The first time I met Marc Vidal, he was sipping wine on a West Village patio while he casually grilled a packet of green onion-like calçots over a charcoal flame, explaining in a lilting Spanish accent the Calçotada festival, a tradition from his native Barcelona that he holds dear for its dedication to simple fare shared among friends. He proclaimed then his love for rooftop barbecues and social gatherings, and it became hard to imagine him within the rigid context of a fine-dining kitchen–he was more like the perpetual host of a pool party in a never-ending summer.
Now, of course, Vidal doesn’t run a fine-dining kitchen: He’s the executive chef of the growing Boqueria empire, which currently has three outlets in the States–two in New York and one in D.C.–plus a satellite in Hong Kong and more addresses in the works. And sprawled across a booth in his SoHo location, pushing rounds of sangria on his companions–even while he’s forgoing alcohol on a workday himself–he seems very much in his element overseeing kitchens that turn out rustic dishes from his homeland to fun-loving groups of diners.
Perhaps that’s because he grew up in the industry. He jokes that he was born in a restaurant, recalling days when he’d head to the eatery his mother and grandparents owned in the Sagrada Familia neighborhood in Barcelona before school, helping with setup and other menial tasks until he began working there officially when he was 14.
But between then and now, Vidal also did some serious time in very structured kitchens: After culinary school, a stint in the Canary Islands, and a summerlong stage at elBulli, he moved to Paris. There he spent a year working with fine-dining guru Alain Passard at L’Arpège, followed by a year with the venerable Alain Ducasse before he was “already done with the city,” he explains, and so, still very young, he moved back to Barcelona to take over as executive chef at the luxury Gran Hotel Torre de Catalunya.
Vidal was next offered an opportunity to helm the kitchen of a Spanish restaurant in Miami, and he spent the next few years opening a sequence of upscale spots devoted to his home country’s cuisine. Finally burning out on white tablecloths, he met Boqueria owner Yann de Rochefort, who was looking for a new chef. “I loved the concept, and it was something I was already thinking about,” Vidal says. “I always thought tapas were the best way to show our culture and cuisine. It was perfect for me.”
And he’s excited about the growth of the company, too, which, to him, has endless potential: “We’re a neighborhood restaurant, so we can open Boquerias in as many neighborhoods as there are in the States.” He says too, though, that the team is deliberate about finding locations, so don’t expect a sudden Boqueria explosion any time soon.
In our interview, he weighs in on what insects taste like, why he hates pork liver, and the woman in politics he’d most like to cook for him.
Describe your culinary style.
I like simple food, and I incorporate my fine-dining background. Tapas can gain a lot from those techniques. We use the best produce and meats that we can get, and we try to capture the feeling of where we’re coming from, which is Spain.
Who or what inspires you?
The cities. New York. Barcelona. The food I grew up with. Ignacio Mattos. April Bloomfield. Diner. Roberta’s: I like what those guys do and the way they think. They use really good quality products, and they make stuff that you can eat every day. It’s not a restaurant that you have to go to only once a year. That’s the food I want to put out. You don’t get tired of it.
What’s your desert island food?
Red shrimp from Palamos. It’s the greatest shrimp in the world. You sear them on the plancha with some salt and olive oil, and suck the heads out. The juices are like heaven. I could eat thousands of them.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Chocolate croissant. I eat them every morning.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
All these insects in Mexico. They were smoky and crispy and good.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
When I was young, my doctor said that I had anemia, and my mom would put a steak of pork liver in front of me and say, “You don’t stand up until you finish this liver.” I couldn’t do it. I’ve never tried it again. I don’t remember having too much fun.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
I did a stage with Nandu Jubany in a restaurant called Can Jubany, which does amazing traditional Catalan food. I learned a lot from this guy in two months. And Michael Schwartz from Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Miami.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
In Spain, we’re not a freak about these things, but if you want to give me a Masamoto, I will take it.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they would send to the kitchen?
Just thank my whole team. I had friends here last week that I met in a restaurant 15 years ago. They loved the food when I was cooking there, and now they’ve been following me for 15 years. That makes you happy, and you want to keep going.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
Spherification of black olive. Or gelatin of amaretto. All of these molecular gastronomy terms. If you want to use it, use it, but just don’t say it on the menu. ElBulli was the first to do it, so seeing it on the menu was something you could understand. But now it’s kind of gross.
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
I love sweetbreads, but they don’t sell here. Same with pigs’ ears and pigs’ feet.
What’s always in your refrigerator at home?
Cheese. I love cheese.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
Michelle Obama, from the White House garden, at the White House. That would be cool, no?
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
The use of local seafood.
What do you wish would go away?
Kitchens that refuse to accommodate guests’ wishes, requests, and needs.
What do you wish you could tell your line cook self?
In this business, you learn every day, and there’s never a moment when you know everything.
What’s your proudest culinary moment?
Working at elBulli. It wasn’t the food that I wanted to make in my future, but I was proud to stage with that team. I’m proud to have cooked with my grandmother, too.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
At casual restaurants, you’ll find the same quality of food and service that you can find at a fine dining restaurants in a much more fun, relaxed environment. That’s going to continue to grow.
What’s next for you?
I’m going to keep living in this amazing city, enjoying my job, loving the people that I work with, opening more Boquerias, and bringing the Spanish culture to more Americans. And I’m going to take a few days of vacation to go somewhere else.
Check back tomorrow, when Vidal divulges some of his favorite haunts around the city.