Spanish trumps French these days for many young chefs looking to expand their culinary knowledge.
“No one goes to France to eat now,” says Andy Nusser, executive chef and partner at Casa Mono and adjoining Bar Jamon in New York. “Everyone goes to Spain. Spanish food is in the forefront.”
“We’re at an important moment,” says Ferran Adrià, chef-owner of elBulli in Roses, Spain, and a leader of the global molecular gastronomy movement. “People know about traditional Spanish food. Avant-garde [cuisine from Spain] has gotten known and is here” in the United States.
Clearly, Spanish cooking has piqued the interest of many chefs in the United States. But despite all of the attention Spanish food is getting in loftier culinary circles here, most experts would agree the cuisine in general has some way to go before it is widely accepted on this side of the Atlantic.
On the other hand, tapas, the famous small plates of Spain, appear to have made deep and permanent inroads at restaurants across the United States.
When José Andrés, a former protégé of Adrià, came to this country in the 1990s, “this was a desert,” Adrià says. “Very few people knew about Spanish food, and it was not a real cuisine.”
Two decades ago tapas were served in U.S. restaurants, “but they were these big portions,” says Andrés, who is based in Washington, D.C., with three Jaleo restaurants, a tapas-centric concept; Café Atlántico; Zaytinya; minibar by josé andrés; and Oyamel. Most recently, he headed west to Los Angeles, where he opened Bazaar in Beverly Hills.
“The word tapas didn’t have any meaning,” Andrés says. “Today, I look back and smile when I see so many restaurants that are not Spanish, but they are doing small portions.”
Andrés says, tapas have become the most significant Spanish-food trend he has witnessed since 1993, when he opened his first restaurant, Jaleo. He calls tapas “the most powerful thing.”
The concept of tapas often is credited to the Spanish, but small plates have no borders. Andrés notes that Japanese sushi, Middle Eastern meze and Mexican street food, such as tacos, are all based on the same theory of tapas.
Noting that it’s interesting to eat a wide variety of food at one meal, he says: “It is so much more fun to have 10 things. It is like a rainbow” with an array of colors, while a single dish is more gray in color.
“The smallness of items gives [diners] the power to take chances,” he adds. After taking a small taste, “it allows them to try more. Tapas are the way I like to eat. Otherwise eating can be so boring.
“It is more than the way Americans eat today. It is a way to tell people you are in control of how much you eat and spend.”
Chef-partner Seamus Mullen of Boquería in New York agrees that tapas are well-suited for these economic times.
“People can decide how much they want to spend,” he says.
Mullen, who expanded with a second Boquería, also in New York, reports his guests spend an average of $45 with beverages. Dates stuffed with almonds and Valdeón, a Spanish blue cheese, are wrapped in bacon. That dish sells the best of all Boquería’s tapas—“like candy,” Mullen says—for $7.
But he doesn’t see authentic regional Spanish cuisine catching on anytime soon.
“Spanish food is new to most Americans,” Mullen says. “People have a hard time differentiating between even Northern and Southern Spanish food.”
Regional and fancy molecular gastronomy didn’t interest Nusser as much as what he calls “grandma” cuisine, the traditional foods that are “simple and humble.”
Diners’ tastes will change with time, however, Nusser predicts.
“Right now, it is tapas, but it will evolve,” he says, adding that a more refined cooking style that he calls “sit down, is where it has to go.”
Currently at Bar Jamon, which means ham bar, the menu is written on a mirror and dishes are priced from $2 to $12 each.
“It is the kind of thing you would eat with a toothpick and throw the napkin on the floor,” Nusser says. “That to me is tapas.”
In San Francisco chef-owner Calvin Schneiter of Andalu specializes in tapas. He says his cuisine “is meant to be festive and interactive.”
“But we have some traditionalists,” he says. “We’ll work with people” who aren’t into small plates and sharing.
“Every time you have a fondue, you just have to share,” he says.
Schneiter’s fondue is prepared with Cambozola cheese. Fuji apples and Asian pears serve as dippers. The fondue sells for $10.50. Average checks at Andalu run about $30, including beverages.
In New York chef Josh DeChellis, of the newly revived La Fonda del Sol near Grand Central Station, says tapas also “drive beverage sales.”
“I love Spanish food,” he says. “It’s just simple food produced by humble people. But it has quite a large bandwidth of influence that is very clear in the different parts of the country. There is a great Jewish population in the South. There were Arabs and the Moors. There were terrible wars, but gastronomically it has left the country with influences from a lot of cultures.”
Today, chefs who initially traveled to Spain to study molecular gastronomy, have in fact found much more.
“People were like, ‘Wow! Look at this,’” he says. “They have these hams and sausages.”
Upon returning to the United States, chefs who worked in Spain requested favorite food specialties for Spanish-focused restaurants and more globally focused eateries. For instance, Anthony Bombaci, the executive chef at the upscale, eclectic Nana in the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, who worked in Barcelona for eight years, features Iberico ham de Bellota “fermin” with tomato and olive oil for $29. It is offered alongside Japanese Kobe beef carpaccio with yuzu, Parmigiano-Reggiano and arugula for $18.
Interest in tapas and Spanish cuisine in general “allows us to find ingredients that 18 years ago we never dreamed of having,” such as piquillo peppers, Manchego, Spanish olive oil and Iberico ham, Andrés notes.
“We are days away of having fresh Iberico pork,” he says. “It is amazing. They eat acorns the last four months of their life. That’s going to be huge.”