Julia: Can you tell me how you would describe the basic tenants of Basque cooking for those who are not familiar?
Alex: Simplicity, distinguished by a deft hand and super ingredients
Julia: How are Tapas meant to be eaten? In my family (specifically when we went to Txikito), as soon as we got the first dish, we liked it so much that we ordered 3 more of the same thing. I have a feeling this is not how you are supposed to do it…
Alex: That happens a lot. Each dish is a modest commitment and you can order as you go. Traditionally, you would go to multiple restaurants in search of a specific dish. We even tried to re-create the idea of a “poteo” or “tapas crawl” by opening new restaurants within walking distance of one another.
Julia: There are Jewish influences in your food. Aside from bagels and lox, Jewish food kind of gets a bad rap, but I love it. Who in your family was Jewish, and did they cook?
Alex: Both my parents are Jewish. I grew up eating stellar knishes, and amazing kreplach so I didn’t realize how bad it could be.
There was also Passover cake, made with almond flour. That is actually a quintessential Galician dessert called Torta Santiago.
Julia: Could you imagine a Spanish take on Gelfite Fish? I could…
Alex: Gefilte fish is a Sephardic dish, but I’m convinced it’s a form of Escabeche (a typical Spanish preparation of canned or potted preserved fish).
Julia: You own three restaurants and have two kids in New York City. Do you have time to cook with your kids, or do you not even want to think about food when you get home?
Alex: Both! Occasionally, I find myself starting to cook a loveless meal, and that’s when I engage my kids. We end up having fun, and together, we are capable of making a far tastier meal than I would on my own.
Julia: You are a natural connector of people. Every encounter I have with you ends with you leads me to some interesting person who you think I would connect with. Do you think this comes from a food culture of sharing and collaboration?
Alex: I meet so many fascinating people and sincerely want talented people to succeed. It excites me to make connections between the culinary world and other creative arenas since, I am inspired by people in so many different disciplines.
Julia: Are New Yorkers particularly difficult customers, or is it nice to know that they will always tell you the truth?
Alex: New Yorkers are excellent and loyal customers. They are infinitely open and perceptive. Without them, New York would be too tough a place for me to live. Life is not easy here so we try keep it really simple in all other aspects.
Julia: You are not a celebrity chef, but you use the notoriety of your restaurants as a platform to support causes you care about. Tell me about Txikifest, how it came about, how it has evolved and where you see it going?
Alex: Txikifest, our local street fair, is a way for us to celebrate the community around Txikito with the neighborhood. The fair features predominately Basque food, and the release of the new spring vintage of Txakoli (a slightly effervescent, dry Spanish white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content). There was never a doubt that the profits from Txikifest would be donated to charity, this year proceeds were donated to Edible School Yard NYC.
Julia: You met your husband while working in the kitchen of a NYC Spanish restaurant. Did you know that you would work together from the beginning? What is more challenging, raising kids or managing three restaurants?
Alex: I love working with Eder — he is great at what he does and that’s very sexy and fun to be around. When I met him, I didn’t know, but I hoped. It’s hard to manage work and home-life, but one compliments the other and in some ways, they require similar skills. I’m still learning how to do manage both areas of my life, and at the same time, to separate the two.
Julia: You made a “pantry staple” Romesco sauce, something that my readers could easily whip together without specialty ingredients. Are there one or two typical Basque ingredients that you think are worth the home chef seeking out and experimenting with?
Alex: Squid ink and Piquillo peppers