Tell us about the food specialties of Andalusia, probably the most popular region of Spain for visitors.
Andalusia is the land of olives. Olives and olive oil are at the heart of the cooking. Andalusians are the kings of frying. I get upset when American fast-food chains call their fries “French fries.” No one fries like the people in Andalusia, from fried eggs to amazing pescadito frito (tiny baby fish). People are very particular about what flour to use. Everyone laughs when I say this, but the famous tempura of Japan comes from Portugal and Spain.
What about Extremadura and its specialties? In contrast to Andalusia, it’s not well known.
It’s a hard land, an extreme land, very arid. You can see it in the cheeses. They have sheep and goats there because cows would not survive in those extreme temperatures. The region produces some of the most amazing cheeses, the tortas—such as queso de la Serena and the torta del Casar—which are hard cheeses that become soft, almost liquid like heavy cream. Coagulation is achieved by a relative of the artichoke, the cardoon, which gives a charcteristic bitter taste. The other great products are the hams and sausages made from the Iberico pig. The Iberico pig, grazing freely in the dehesa (an oak forest), is the most fascinating pig known to man.
You are involved in efforts to bring jamón ibérico, the prized Iberian ham, to America for the first time. Why are you so passionate about this product?
[Start video excerpt at 041711 (“If we start talking about price...”). End with “You can make any dish five times better by using the fat of Iberico ham” (before 042020). Edit as needed.]
The best way to get the ham is bone in, but it will also be available without the bone, easier to cut on the slicer. Tastewise, you can’t say hand cut is better, but sometimes there are traditions you don’t want to lose. I don’t think any country has the craftsmanship we have in cutting ham. Italy doesn’t know how to carve like we do. Spaniards treat ham with a lot of respect.
Apart from Spanish ham, what ingredients do you miss?
More than ingredients, it’s the fact that there are fishermen with little boats who come back every day to port, and fish shops selling what those boats sold to them half an hour earlier. Someone will be buying and cooking the fish that night for their children. That’s what I’m in love with when I go to Spain, more than the fish itself. But I get great morels and chanterelles here (in the U.S.). I love the Monterey prawns in season. I love the tuna, which are as good here as in Spain. We have great baby pigs in the U.S. It’s not about what you miss but learning how to find the great things where you are.
Your restaurant, minibar, is renowned for new-wave Spanish cooking. Why are you doing all this experimental stuff?
Humans, unfortunately, are unbelievably conservative. We forget that the traditional cooking of today was modern cooking years ago. Modern cooking is nothing other than certain chefs moving forward. People talk about avant-garde cooking as if it’s weird and never going to go anywhere, but I can give you many examples of ingredients that people thought never had a chance. The fish sauce of Asia today is the Roman garum of two thousand years ago. Not too long ago, they were putting sea water and honey in wine; today we put oak. If we gave today’s wine to people from two thousand years ago, they would think we were nuts.
I don’t think chefs want to throw the same piece of chicken on the plate anymore. My mother does that very well. Ninety-five percent of my time is at my minibar, my high cooking. Technically, this is what gives me the fire to keep on being a chef.