URENA | New York
Alex Ureña came to New York from the Dominican Republic
straight to the doors of The River Café at age 16.
It was here that his father worked as a butcher for Charlie Palmer,
and that Ureña got his very first restaurant experience.
While working as executive chef at Marseille,
Ureña earned two stars from The New York Times.
His French Mediterranean menu stood out from the common theater
district fare and became a favorite of the neighborhood. The mezze
dishes – small tastes – that he offered as starters
on the menu at Marseille were a precursor to the inventive tapas
that open the menu at his own restaurant, Ureña.
Alex’s position at Marseille was preceded by his tenure as
executive chef at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill; before
that, he spent seven fruitful years with David Bouley. Ureña’s
innovations in Spanish cooking are also influenced by another mentor,
famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià.
Ureña began experimenting with an Adrià-inspired
menu at Suba on the Lower East Side, which opened in 2002.
Since opening his eponymous restaurant Ureña in early 2006,
he has become New York’s standard-bearer for Spain’s
alta cocina, a modern and refined approach to Spanish gastronomy.
AT: Who are your mentors? What
are the most important things you learned from them?
AU: Bouley really taught me
how to cook. He gave me Ferran Adrià’s first book because
I could read Spanish, and said, “teach me what’s in
there.” Later, I was able to go to El Bulli for 6 months.
AT: Did you attend
culinary school? Why or why not? Would you recommend culinary school
to aspiring cooks? Do you only hire cooks with culinary school backgrounds?
AU: You don’t have to
go to school. If you work for someone like Ferran Adria, you’re
AT: What is your
philosophy on food and dining?
AU: I take a little bit from
everyone I’ve learned from, a sauce from Bouley is one of
the best ones he ever made, and that influenced me. Same goes for
El Bulli, a lot of my style comes from there; it’s his style.
And then after a while you can create your own style—I’m
working on it! I want to create a new, modern Spanish cuisine.
AT: Are there
any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
AU: I like to marinate with
thyme, oregano, and paprika. I stick to pretty traditional things,
but I do like to experiment too.
AT: What is your
most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
AU: Right now, my favorite
thing is seasoning with different salts. So I have a lot of different
kinds, four of them just for seasoning. I smoke them in house. I’ve
got one from Hawaii, and three from Holland as well.
AT: Is there
a culinary technique that you have either created or use in unusual
AU: Poaching. When we opened
Blue Hill, one of the most popular dishes was poached chicken. It’s
very similar to sous-vide. Now it seems like I’m poaching
everything! I poach a lot of fish in olive oil. I got the cryovac
machine and the health department came the day after to shut us
AT: What is your
favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new
AU: I like to ask them about
their resumé, where they have worked? If I don’t know
anything about who they worked for, then I ask them to do a trial.
I can see how good they are just by watching them chop shallots!
A lot of people can talk beautifully, but when you get to the point,
they can’t do anything. I’ll give anybody a chance.
AT: What tips
would you offer young chefs just getting started?
AU: I have a lot guys that
don’t have experience but they do want to work. This is what
really counts for me. It’s a good idea to trial for one or
two hours. I tell them to work for someone they like, and just get
in their kitchens.
AT: What are
your favorite cookbooks?
AU: Paco Torreblanca’s
self-titled pastry book – he’s the best pastry chef
in Spain. And Oriol Balaguer’s book Dessert Cuisine,
I worked for him for three weeks – his whole family is into
pastry! I like Michel
Bras and Pierre Gagnaire as well.
AT: What cities
do you like for culinary travel?
AU: London, Barcelona, San
Sebastien. I want to go to Rome, Bangkok, and Japan too.
AT: What are
your favorite restaurants in your city?
AU: Gilt is my favorite!
And I love wd-50.
AT: What trends
do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
AU: I see a lot of new things,
besides Ferran’s foams, which a lot of young chefs are trying
really hard to imitate. Within two years, I think we’re going
to see a lot of new techniques.
AT: Where do
you see yourself in five years? In 10 years?
AU: Eventually, if we do well,
I’d love to have one or two more restaurants. I want to be
known as one of the best cooks. I feel like I’m not like David
Bouley yet, but one day I want to be like him.
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