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Q & A with Salinas Chef Luis Bollo

Chef Bollo.jpg

It’s not easy to be a trailblazer in New York. Just ask Luis Bollo, the talented Basque chef who opened Meigas on Hudson Street over ten years ago. Bollo was the first chef to bring modernist Spanish cuisine, with its Ferran Adria-stamped foams and gels to Manhattan.  While reviewers were impressed by his innovative style, the mainstream audience wasn’t quite ready for molecular gastronomy and both Bolo and Meigas relocated to Connecticut after just two years.

“When I opened Meigas, there were two radical ways of looking at Spanish cuisine: critics began to look at Spanish cooking as a novelty and an evolution, while the general public didn’t know more than old-fashioned tapas and paellas,” Bollo said.  But with the opening of Casa Mono, Boqueria and other tapas joints, New Yorkers have  come to embrace both traditional and modern Spanish cooking in its many forms.

Luis Bollo recently returned to the city this past summer with the exciting debut of Salinas in Chelsea. This time, he’s leaning mostly on tradition with a dash of molecular gastronomy, the likes of beet powder, thrown in for good measure.  What’s next for the Bollo?  Right now, he’s thinking of opening Andalusian fish and chips joints and a Basque cider house.

Single/Married/Divorced?Happily married. But being married to a pescetarian is a challenge at times for a Spanish chef who loves cooking all kinds of meat.

What was your first job in food and what did you learn?My first internship was at an extremely popular Basque tapas (‘pintxos’ in Basque) restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. Everything seemed new, exciting and fast-paced, but much more demanding than I had expected as a student. The job required long hours, quick judgment, collaborative spirits and the ability to learn fast. So I quickly learned that absolute dedication and commitment are the essential qualities for this profession.

What did you want to be when you grew up?Like many other kids growing up in the 1980s, I dreamed of being in the NBA, but had no talents. Besides playing basketball, I always wanted to travel to learn about different cultures and to work in a field that requires creativity and social skills.  Being urged by my parents who were impressed with the Basque culinary evolution led by Juan Mari Arzak in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, I enrolled in San Sebastian’s first culinary institute (perhaps one of the first ones in Spain) and discovered my penchant for cooking.

What has been your biggest kitchen flub?Preparing a long tasting menu for 150 guests who came for a wedding banquet. While I spent hours preparing elaborate dishes, many guests wound up leaving before it was even time for dessert!

Describe your ideal meal at Salinas.For an ideal meal with a group of friends in our beautiful garden with a rooftop, I would suggest the following: First, I would begin with “ibérico ham” with very chilled dried sherry and several tapas like “crujiente mahonés,” “tosta de boquerón” and “Canarian-style tuna ceviche.” Then, I would suggest everyone try one of our new additions – extremely refreshing “Spring gazpacho.” After sampling the tapas and gazpacho, I would offer two Spanish pasta dishes to share – “fideos negros” and “rosejat rápida.” For the main course, no one should miss the opportunity to try our slowly roasted suckling pig, prepared to Majorcan style, which was named as one of the best dishes in New York City by New York Magazine in March 2012. For dessert, I would suggest “torrija caramelizada” and “chocolate trio.”

How do you walk the line between serving traditional Spanish cuisine and fulfilling your creative potential as a chef?Great question. I think all chefs with a strong attachment to a particular culinary tradition struggle to create a balance between the two. For me, my fundamental cooking philosophy is that the dining experience is only complete when the diners leave the restaurant, thinking they have encountered what they had wished for and, at the same time, have discovered something new – whether new ways of using certain ingredients, unexpected combinations of flavors or different ways of thinking about our culinary practice.  In other words, the diners should complete the process I initiated rather than me as chef imposing my own interpretations, making everything constantly new. Thus, it is my aim to combine modernist techniques, when beneficial, with traditional, familiar motives. When I opened Meigas in New York in 1999, some critics characterized my cooking as molecular because I was using foams, gels and other modern techniques.  Now those techniques have become commonplace.  Since the modernist cooking evolution has been most prominent among Spanish chefs, beginning with Ferrán Adriá, Andoni Aduriz and many others, there is an expectation that Spanish chefs opening restaurants in New York will incorporate the most cutting-edge culinary techniques into their menus. So because of the two above-mentioned factors, my current cooking at Salinas is described as my return to Spanish traditional cuisine.  But, in my view, I have always worked hard to represent the diversity of Spanish regional cooking, highlighting their strengths with modernist techniques where needed.

What makes Salinas distinct from other Spanish restaurants in the neighborhood, such as Boqueria and Txikito?Both are great places to “tapear” (to eat tapas).  But, Salinas is a perfect alternative for those who wish to fully experience Spanish cuisine since we offer both tapas and main dishes.  Diners can begin with several tapas or “aperitivos” to share and order their individual main dishes.  Salinas’ tapas selection includes a variety of traditional tapas as well as inventive ones like “coles y colifor” and “crujiente.” For the main dish section, I try to showcase the regional diversity of Spanish cooking by including “pulpo a la plancha” (Galicia), “rosejat” (Catalonia; this was featured as one of the top 10 dishes last year by Time Out) and “Spring gazpacho” (Andalusia). Salinas’ space is designed to create a relaxing environment where diners can have a full dining experience without having to rush to leave the place promptly.

What culinary trend do you wish would just die already?Although I am fond of most of the culinary trends from foraging, sustainable foods, pork belly fever to mutli-ethnic tacos, I can’t fall in love with the cupcake craze.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?I can’t seem to have enough of Korean fried chicken with radish pickles.

What were some of your favorite foods that your grandfather cooked for you when you were a kid, growing up in San Sebastian?My grandfather, who was an active member at a “sociedad gastronómica” (a Basque gastronomic club where only men are allowed to cook), used to prepare several dishes that I still remember such as “macaroni with chorizo” (pasta isn’t common in Basque cooking), “bacalao al pil-pil” and a mouthwatering steak with delicious sauce called “ajilimojili” that has been passed down over several generations in my family. I tried to recreate my grandfather’s sauce for the prime steak we serve at Salinas – “chuletón para dos.”

You moved to the States from Spain in 1995. What was the most difficult aspect of adjusting to life in America? Did you already speak English well?Although I didn’t speak fluent English, it wasn’t a big problem because it was always easy to find someone who spoke Spanish in America. What really surprised me were the cultural differences. On a personal level, I didn’t understand why everyone was always busy and why there was much less emphasis on the family. In Spain, days are long and people live to enjoy. Professionally, I was astonished by the American perception of Spanish food in the 1990s -paellas with flamenco dancers on stage, which were typical cultural icons exploited for tourism during [Francisco] Franco’s dictatorship and therefore rejected in many parts of Spain with anti-Franco sentiments.  Having been trained with several Michelin-starred chefs who took part in creating the culinary evolution in Spain, I didn’t know what to make of this mere ethnic approach to cooking.

How often do you get to travel back to your hometown in Spain to visit your family and for culinary inspiration? What’s the latest restaurant in San Sebastian that has really wowed you?I return to San Sebastian every year. During my latest visits, I’ve eaten at Asador Extebarri where everything is cooked in wood-burning grills and at La cuchara de San Telmo – a place known for modern “pintxos” (Basque tapas). Other chefs I visit frequently are Arzak and Martin Berasategui.  Although I wanted to dine at Andoni Aduriz’s restaurant, it was closed for renovation during my last visit.

How has New Yorkers’ perception of Spanish food changed since you opened Meigas in 1999?When I opened Meigas, there were two radical ways of looking at Spanish cuisine: critics began to look at Spanish cooking as a novelty and an evolution, while the general public didn’t know more than old-fashioned tapas and paellas. Then, the places that appeared during the last decade , like Casa Mono and Boquería introduced new styles of tapas in professionally designed spaces, which changed the whole panorama of Spanish restaurants and the perception as to what it means to eat “a la española” in New York. They knew how to attract younger generations to Spanish restaurants and made it seem “cool” to try Spanish tapas.

If you could cook a meal for any chef, who would it be? Is there any chef that you wouldn’t want to cook for?I’ve never had any particular interest in cooking for another chef.  But after seeing a documentary titled “Jiro, Dreams of Sushi,” I am deeply impressed with the 85-year-old Japanese sushi chef who has received three Michelin stars.  Chef Jiro’s work ethics and zeal for perfection is incomparable.  I would be honored to cook for him as well as to try his food before he retires.

What neighborhood do you live in and where are your favorite places to dine there?I live in Jersey City, NJ. When I have an opportunity to dine out, I come to New York City.  Lately I’ve enjoyed eating at Locanda Verde and Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria.

On a rare day off from the kitchen, what do you like to do?I like playing basketball with people who are my age and out of shape, so I don’t feel like I lost it.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?I would like to have helped to create an impact on diversifying Spanish cuisine in New York City so people can have options of trying diverse regional cuisines from Spain and a variety of ways of eating from tapas, “asadores”(Spanish steakhouse), “freidurías” (Andalusian fish and chips joints), “sidrerías” (Basque cider house) to fine dining.  I would also like to have written a cookbook on regional cooking for the general public, drawing on my extensive knowledge and work experiences in various regions throughout Spain. I’ve worked and lived in the Basque Country, Madrid, Catalonia and Mallorca. I’ve also spent a brief time traveling to Valencia, Andalusia, Galicia and the Canary Islands. I strongly believe that there are so many interesting dishes that can be re-interpreted with modern techniques for today’s savvy, open-minded, cosmopolitan diners.

You’re on your deathbed…Sex or dinner?Can I have both? (Fine.)

Address: 136 9th Ave., nr. 19th Street
Phone: (212)776-1990

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