"That's definitely true in the public squares. In the plazas," Alex Raij says, leaning on the counter of Txikito in New York City. "The parents are just having pintxos all around the park, and at no point do they know where their kids are. They have this sense that everyone is looking for their kids. And they are."
It's 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Raij—the chef/owner behind a mini empire of Spanish restaurants in New York City—and I somehow got on the topic of how little Japanese kids start hopping on subways on their own at a young age, that sense of community responsibility that comes with the practice and how it translates to Spanish culture as well.
"But I freak out every time I go," she adds with a raspy chuckle.
Candid, petite in stature and wearing thick-rimmed glasses, Raij has been cooking, researching, living—her husband and co-chef/owner Eder Montero is Basque after all—Spanish food ever since she stepped out of culinary school, from twirling Murcian pasta at La Vara in Brooklyn to mastering the essentials of Basque cooking here at Txikito. Now with the upcoming release of her first book, The Basque Book ($30), she's finally put her adventures on paper as a love letter to the people and that notch of land in the Pyrenees between northern Spain and southern France. Naturally, it's cause for celebration.
And here's what that party looks like in Raij's hands, and today at Txikito: plump mussels poached in lemon thyme- and coriander-laced vinaigrette (see the recipe), endive roasted with mayonnaise and blue cheese until yielding and sweet (see the recipe), thick shards of fried potatoes sprinkled with oily chorizo and topped with fried eggs (see the recipe) and gâteau Basque, that buttery, custard-filled cake of summer festivals (see the recipe).
"This type of cooking relies on everything being on point," Raij says. "The priorities of the cuisine require you to either be a good cook or become a good cook. You can't hide behind sauces. You can't cover it. It's totally naked food."
Simplicity is what Raij loves about the cuisine. So much so that the book was initially conceived to be broken down into pantry-focused chapters, like oil, salt and eggs—this one still exists in the book—reflecting the bare bones that make up the cuisine. "Basque food has a very specific mystique," she writes in the book. "It celebrates single ingredients and tastes and constantly reminds the cook that 'simple' doesn't necessarily mean 'easy.'" But funny enough, it was the spherifying wizard Ferran Adrià, specifically, his profile in a 1997 Food Arts issue that got Raij into Spanish food.
"I wanted to go to Spain, because of that article," Raij says. "But in order to get to Spain, those cooking positions weren't obvious. It wasn't like international people were coming in. That was before The Sorcerer's Apprentices."
She never ended up cooking in Spain, instead working as a bilingual secretary in Italy right out of college, cooking around Seattle and working at Meigas with Montero under a Martín Berasategui alum in New York City. And although she found Adrià's ideas enthralling, eventually she tired of all the gels and caviar-shaped this and that—"The context got lost, and it stopped feeling like Spanish food," Raij says.
Raij even went so far as to ask Montero's mentors, the first generation of El Bulli cooks, if she should try to cook at the iconic restaurant. They in turn asked, "Have you changed?"
"I was like no, and they were like, don't go," Raij says. "We have opinions, and that's not what you do at El Bulli. You're shelling pine nuts. I don't want to say I'm not humble enough. It was both above me and beneath me to go there." But Basque food, the region and the people remained an enduring love.
So instead, she found her way to Basque Country through her husband and festas on the street to meet his whole family and friends, through then staying put in New York City and bringing a little bit of Spain to life with each new project, like Tekoá, her new coffee shop right next to La Vara.
"It's ironic, because while I was a secretary in Italy, I was plotting my espresso business and I just opened Tekoá," Raij says with a laugh. "I probably should have let that dream go."
Raij is already thinking of a La Vara book. The ideas continue to tumble in—some new, some nostalgic. Clearly, some dreams are still alive.
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