El Salvador-born Ricardo Cardona moved from his home country to Alphabet City when he was a teenager in the early ’80s. He now heads up the kitchen of the newly opened Gabbana, a modern Dominican restaurant in Corona, Queens. The chef is a veteran of New York kitchens, having worked his way up from frying falafel in the East Village to the Ritz-Carlton, and finally developing his own modern Caribbean/Latin American cuisine. Cardona is currently the executive chef of six restaurants, including Sofrito, 809, Mamajuana, Hudson River Café, and Manolito’s.
Yesterday, we caught up with Cardona about the challenges of coming up through the kitchen, racism at the Ritz, what Dominicans really eat, and opening the first place of his own.
Here, in the second half of the interview, we get him to explain what, exactly, is modern Dominican cuisine, his thoughts on natural fusions, how he manages six restaurants at once, and why he hates being on TV.
So how would you describe the modern Dominican food you’re cooking at Gabbana?
It came because, back in the day, there were no imports. Nothing. But the way the world is now, you can bring the best of the best on planes. So that means that you’re using all the best ingredients from all over the world, and adding the Dominican flavor.
And it can be very simple. You can do a yucca vichyssoise, or instead of potatoes, use plantains. So that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to be stuck in the traditional ways; you can do modern food. Modern food means using ingredients from all over the world.
I did a squash soup, a very typical Dominican dish. I did it as a cream soup, and at the end I added a little bit of Manchego cheese, truffle oil, and rock shrimp. These things are not Dominican, but they are delicious.
Do you ever get New York Dominicans saying that you are messing with the food too much? [Earlier, Cardona had noted that New York Dominicans eat more traditional food, out of nostalgia, than Dominicans who live in the D.R.]
It depends who visits and their point of view. The people who travel, who have money, who have culture, they love the idea. People who don’t say, “What is this?” But the food is art. Nothing is set in stone. We can do whatever we want.
So far, most of the successful Dominican restaurants in Washington Heights have been created by me. If they want to eat basic stuff, they go to a cheap cuchifrito spot. If they want something special, they come to me. I’ve opened 809, Hudson River Café … These are sophisticated Dominican fusion restaurants. You can always have the best of two worlds.
If you could make sure Americans knew one thing about Dominican food, what would it be?
Well, first of all, Americans, most of them know [Dominicans] Oscar de la Renta, Alex Rodriguez, and everybody wonders what they grew up eating. In the Dominican Republic, you can have the best of two worlds. You can eat the foods of African Americans and Arabs — yucca, plantains, very rich, flavorful food. But they are also very open-minded. You can bring Maine lobster from New York to the Caribbean. They are open to anything that is good, that is healthy, that is sophisticated …
Where do you like to eat Salvadorian food in New York?
Every time I get nostalgic, I call my mom. [Laughs.] There is a restaurant in Yonkers called La Pupusa Loca. It is near my house, so I go there …
How do you manage to head up six different restaurants at once?
Not really! [Laughs.] My son, he went to school, he had the opportunity to learn a career, and he did restaurant management. Now he’s 23, and he helps me run my catering.
You have a catering company as well?
Yes, I did the All-Star game, a Sonia Sotomayor private party. I did a party at Jennifer Lopez’s house. … And he [my son] helps me put them together.
So the restaurants — you rely on chefs de cuisine?
Yes, I put the concepts into place and then I have sous chefs. … You know, I create the menu, do the concept, and leave the people there and supervise them. At Sofrito, I am still the executive chef; I cook there. Don’t ask me how I do it!
Is there an ingredient that’s unknown or underrated in the United States that you particularly like?
Sour orange. And I’m in love with Dominican oregano …
What do you suggest home cooks do with sour orange?
Sour orange is good to marinate pork with. If you marinate it overnight, it tastes unbelievably delicious. The combination of sour orange, vinegar, and garlic on pork, that’s the best flavor in the world.
You had a Dominican cooking show — what was that like?
Yes, I did it for three months; it was a three-month contract. They use different chefs each season, and I was the chef last year.
I hate it. But you know, you have to do it for the business.
Why did you hate it?
The problem is that when chefs concentrate on TV shows, the food in their restaurants goes down the drain! A lot of chefs I admire, their restaurants have gone downhill because they are on TV. They’re too busy! It’s a commitment. I’d rather be a restaurant chef than a TV chef.