El Parador Café is one of those old-school New York City restaurants, having been around since the days when spots for Mexican fine dining were virtually nil. Now, they’re a dime a dozen, but El Parador is still going strong, half a century later. We called up chef and co-owner Alex Alejandro to learn more about how he keeps it caliente in the kitchen.
You own the oldest Mexican restaurant in the city. Tell me about the restaurant’s origins.
The restaurant has been around since 1959 and was owned by Carlos Jacott. He retired in 1990 and asked my father if he wanted to buy it. So he bought the place and I joined him in the operation. We’re Spanish but it was a good deal. I decided if I wanted to continue in the business I had to learn a little bit more about Mexican food and the trade so I went to the French Culinary Institute and learned the contemporary style of cooking.
But the French Culinary Institute teaches classic French food — how did that experience teach you Mexican cuisine?
What the French Culinary Institute taught me was technique, but I also kept asking the guys in the kitchen, “What can we do? How can we make it better?” and learned to create recipes and dishes to the point where they pleased me. You know, a recipe is just a map and you can create it to your tastes.
Was it hard working with your parents?
Working with family is never easy. My father was not the easiest person to work with, but I learned a lot from him. He taught me to respect the business and to please others and to keep watch. Learning how to keep a close eye on the operation.
You worked every station — which was the hardest?
The dealing with staff. We’re all human and have issues, scheduling issues, mood changes, everything. Trying to understand people — you have to treat them how you’d want them to treat you. That was and still is the hardest part. You don’t want people to end up stealing from you. You want them taking care of the place when you aren’t there. You need to be a psychologist and drill sergeant.
And the easiest?
Washing pots. That was a no-brainer.
So would you want your kids to go into the restaurant business?
If they want to, I won’t stop them. I’ll make sure I’ll tell them everything I know.
What would be the key piece of advice you give them?
Do what you preach in front of the staff. Be the first one to lead and the first one to get your hands dirty.
What are some of the things you love to cook?
I grew up in a sea town, so seafood is the key to happiness. I also love the way Mexicans char tomatoes and tomatillos, and all the flavorful sauces. I am not able to eat now without spice. I had never eaten spicy food before coming to America. Now I can’t eat without jalapeños on the plate. Chiles in general and tomatillos are essential, and having good olive oil. It’s so hard to get good produce now, though.
Why is that?
Everything is picked so green and is refrigerated with chemicals. I buy tomatoes and have to let them ripen outside just so they have some flavor. It’s hard for someone like me to develop relationships with farmers. I can’t go to the Union Square Greenmarket each week — I’m a one-man show.
What are some of the trends you find most annoying?
You know what, everyone needs a gimmick. I’m not for that. Ramps are everywhere; it used to be fiddlehead ferns. But you need to change it up and have something new every so often — it’s like your sex life! I’m happy with what we do. Yeah, we had warm chocolate lava cake for a few years but then I said, “We can’t have that anymore!” I don’t have a need for trendiness.
Check back in tomorrow, when Alex talks about life outside the restaurant and reveals his salsa secrets.