What is your personal impression of Spain’s avant-garde cooking?
Molecular gastronomy is a silly term. All food is molecular. These chefs who are radically changing the form of food, changing liquids into solids…I may be in the minority but I think most of what’s being done in Spain and elsewhere is pretty silly. Adrià is one of a kind, a genius, and when you try to imitate that or take lessons away—well, it’s like the chefs who looked at Puck and said, “Oh, I get it, it’s weird ingredients on pizza.” People shouldn’t be trying to do what Adrià does, but his influence has freed chefs and given them permission to use their imaginations. The best are going off in their own directions.
How many of these new ideas are legitimate and likely to endure?
A lot of the landmarks of the most contemporary Spanish cooking, turning everything into foam, or solidifying things meant to be liquid with various chemicals, I don’t think these things will last long, anymore than the pastry set pieces of Carême’s generation did. You read about them, but they have no relevance to the way we eat today. The most lasting gift of Adrià is taking a very traditional, closed society, where food tended to be predictable and repetitious, and making anything fair game.
Where would you send an American chef to taste traditional cooking at its best?
Along the whole Mediterranean coast from the French border down to Andalusia, there’s a tradition of rice cookery that is one of the most interesting and least understood culinary treasures of Spain. Whatever else you do in Barcelona, you should go to one of the traditional seafood restaurants and have one of the seafood rice dishes. They’re not risotto, they’re not paella, they’re something different.
Tapas have taken off in America—but sometimes interpreted in ways that no Spaniard would recognize. What should American chefs know about the concept of tapas, the context of tapas?
Tapas are basically bar snacks, an idea from the south of Spain. Typically, certain bars were known for certain things: one would have the best ham, another would have the best croquetas, and you would wander from one to the next, the famous tapeo. At Tia Pol in New York, the food is pretty close to what you would get in Spain. Boqueria (also in New York) is also trying to keep to the original spirit of tapas. But the experience is going to be different. You can’t have mounds of things out on the counter (in the U.S.) unless they’re behind sneeze guards or at a certain temperature. I’m also seeing words on tapas menus like mozzarella, balsamic vinegar and pesto—words that have nothing to do with Spanish food. That doesn’t mean it’s bad food, but….
Where would you send a culinary traveler to experience the “undiscovered Spain”?
One of my favorite areas personally is the Ampurdán, the interior Costa Brava, from the French border down toward Barcelona, a wonderful area with extremely good restaurants, including Adrià, beautiful countryside and walled towns, with the Pyrenees in the background. Valencia is a city that has changed tremendously in the time I’ve been going. Today, it is one of Spain’s most beautiful, with civic works, new architecture, a whole new spirit. And the food is superb now.
What Spanish ingredients do you think should be better known in the U.S.?
Spanish olive oil used to have a bad name, but in recent years, the southern areas have made a real commitment to quality. Then there’s the trendy new ingredient of Marcona almonds, which have wonderful flavor. What I wish would get a little more currency is sherry vinegar, an excellent product. Even in Spain, it’s being pushed off the table by balsamic.