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Photo Credit: Peter Pioppo

Alex Ureña
UREÑA
37 E 28th St
New York, NY 10016
(212) 213-2328

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Interview:
Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking? Who inspired you to become a chef?
Alex Ureña: My family started doing this for a living. I came here at 15 and thought I was going to go to school, and my father said, no, you have to work! I worked for Charlie Palmer for two years when he opened up Aureole, and I stayed and worked for David Burke and then David Bouley. Bouley inspired me. He did a lot of tastings, and afterwards people came to the kitchen to congratulate him. But that’s when I said, I want to be a chef one day. Until then, I didn’t really think it was going to be my career. I stayed at the old Bouley for 6 years, and in one year I must have seen 8,000 people come and go. In the 90’s he was the biggest chef, and when Bouley closed, he gave us all money to go to Europe. I had never been to Europe before. Working with Roger Verge was so different: the service, the food, the business. The produce was handpicked by the cooks in the garden!

 

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Alex Ureña
URENA | New York


Biography
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.

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Interview Cont'd
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 in school.

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 way?
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 down!

AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
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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  •    Published: September 2006

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