Cook Your Culture: ThinkFoodGroup

By Team StarChefs

By

Team StarChefs
The ThinkFoodGroup Staff
The ThinkFoodGroup Staff

At the 12th Annual StarChefs International Chefs Congress, we’re gathering more than 170 industry icons to share the influences that permeate their work in the kitchen and on the floor. To explore the theme, “Cook Your Culture,” we asked José Andrés, Rubén García, and Aitor Lozano of ThinkFoodGroup what cooking their culture means to them.

First dish you remember cooking:
José: One of the first is migas, which I cooked when I was probably 7 or 8 with my uncle. My father and I went to visit him in this very old house in Ribas, two hours from Barcelona, and it was a chilly evening in early spring during Lent. When we arrived, my uncle had an open fire in the kitchen, and a big metal cauldron like the one you see in the movies over the fire. I helped him cut up leftover bread and sprinkle it with water to soften it. He added pork fat and garlic to the cauldron, and then the bread and water, and cooked it for almost an hour until it was both crispy and soft at the same time. It was amazing, I can still smell and taste that dish today, how he took something as simple as old bread and make it into something so unforgettable and delicious.

Aitor: I was 14 or 15 years old, and it was a traditional Catalan dish called fideus a la cassola, which are noodles cooked in a clay pot with sofrito, Ibérico pork ribs and sausage. 

Rubén: Chocolate cake. A chocolate cake recipe from the Cookie Monster. I had a Sesame Street book collection that came every two weeks, and in each book Cookie Monster had a chapter that he taught you how to cook. So the first time I cooked in my life, I was probably 8. It was the chocolate cake from Cookie Monster. My kids have the same book today.

Menu at a family gathering:
José: If it's in the north of Spain, with my family in Asturias, there will always be shellfish and cider on the table. If I am with my wife’s family in Andalucía, we will have seafood and white wine. There will definitely be gin & tonics,  some jamón, some pan con tomate, and olives. Always something from the sea, something cold and refreshing, and snacks!

Aitor: Since my family is from the Basque region and Catalonia, during big family celebrations, we would typically serve dishes from both. For example, bacalao al pil pil (Spanish cod fish in a sauce made with olive oil, garlic, guindilla peppers and fish gelatin); canelones rellenos de gambas (canelones stuffed with shrimp), lechazo de cordero (roasted lamb cooked with garlic and water); aioli, besugo a la donostiarra (sea bream with garlic, olive oil, parsley, vinegar and dried guindilla peppers); txangurro (boiled Dungeness crab); different types of red shrimp, and roasted Norwegian lobsters. For me, these family gatherings were the best times of the year.

Rubén: Jamón, Cava, shellfish, and a guitar.

A grandma cuisine you’d love to master:
José: I would like to cook with grandmothers from all around the world! To me, grandmothers are the most amazing resources for learning culinary traditions … they are the most important cooks for their families, and they are the ones to pass on the history of their communities. In my travels I have seen it everywhere, it is always women who are feeding the family – from Haiti to China to Mexico to Washington, D.C.!

Aitor: If there was one master lesson that could be learned from grandmothers, I would be honored to learn the love that grandmothers share when they cook for their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren… The love to unite everyone around the table together because I think that this is one of the biggest loves that someone can make for another person. 

Rubén: My own great grandmother. I knew her when I was young, but she died at an early age. She’s been a hero for the entire family because she was the one who first immigrated to Catalonia, from Antequera Malaga, and gave opportunity to the rest of the family to grow and succeed. After she died, one of my cousins studied our great grandmother for her college thesis. Long story short, my cousin worked with a historian in Antequera, and they found out that she was communist, the first woman who fought for women’s rights, and she had her own political movement in Spain. She was 20 years old, and persecuted by Franco and the Second Republic during the Spanish Civil War. She hid for several years in a monastery before she got released and finally could enjoy life again. I’d like to cook with her because, at that time, there was no food, and she was able to feed her entire family of 20, between brothers, cousins—they were all living in the same house.

Dish on your menu that reflects your culture:
José: Growing up, my family would always have Sunday cookouts, where my father would make a giant paella. I wanted to help him cook, but the only thing that he let me do was collect firewood and build the fire. I thought it was the most boring job ever. One day, I got so mad at him and went into the woods alone, frustrated that he wouldn’t let me help him cook. When I came out, after the party, my father explained to me that the most important part of making the paella was not what I called cooking—chopping, sautéing, or stirring—but making and tending the fire. Without fire, there would be no paella, he told me. I have never forgotten what he taught me that day: In order to be successful in life, you have to learn the basics. Today, at Jaleo and at parties with my family and friends, we’re always making paella, and I remember what my dad taught me about the importance of controlling the fire.

Aitor: Our Ibérico Chickpeas dish at é and SAAM are chickpea cream spheres with emulsified Ibérico sauce, confit Ibérico fat, olive oil, and parsley. This is a really traditional dish in Spain, and we’ve recreated it in a modern way. 

Rubén: The croquetas at Jaleo are my mom’s recipe. That was the first change I made when I came to America 14 years ago. I didn’t like the croquetas because they were … well, I just liked my mom’s croquetas better. So I asked her for the recipe, and now 14 years later they’re still on the menu at all the Jaleos and the Bazaars. My mom came a few years ago and said, “Oh, these croquetas are really good,” and I said “Yeah, remember I called you that day, a long time ago?”

What can’t you cook without:
José: Eggs! I love to cook eggs and discover new ways to make them. There are so many different ways to use and enjoy eggs – poached, fried, with caviar, with tomatoes.

Aitor: Damn. I can’t say only one ingredient that is central to my cooking. My cooking revolves around seafood (shrimp, squid, crab, clams, turbot, bonito, mackerel), mushrooms (morels, porcini, chanterelles, truffles, amanita caesarea), vegetables (eggplant, onion, zucchini, tomato, garlic, potato, asparagus, peas), nuts (almond, hazelnut, pinenut, peanut, pistachio, macadamia), fruit (mangosteen, mango, apple, orange, lemons, watermelons, melons) and many others …. We could stay talking about many ingredients that I love to work with and that are central to my cooking. I guess that means the one ingredient that I can’t cook without is: food. 

Rubén: Olive oil … and my iPhone.

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