Jesús Nuñez is known for his Madrid restaurants, Polenta and Flou, where he offered avant-garde, imaginative dishes like a deconstructed Spanish tortilla in seven textures. A former graffiti artist, Nuñez often conceives dishes visually first before deciding how to also make them taste good.
The chef has recently moved to New York, and in November he’ll be opening Graffit, a modern Spanish restaurant on West 69th Street.
We caught up with Nuñez about the new restaurant, what he thinks of Spanish restaurants in New York, and his idyllic food memories from growing up in the north of Spain. Tune in tomorrow for the second half of the interview.
What’s your first food memory?
Well, my father is from a village in the north of Spain. There are 40 people in this village. When I was born 35 years ago, it had cows, pigs, chickens, rabbits, and good wine, healthy to drink. So I was born with all that, getting to eat the tomatoes, the white apples, white onions — this kind of produce I really enjoy. I enjoyed the rustic bread my grandmother made, with ham or chorizo from my family’s pig — we made our own charcuterie. My grandmother would cook the bread every Monday and Thursday, and we would have bread for the rest of the week. My favorite thing was this bread with cream — you boil milk three times to make it — and sugar. It was my favorite breakfast. I have three cousins, and everybody would fight to have this cream, because the flavor was incredible.
And how did you become a chef?
I was a very rebel guy when I was young — I liked to play, go to the beach. My mind was always thinking something more creative, so when I finished college, I told my parents I didn’t want to continue to study something I didn’t enjoy. So I started in the culinary school of Madrid, studying to be a chef. I decided that I felt better and really enjoyed cooking. I have a very personal identification with my style. I like the colors, the textures, the different volumes on the plate. So I decided — why not be a chef? It’s something I feel passion for. I feel like a lucky person, because not a lot of people are working in a job they really enjoy.
And I read that you were a graffiti artist when you were young — how does that influence what you do now?
When I think of a new dish, I think of it like an artist. How I can create something beautiful, that you will eat with your eyes that is also flavorful and tastes great. All my experience playing with colors — when I am plating, I want to create sculptures with a piece of food.
You’re well-known in Madrid for your two restaurants, Polenta and Flou, so why did you decide to come to New York and open a restaurant?
I think that there’s always this story — a person meets somebody, this somebody decides to return to her home country. In my case, my girlfriend is from New York and wanted to return to New York. We were talking about this, and I decided: Why not? It’s a new challenge, New York is the capital of the world, everybody dreams to live in New York. You see it in films. … And, of course, I came here with the idea to open my own restaurant. I opened Polenta when I was 24, so I’ve been working for myself for the last 11 years, so it would be hard to work for another chef — I have my own style and ideas.
How do you come up with new ideas for dishes?
Sometimes I find a new ingredient I want to work with, or have a color combination I want, or I have a crazy idea. I have the idea to do a menu only with colors: a plate that is only yellow, another that is only red, or black. You are eating food, but you are eating colors. And then I start working with flavor, because then the most important thing is how it tastes.
Did you ever have an idea that even you thought was too crazy, but that ended up working?
When I have an idea, I realize the idea. Sometimes, for one idea I spend three or four months to create the final plate that is in my dream. … I was playing with cauliflower cream, planning on making a cauliflower blini with salmon eggs. And then [for another dish] I start thinking how I can create something that looks like an egg, has the yolk of an egg inside, but the flavor is not of an egg. … So I decide to make that cauliflower cream very white, [put the cream inside a hollowed out egg shell], put the egg yolk back in. So when you put the egg on the plate, it is white like a boiled egg, you break it open and there is yolk inside, but when you taste, it’s cauliflower. So sometimes I start with one idea and transform it …
Are there foods from Spain that you particularly miss?
Well, my idea for Graffit is that we will be a small product embassy from Spain: nice olive oil, Padrón peppers … all of these products. Of course, some products from Spain are really difficult to find here, are only made in a small area of Spain.
Something that my grandmother made, fabes — a big white bean typical in Asturias in the north. These beans are almost impossible to find here.
Are there any Spanish restaurants in New York that you like?
You know, the Spanish food in the city — somebody changed the concept of Spanish food. You see paella with chorizo — it would never happen in Spain, never. So it’s something between Mexican, South American, and Spanish. Always when I see cilantro or avocado — this is not real Spanish food. We use avocado in modern, not traditional, cuisine. I am a Spanish person eating Spanish food, so I don’t go to too many Spanish restaurants in New York. I love Txikito, I really enjoy their food. But there are not a lot of Spanish restaurants that I really enjoy.
So a lot of the Spanish restaurants here aren’t truly Spanish.
You can find patatas bravas, tomato and bread, croquettes — yeah, this is Spanish. But I always prefer to eat at home than to pay $10 for croquettes. I can make them with my girlfriend and enjoy. I don’t really want to pay — it’s not about money, it’s about where I’m from — I don’t want to pay $5 for a piece of bread with tomato and olive oil. At home, I can have the rustic bread I prefer, Spanish olive oil, tomatoes from the Greenmarket, and Iberia ham.