Streaming smoke and beakers were once the signature of mad scientists, but at minibar by josé andrés Chef Ruben Garcia puts his creative touches on each mini-dish, all while surrounded by billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen and cotton candy machines. And based on what we’ve tasted, he’s anything but mad. His molecular gastronomy is more than a buzzword. It’s a means to an end, namely a supremely meaningful experience of cuisine.
Born and raised in Terrassa, Spain, García resolved to make the kitchen his work area at the age of 15 and enrolled at Spanish culinary school Joviat, in Manresa, Cataluña. Before graduating with honors, García staged at many local restaurants, including Michelin-starred Jean Luc Figueras in Barcelona. He went on to work under the legendary Chef Martín Berasategui at his Michelin three-starred Basque restaurant. García then met Albert and Ferran Adrià and spent five years at el Bulli. His time there exposed him to innovative, out-of-the-box thinking and quality ingredients—a large part of his current gastronomic psyche. But García loved to travel, so when he met el Bulli alum José Andrés, he seized the opportunity to follow him to the US.
Now a part of Andrés’ prolific ThinkFoodGroup, Garcia worked his way up to Research and Development Director. As Andrés’s second-in-command, Garcia artfully crafts menus, oversees quality control, works special events and promotions, and provides leadership to the kitchens. Garcia might have had some incredibly influential mentors, but his culinary philosophy is all his own. His dishes are full of love for traditional Catalan cuisine, but they are also full of finesse, playfulness, and a distinctive personality.
Interview with Chef Ruben Garcia of ThinkFoodGroup – Washington, DC
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Ruben Garcia: Everybody in my family cooks really well. My mum, my grandma, my aunts—every time we got together the family was around the table. So eating and cooking were a really important social event. It's where I started; helping my mum and grandma. I never thought it was something to take up professionally. I was a really bad student. I didn't really know what to do with my life until one day I heard from a really good friend of mine. He was taking cooking classes to be a chef. I said, “Really? You have to study to be a chef?” It wasn't something in my mind. But all of a sudden the light came to my mind, and I said, wow, that could be really good. My culinary school, the Joviat in Manresa near Barcelona, has amazing equipment. There I fell in love with cooking and spending time in the kitchen. My first year of culinary school I started working weekends in a restaurant so I might learn and have more experience. That was 16 years ago. I didn’t know exactly what cooking was.
AB: What ingredient do you feel is underappreciated?
RG: Olive oil from Spain. Everyone uses Italian but they buy olives from Spain!
AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your career?
RG: To come to a new country, learn the language, and try to succeed. I was really lucky. America offered me many opportunities and José [Andrés] was there to help me. I did a banquet in Venice for 250 people for a Hollywood actress. We traveled to Pisa, prepped, put everything in a truck, drove to Venice, and set up a kitchen on a boat. We had a separate boat as a refrigerator. It was chaotic to put everything together—long working hours, very challenging. But it was good; people were really happy.
AB: What’s the biggest challenge you face now?
RG: Making sure that diners and guests leave happy and want to come back.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
RG: Produce, ingredient, taste, taste, taste, taste. Nothing else makes sense if the taste is not right. You can have technique, you can have amazing concepts, you can paint it with so many colors and shapes, but in the end if the flavor is not there….
Here in minibar we try to play with tools. We have new equipment, new concepts, new ways to present dishes. But basically everything comes back to the same place, which is taste. Always a big part is common sense, experience, and personal taste. The most important thing here is the relationship with your customers. We are all front of the house; we prep, we cook, and we serve directly to the customers.
AB: How involved are you in your local culinary community?
RG: Obviously working with José means that you are doing a thousand things at once. I feel like I couldn't be more involved. Right now I'm doing TV shows, books, and restaurants. We fight hunger in the world. We have a kitchen, a great group that feeds the DC political community. I live in a culinary world; my home is full of books and I cook at home. With my free time I’m cooking, traveling, going to restaurants. I go to see my friends that work in the kitchen. Basically, I live there. I try to get as much as possible from everybody around me and I try to give as much as I can for my part. I think this is the only way to be involved in the culinary environment. If you’re about passion, make your life passionate.
AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends and culinary developments?
RG: Visiting restaurants, eating, reading blogs, trying to know about new things the next day. We have really good connections with Juan Mari [Arzak], Ferran [Adrià], et cetera. Reading books, and the internet. Working with young people who are enthusiastic and want to do the coolest thing.
AB: What do you think about molecular gastronomy in the US today? Do you think it is over?
RG: What has been happening for the last five years was a boom—too many techniques floating around, too many new restaurants. We now have more common sense. We learned how to use liquid nitrogen and got certified for sous vide. Right now we are in a better place. More logical and calm. There’s a big movement here in the USA, the local organic movement. Mix traditional, organic, and molecular together and you get a great movement.
AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
RG: I feel really proud right now that I have an amazing team to make this achievement possible.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
RG: I have no idea. I never questioned it myself and I'm so proud of where I am. I would be doing something as artistic as I'm doing right now. I discovered that I'm a guy who likes to make things, with passion, the way they used to be [made]. I love painting, I love cinema. It’s really lucky that the culinary world is connected with passion. Art is art; it doesn't matter what you do. It comes from the inside of your heart—creation and passion.
AB: If you had one thing you could do over or do again, what would it be?
RG: I’d follow all the same steps I've been taking. I've been really lucky with Ferran Adrià, Albert Adrià, and Martin Berasategui. Each thing brings me to the next step. I was there at the right moment. And each person helped me to take the next step. I'm worried what I am going to do tomorrow. My biggest challenge right now is what to do. I want to open my own restaurant.
AB: Where will we find you in five years?
RG: Having my own restaurant, and who knows? About the restaurant, I want not only space to cook and serve, but to find my home; my spot where I can feel inspired and have enough energy to create any concept. I want to get to the soul, to the heart, of anyone who comes to enjoy my concept. I'm not a guy of one place, I'm a guy of many places. It keeps me awake, fun, and gives me more possibilities to learn and share. I want to see my name in big letters.