Mastering food as a fifth language

The life of Alexandra Ewald, “Alex” to all who know and love her, has been shaped by many things; the love of adventure, the excitement of travel and a family tradition of cooking, creativity and style. Through it all, she has developed self-reliance, determination and a growing confidence in her unique gift of culinary expression.

Alex Ewald is the Creator, Owner and Chef of La Tapa, a culinary experience which opened its doors to the people of Cruz Bay, St John in 1996. In this unlikely corner of the world, Alex has been extremely successful at combining her deep respect for different cultures, food and people with a very personal approach to cooking; an instinctive ability that resonates from within. The result is a dining experience well known among celebrity circles for its down to earth ambience, gourmet taste sensations and artistic flair.

Alex, who was born in 1964 in Hamburg, Germany, was introduced to the vast culinary world as a young child. Her father was a very successful European restaurateur who enjoyed dining out as much as he did entertaining. Since her father had at least eight restaurants operating at a time, offering a wide variety of cuisines, Alex traveled with her family around Europe throughout her childhood, speaking fluent English and German.

After the divorce of her parents, Alex continued to travel and move to various locations, developing a love for each new culture as she experienced it. At the age of 10, she moved to the south of France with her mother and stepfather, where she attended school and learned the French language. Following the receipt of her baccalaureat, Alex traveled to the United States and worked with the Boca Raton Resort in Florida and the Four Seasons in Washington D.C.

A move back to Europe allowed for her first entrepreneurial venture when she re-opened the kitchen at the Bar du Labourd, located in the village of Ustarritz, in the Basque Country. Here, Alex was thoroughly immersed and enjoyed the Basque food and traditions: chasse a la palombe, picking cepes, eating pibales, fetes de villages, fete du thon, and fete du piment d'Espelette. She was able to utilize her skills and draw on her experiences in the development of a simple and traditional menu.

At the age of 21, she moved to St. John where her father had relocated, helping him in his new restaurants, Mongoose and later The Fernhouse, advancing in culinary expertise from a kitchen helper to a member of the culinary staff of a gourmet team. Austrian Chef, Roland Czekelius who was instrumental in teaching Alex the blending of a new cuisine with the rustic traditional, joined her later. Mongoose was expanded to include a gourmet deli, which was developed and designed entirely by Alex.

Alex’s only hiatus from the restaurant business was 3_ years spent in Madrid, Spain. Here, she added another language to her repertoire. Her job during this time was as an assistant producer with photographers. She was surrounded by the fashion and publicity industry; exposed to exciting clubs, restaurants, tapas bars and people.

La Tapa is the ultimate expression of love for the culture she experienced there. In 1996, with no money but a great location in the heart of town, Alex finally opened the doors of her own restaurant, a European sidewalk cafe in a charming old West Indian building. The kitchen, at that time, was the size of a large closet, the refrigeration consisted of picnic coolers and the stove was a four-burner household model, but La Tapa was born with over twenty delectable tapas and homemade sangria. Since then, the restaurant has undergone numerous transformations and renovations. Alex has expanded the kitchen, added a rustic bar, instilled Spanish-inspired decorator touches and continues to add professional staff. The menu has transitioned as well, from a traditional tapas menu to a gourmet fine dining experience unrivalled on the tiny island of St. John.

St. John has also changed over the years. It is fast becoming an “in place” to visit and to be seen. With this increased visibility comes the availability of fresh new products and a clientele anxious to partake. Alex teemed up with a local horticulturist, Josephine Roller, who organically grows greens, micro greens and a variety of vegetables and fresh herbs. One salad on the menu is actually named the “Josephine”, a combination of baby bok choy, mustard greens, arugula, Micros and a fresh herb dijonnaise.

The menu continues to change daily as Alex absorbs new experiences, experiments with new ideas and further develops her style, teaching herself and trusting her instincts. It just keeps getting better. She now knows intuitively the food, the ingredients, the herbs and spices; and how they will intermingle and react one with another. The seafood is mostly mahi, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, rainbow runner, snapper and grouper that is caught locally. The quality of fresh fish allows for Sashimi, ceviche and tartare style dishes. Despite the fact that Alex lacks a sweet tooth and prefers the salty flavors, she makes her own ice creams and sorbets for La Tapa. Each has a unique twist to reflect her taste; for example, vanilla bean white peppercorn ice cream, ginger lime with Josephine’s mint sorbet and lemon thyme ice cream.

When asked to describe the food at La Tapa, Alex struggles to find the right words: simple, rustic, a harmony of interesting flavors, yet undefined, indescribable and ever changing. Alex rarely follows a recipe. She follows her mood and her intuition. Rather than reading directions, she reads the food she is working with and the people for whom she is cooking.

Alex approaches her restaurant as her home, welcoming guests and encouraging them to relax and share food with friends. She approaches her staff as she does her guests treating them as her friends and developing a circle of trust. Her heart-felt belief is: “Respect people for whom they are and you can get the best out of them. It becomes a growing experience for all; you get good creative energy and that is reflected in the food.”