7.19.10 The Ask: Chef Alex Raij

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photos by george billard
Alex Raij is the chef and co-owner of Txikito, a wonderful restaurant in Manhattan with its own uniquely personal take on Basque cuisine. I have eaten there on many occasions—on my own or with a friend for lunch, with groups big and small for dinner—and she has never failed to impress me with her imaginative and delicious cooking. El Quinto Pino, a more traditional tapas bar, is also part of her empire, which I'm sure will continue to diversify and grow in popularity. Chef Alex was kind enough to agree to an interview and submitted to a quick photo session with G. She even passed along a recipe for the basil pomada served at El Quinto Pino (I've done my best to adapt it faithfully). The result is the first of what I hope will be a series of interviews on gluttonforlife.

GFL:
With your recent contribution to the Ortegas' The Book of Tapas and your two New York City restaurants, you’re becoming a well-known authority on tapas. Do you enjoy being so closely associated with this one type of cooking?

AR: I love tapas and especially the relaxed lifestyle they reflect. I find it quite easy to freestyle in the tapas tradition, but I also think we are known for cooking in season in a very personal way that is very satisfying.


GFL: Many people seem to think of tapas as purely restaurant food. But couldn’t they try any number of tapas as the basis for a home meal?

AR: Sure, there are many. But if served at home I think of them more as a picada, a snack. It’s a different type of hospitality, but the same spirit of generosity and the same notion of food and drink as inseparable.


GFL: Can you think of three American dishes that could qualify as tapas?

AR: Off the top of my head: deviled eggs, pigs in a blanket, crackers and cheese.


GFL: Given that food and drink are so inextricably intertwined, especially in Spanish culture, would you like the opportunity to offer selections beyond wine and beer at Txikito?

AR: We do have a couple of cocktails and some spirits, but even they reflect those you’d find in the Basque country: gin and tonic, rum and coke, Pacharrán (a sloe liqueur), chupitos de hierbas, brandy, vermouth, sherry and Zurracapote, a wine cocktail with dried fruits. But ultimately, beer and wine are the most food-friendly, and what I crave when I’m in Spain.


GFL: How did you develop the very unique cocktails on offer at El Quinto Pino?

AR: The summer before I opened El Quinto Pino, I went to Cataluña and Menorca where I drank lots of horchata and first tried pomada, a Menorcan gin lemonade. Very often there they are granizados, or frozen. I wanted to serve our version of them, making the horchata into a milk punch with brandy and adding basil to the pomada. I had no idea it would generate a new interest in frozen drinks!
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chef raij in her kitchen at txikito
GFL: How do you characterize the differences between the two restaurants?

AR: El Quinto Pino is a multi-regional tapas bar that reflects just how varied Spanish cuisine can be—even at the tapas level—as well as all the viticultural possibilities. Still, its main function is to show off the delicious convivial atmosphere of a classic tapas bar and have it serve the same social function for New Yorkers as it does for Spaniards. That’s why I started serving breakfast there. The tapas bar in Spain is an extension of the home, and for many people El Quinto Pino is just that.Txikito is the same in its friendliness, and offers some pintxos (a specific style of Basque tapas), but it is a full-service restaurant that casts a wide net over all the ways one might eat in the Basque country. So, there’s home cooking, casual restaurant food, large cider house steaks and other more creative dishes you would find in a fine dining restaurant serving “Cocina de Autor.” Txikito, with its austere and rustic interior, is meant to evoke a Basque spirit, where the collection of dishes, wines and service are connected by a quiet commitment to quality that leaves a strong impression.That’s just the Basque way.


GFL: What is the advantage to having small restaurants?

AR: I think the small restaurant can be far more interesting, even if it has fewer resources for equipment, staff and PR. Lack of these things can generate an out-of-the-box thinking that is good for food, and certainly a greater intimacy with the product, the dishes, the staff and customers that I find healthy.


GFL: You’ve said that writing a cookbook is contingent upon “having some practical application to the home cook that I haven't thought of yet.” Is this because you’re a restaurant chef and don’t cook much at home?

AR: No, though that is true most of the time. It’s because I have a deep love for cookbooks and the ones I love are what I consider to be “generous books,” books that give you tools that will forever change how you cook no matter what you’re cooking. I would like any book I write to help expand one’s repertoire, but also enhance one’s comfort making food overall. It should have enduring value.


GFL: What role does your husband, Eder Montero, play? What is the interaction/inspiration like between the two of you?

AR: We are a team. We have very different skills and appreciate each other. Eder is great operationally and finds true joy in driving production. He also knows the dishes of his youth. He doesn’t create that much, so when he does it is very fresh and unencumbered by a particular vision or style. I express my style in very narrow parameters by applying it to Spanish cuisine, so I find creating and drawing connections to be quite easy and satisfying, though never arbitrary. I’m also very entrepreneurial and like to develop businesses. I think I have a sense of what is good and know how to adapt and translate those things so they can be shared with others. This is a very Basque trait, by the way. Who knows where I got it.


GFL: According to you, although female chefs may not get as many awards as their male counterparts, they can have more quality in their lives in many other ways. To what other ways are you referring?

AR: I definitely meant professionally, not that women have more outside sources of quality of life—we should all aspire to that. What I meant was that I know more women who perhaps do not win awards but have more rewarding careers and cook more on their own terms. I guess it’s all in how you define success. I have been commercially successful making very personal food. Sometimes I find that men seem to find personal success making commercial food that it would not please me to make.I recently saw a blog posting on a reputable cooking magazine’s site that I found so absurd. It was a photo slide-show of the babies of star chefs. I don’t think there was a single individual on the list that had even birthed a child, maybe one. One day male chefs are poster children for fatherhood, and the next are bragging about how they never take a day off. The demands of celebrity are such that one is forced to be inauthentic and to deliver the “right” response. I don’t know too many women chefs who feel they have to do that, and I’m so glad I don’t have to.
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cooking up a storm
GFL: Where were you born and raised?

AR: Born in Chicago, raised Minneapolis.


GFL: What are your first memories of food?

AR: A box of raisins, cinnamon toast, empanadas, cherries jubilee, homemade pizza.


GFL: Which foods remind you of home?

AR: Roast chicken, butterflied leg of lamb.


GFL: At what age did you become interested in cooking professionally?

AR: I always played restaurant, and my first jobs were with food. I can’t remember not being interested.


GFL: You’ve said that you take the notion of “greenmarket eating” as a given. Are you conscientious about how you source all your ingredients?

AR: No. We could do better and should do better and will do better.


GFL: Where do you stand on using organic foods, grass-fed beef, sustainable fish, etc.?

AR: Pastured everything is where I have been challenged, because I haven’t found commercial beef products I love. I spend a lot of time shopping, but I wish people would visit me with samples because taste is everything for me. We buy a lot of our vegetables from the green market in season, and usually choose from farmers who may not necessarily be certified but have organic practices. We buy some dairy and goat’s milk there, too, and fish from Blue Moon. Our olive oil is organic (and very costly—we use tons of it!), and so are many of our wines, though not exclusively.


GFL: Do you read many blogs? Which are your favorites?

AR: I read yours all the time now. I like Michael Rulhman’s, Travelers Lunch Box and Michael Laiskonis’. I learn a lot from the internet, but not always from one particular place. Usually, I just run searches and end up in great places I can never find again.


GFL: What do you think is their current contribution to the food world?

AR: On one hand, they have created a climate of gossip, but there is also a real sharing that is happening that I find just amazing.
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I used lemon basil but everyone agreed the drink would work better with regular basil
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a food processor makes short work of it
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an envious shade of green
Sip on a porch or beach while wearing sandals and feeling very Menorcan!
 

Basil Pomada, Menorca-Style

adapted from El Quinto Pino; serves 6
  • — 1 packed cup fresh basil leaves
  • — 1 cup organic cane sugar
  • — 3 cups water
  • — 1 cup fresh lemon juice
  • — 12 ounces gin (Alex recommends Plymouth or Beefeater, I used Boodles)

Combine sugar and basil in cuisinart and process until very finely ground.



Scrape basil-sugar into a small bowl and pour the lemon juice over. Set aside to let sugar melt, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Then combine with water and gin in your ice cream maker, and run the machine until the pomada is slushy, similar to a frozen margarita. Pour into a rocks, highball or martini/margarita glass and garnish with a sprig of basil.



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4 Comments

I enjoyed reading the interview with chef Alex Raij and I look forward to reading other interviews you will be posting. Great stuff! Elaine
Elaine on July 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm — Reply
Thanks, Elaine! Not sure who the next subject might be, but I'll be on the lookout! xo
laura on July 19, 2010 at 5:17 pm — Reply
Really enjoyed reading this and the timing struck a chord. Been thinking a lot lately about how to get out and learn more from others. I learned a lot here from your astute questions and chef Raij's eloquent answers. Thank you!
Prairie on July 7, 2013 at 4:24 pm — Reply
Glad you reached back into the archives, Prairie! I have a list of other chefs/cooks I want to interview for a new series called, In the Kitchen With. Wish we lived closer!
laura on July 7, 2013 at 4:50 pm — Reply