The Wright, the new restaurant in the Guggenheim, is headed by executive chef Rodolfo Contreras. The chef grew up in Mexico City, moved to the United States 20 years ago, and steadily made his way from working as a bus boy, to attending culinary school and cooking under David Bouley, Rick Moonen, and Christian Delouvrier, and finally to running his own kitchen. He’s also an avid boxer.
We talked to Contreras about his cooking at The Wright, earning his kitchen chops at age nine, and why he finds most New York restaurants disappointing.
Check back here tomorrow to read the second half of the interview.
How’s it going at The Wright? You’ve been open for about a month now?
We opened for lunch December 11, and it has been very good, very busy. We opened for dinner two weeks ago, and we are open Thursday through Saturday for dinner.
How did you go about designing the menu?
I had my own ideas coming in. I work with fresh ingredients. I cook my vegetables everyday, my purees–all of it on a daily basis. The only hard part was to choose the sustainable fish. That’s really difficult. But once I found the fish I wanted to use, I knew what recipes I wanted to combine my fish with, so it took me two to three weeks to finish the menu.
That’s pretty fast.
Yes, I’ve been cooking for 25 years. I know what I want I want to see on a plate. I use fresh ingredients, the best ingredients: Good oil, vinegar, good white and red wines. The good stuff. So if I have access to these things, it gives me the chance to create these recipes.
How would you describe your cooking?
It’s New American. Very simple, very clean. Nothing that is not needed on the plate. Very clean food, very fresh.
Do you have a favorite dish on the menu right now?
A lot of people like the scallop dish. It’s a pan-seared scallop with shrimp in sea urchin sauce. And the yellowtail is very nice. If I put it on the menu, it’s one of my favorite dishes. It’s very hard to choose.
Does the fact that you’re in the Guggenheim surrounded by art change your cooking or the way you plate your dishes?
No, the biggest change is that I finally get to have my own kitchen. Before, I still have to please the chef-owner. Now, it’s my home cooking and I am trying to please the customers, not the chef. It’s really good for me that I get to choose my own ingredients.
So your presentation isn’t influenced by the setting?
No, the food needs to be clean. The food is in the center of the plate, nothing on there that is not needed. Nothing has changed about that. I do appreciate working in the museum, but only what should be on the plate is on the plate.
So you started cooking with your mother when you were nine–what was that like?
Basically, my mother has a house in Mexico City, and she has a lot of sons, there are 12 in the family. We had no money, so my mother decided to start cooking for the factories around the neighborhood. In the beginning, they came to our house to eat. This was a long, long time ago. And my brothers and I tried to help my mother as much as possible. That’s how everything started, at nine, cooking with my mother.
What was your first cooking task?
Basically, we would buy the cheapest ingredients, because we had no money and had to feed a lot of people. So we used to buy these very small potatoes, because the smaller they were the cheaper they were. And my mother would use them in two to three dishes a week. They were very small and peeling them was very hard. I would see those potatoes and think: Oh god, I have to peel these potatoes again!
What sorts of foods did your mother cook?
Really traditional foods from Mexico, the kind we don’t see here in New York, like very simple soups. But when she made that stuff, she started from the basics. So for tomato soup she made her own chicken stock, her own tomato sauce. She made four or five things fresh and combined them into something you’d want to eat. It’s very basic food but with a lot of flavor.
Although the type of food is different, that sounds a lot like how you described your own cooking.
I try to understand that it’s not just about looking at the food. It should be beautiful, but it should be about taste. I get that from my mother. She gave us really good food everyday, so I try to give really good food to customers at the restaurant. You should enjoy what you’re eating.
I don’t believe that there are any restaurants in New York where they really care about the food. I don’t spend my money going out to eat, because it’s very disappointing. I try to respect my customers’ money by giving them good value.
What do you find disappointing about New York restaurants in particular?
I was a chef at three-star restaurants. And it’s good to have the good ingredients, to have all the people. But the people need to be passionate about what they do. If they loose the passion, the loose touch with why they are cooking for customers, which is what we’re there for. That goes into the dish.
I have been in the kitchen for many years, and when you see a piece of fish that was not filleted right, not cooked properly…I say I won’t go to restaurants anymore. Because when I get a chance to cook a beautiful piece of fish, I want to do it to the best of my ability.
And the restaurants are too big. They are not really thinking about the customer, they are thinking about making lots of money. I have a small kitchen and dining room so I can take better care of the customers. So I am secure that I can provide great food for every customer that comes in the door.