Eder Montero opened La Vara, their most recent stop on a journey to bring the regional flavors of Spain to New York. Some would argue that the duo was an important factor in sparking much of the tapas craze that's spread throughout New York, and across the country, in the past decade. In the following interview, Raij talks about her career trajectory, her approach to cooking, and her slight feelings of resentment towards those she believes don't credit their sources.
How'd you get your start cooking?
I don't know if you would call it cooking, but I did a lot of food service jobs when I was growing up. When I was 14, I got my first job at Baskin Robbins. I lived in Minneapolis, was born in Chicago, and my parents were from Argentina. I grew up eating a lot of these foods and speaking Spanish. A lot of the jobs that people use as stepping stones before taking the job in advertising — I stayed with them because I liked it. Eventually I got involved with more and more sophisticated restaurants, but there still wasn't that much opportunity. I always ended up working the cold station, which was a blessing in disguise.
In what way?
Well, the ingredients are extremely fresh and impeccable. I mean, I try to make the hot station here exciting, too.
When did you start getting interested in Spanish cooking?
The Spanish thing came when I started reading about Ferran Adria in the mid-90s. I was fascinated by it.
That was before he blew up?
I read the first Food Arts article about him, about the foam thing. What I liked about it was the distillation of flavor. It seemed very flavor-driven instead of just textural.
I really wanted to go to Spain, but a Basque teacher of mine, who had taught me a class about breakfast or something like that, told me about a restaurant that was opening up in New York that would be the city's first Basque restaurant. It was Meigas, in 1999, which wasn't Basque and had a Galician name. It was where Jacques Torres is now. It was huge and ugly and really poorly decorated. I took a job there, with the intention of going to Spain at some point and then moving to Seattle to open my own little place.
I also worked at Prune, which was an example of what I wanted to do. I wanted to do it with tapas, because Meigas had stuff that was pretty cursory and not innovative.
But I met my husband there, and began to develop a real affinity for the traditional. I became suspicious of the more out there stuff. I find it extremely interesting, but I don't think it's the kind of food you want to eat all the time. As Ferran kept going more and more out there, it seemed more and more precarious. What drove me to this profession was the way that you feed somebody and they love it. I don't want to say "nurturing," but it comes to mind.
All of your restaurants seem to be designed as places you could go to more than once in one week, if you wanted to.
It's supposed to be flexible, like you have in Spain. I just found that I felt at home with Spanish food. I intuitively understood it, maybe because of the way I grew up eating. My interests were so all over the place that it also gave me direction and focus. Now, I feel like I'm cooking in Spanish more than being a Spanish chef. In other words, I can cook in my own very personal style, but it can be defined in narrow terms. It kept me from getting too distracted.
"Authentic" is kind of a problematic, crappy word. How do you approach it, though?
I agree. I think about giving people an authentic experience in the visceral sense. That's more important to me than being hyper-authentic. That being said, we make traditional dishes in our own personal way. A lot of these dishes you'll find in Spain, but they won't be prepared exactly how we do them. I do try to keep the same flavor profiles, because that's what I remember.
Now let's talk about the restaurants you opened in New York, starting with Tia Pol.
They're still running my menu there. That was seven years in the making. The goal was to take people on a regional tour of Spain and to create new dishes.
And then you eventually left.
I didn't leave. That was a very sad and unfortunate ending. But you just have to move on. I fought for it for two years before I took El Quinto Pino and they kept Tia, which I had proposed originally.
With El Quinto Pino, the idea was the stand-and-eat experience that's so common in Spain, and the bars that do one red and one white wine and only have five or six things to eat. Now a lot of people's favorite dishes from Tia live at El Quinto Pino, which a lot of people don't know about.
We had already signed the lease at Txikito when TIa Pol ended, so it was all very concurrent. My husband was to be the chef there, but I ended up being involved. It was a way from going from general to particular, a way to show that there are so many regions and styles in Spain. It's not just paella. I think that Txikito was vastly misunderstood when it came out.
I think people kept comparing it to Tia, a place that they loved, when they were intended to be very different. But it's still around, because I think we serve delicious food. It was a very scary time, because I was pregnant, but that makes it just that much sweeter now.
And, finally, there is this, La Vara.
We had all sorts of concepts in mind, but I always liked bringing in Jewish elements into the food to align myself with it. We considered the Lower East Side, which would have been great for obvious reasons, but it seemed economically risky. But Brooklyn made sense, too, and I found that this space was being vacated when I was reading Eater one day, actually. It was great at first, but it got a little complicated when the old owner said that he wasn't leaving but just figuring out a new concept. We went through months and months of nightmares with the owner, and then I had my baby as seven months, but eventually, it worked out.
How are people responding to this food, which focuses on an area most Spanish restaurants don't showcase all that much.
I think it's a much better restaurant than it was a month ago. I'm finally getting really comfortable with it. People are unfamiliar with the cooking, to some extent. It's exotic but flavorful, and I have more freedom here to play around. I don't worry about it being very authentic, but it's still very earnest. The food is accessible. We have a roast chicken, for instance, but the flavors are a little different from what you'd usually get. It's tasty, though. The salads are approachable, but maybe they have more ingredients than usual. There's lots of mise en place, as opposed to the Basque restaurant, which emphasizes the simple materia prima. It's not completely inexpensive, but there's lots of value.
Now let's talk about the dining landscape in New York as it relates to Spanish restaurants. You say that before you opened Tia Pol, no one was doing certain things that are now common.
No one was doing a current expression of tapas. I wanted to dispense with all the Spanish dishes that were on every menu. No one was doing patatas bravas or shishito peppers. Nobody was making bikini sandwiches or pintxos morunos. No one was eating romesco sauce. I'm resentful, in some ways, but not regretful.
Explain that last sentiment.
I see it happening in Spanish and non-Spanish restaurants. What bothers me is when people don't credit where they took it from. When we borrow something, we give credit and name the restaurants we love in the menu. I think we are more innovative than people give us credit for. People maybe give us credit when they eat here, but then they forget.
What bothers me is when people get called innovative when they've taken someone else's idea. Toro is coming to New York, but he straight-up took the uni panini from us. I know he took it, and he knows he took it. It's one of the few original things I've created in my life. He also tried to take our chorizo with chocolate and asked us where we bought our chairs at Tia Pol before we first opened.
Michelle Bernstein took that Bar Mut dish and then got called a creative genius by Frank Bruni.
The egg carpaccio?
Yeah. My point is that it's important to be reverential and referential, and connect it to the landscape.