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How to Protect Your Culinary Soul With Chef Alex Raij

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In Episode 7 of the Eater Upsell, one of New York's finest chefs explains how she got her start in the kitchen and eventually became the proprietor of three very successful, totally unique restaurants.

Alex Raij is the chef that turned New York City diners onto regional Spanish cuisine. Her Manhattan restaurants El Quinto Pino and Txikito focus on the Basque region, while her Brooklyn cafe, La Vara, explores the Moorish and Jewish influences on Spanish cuisine. Alex runs these restaurants with her husband Eder Montero. Unlike many chefs in their circle, both Alex and Eder can be found cooking in their restaurants during the week.

In the seventh episode of The Eater Upsell, Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito talk with Alex about embracing Spanish cuisine, balancing family with business, and how to protect your work as a chef.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 7: Alex Raij, edited to the main interview. Want to listen to Helen and Greg talk about free bathroom Champagne? You'll just have to listen to the audio above.

Helen: Alex is the chef of three restaurants; El Quinto Pino, Txikito, and La Vara which is one of my favorites in Brooklyn.

Greg: La Vara is a Team Eater favorite, I would say.

Alex: Eater, yes, specifically has been ...they've always been very supportive of us.

Helen: If you need to find an Eater editor, just check out the bar at La Vara. All three of your restaurants are Spanish restaurants, but they all cover different parts of Spain, right?

Alex: Yeah, they tell different stories.

Helen: What's the breakdown?

Alex: La Vara is the most improvisational one. I call it like the love child between my husband and I, because it's a Spanish restaurant that is inspired by this notion of the contributions of Jews and Moors in Spanish cuisine. But in Spain, those influences are really sublimated. They're just not talked about at all, but they're so obvious to people who are involved in food. I like sort of digging around for that stuff and then doping it up. It's like a Spanish restaurant that looks towards contemporary Middle Eastern flavors.

Helen: I feel like there's definitely a Middle Eastern note in things like romesco and like nuts and red peppers and heavy spices and that whole southern Spain like, "Oh yeah, you are definitely right across the Mediterranean from a whole different palate."

Greg: How did you come to New York?

Alex: I came here to go to culinary school. I was living on the West Coast and I didn't have a culinary degree and I just thought I should get one. And then I was going to the community college there, and my parents were like, "You should try to go to the best school you can go to." And they helped me, and so I came here.

Helen: Awesome parental support.

Alex: I know, yeah.

Helen: I feel like a lot of times when we talk to chefs, their parents were not super into the idea of them becoming cooks. Were your parents on board with it?

Alex: No. They weren't into it when I was just cooking without the piece of paper. They weren't supportive but I also think they didn't think I was being very decisive. And so once I became decisive, they became incredibly supportive. So, I think you just have to stick to your guns and parents will get behind you. I know I felt for a long time like I wasn't being supported, but I don't think I was making my case either.

Greg: Where did you go to school? ICE?

Alex: No, I went to the CIA at Hyde Park, which I loved because I loved living up there.

Helen: It's a beautiful campus.

Alex: It is and I lived in Rhinebeck for the first while of it and that was great. I'm not a huge city person, and that was great.

Helen: So are you Spanish?

Alex: No. I'm Jewish and Argentine. My parents are both from Argentina. So I was a first generation Spanish-speaking kid, which I think made me, I don't know, just really comfortable in the cuisine. Any time I made a dish, I already knew it, kind of. My mom made a lot of paella when I was growing up, but she would grain rice. I later found out, oh, that's not really paella what my mom was making. She was making arròs a banda, which is a semantic difference for some people, but it's a huge difference for Valencians. I just had a very intuitive, easy relationship with Spanish food so it just grabbed me. I felt like it captured all my interests as a cook.

Helen: When did you start getting into it?

Alex: I took a job at a Spanish restaurant that was opening in New York in 1999 when I was leaving culinary school. It wasn’t that I was interested in Spanish cuisine. I was interested in going to Spain to work at El Bulli, which was not very open to international people at the time. It was all young Spanish interns.

Greg: Why was that?

Alex: It was new. I don't think people knew about it. I just read about it in Food Arts magazine while I was in the library at CIA and I was fascinated by it and I had this other plan. I thought if I could just get there and work there and then go home, then that was all I wanted to do. I thought if I took this job at the Spanish restaurant where this guy had worked for Martín Berasategui, I thought I would be able to get those relationships and get in. Now it's much easier, I would say. Now El Bulli is not there, but it's easier to work in Spain if you want to.

Greg: If you're an American chef?

Alex: If you're an American young cook. I think it's hard to be a chef and take time out.

Greg: Did you ever do the traveling young chef thing?

Alex: I didn't. I never cooked abroad, sadly. It's one of my biggest regrets.

Helen: It's not too late.

Alex: It kind of is.

Greg: Why don't you just stage somewhere? We know some people.

Helen: Leave your three really successful restaurants and intern.

Alex: I feel like I would be lame; I would be in the way. I don't know. I would love to. Maybe someone will hear this and invite me.

Greg: As a young chef in New York, you worked at that Spanish restaurant in the past. Was it called Mera...?

Alex: Meigas.

Greg: Meigas?

Alex: Yeah, that's the job. That was the job that I was trying, to get my Spanish contacts. I ended up meeting my husband.

Helen: That's a Spanish contact.

Alex: It was a lot of contact, maybe too much contact.

Helen: He's from the Basque region in Spain, right?

Alex: Yeah.

Helen: I have this weird thing that happened to me when I was in the Basque region that I was telling Greg about, which I think I might've told you about when it was happening. It was so bizarre. My husband and I went to the Basque region of Spain on our honeymoon and we spent a night in Bilbao and we were wandering around and we totally messed up the timing of dinner in Bilbao. It was earlier than we realized it was, because we were like, "Oh Spain, we'll have dinner at midnight." And you don't do that in Bilbao.

Alex Raij

[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

Alex: Maybe not. I think on Sunday, everything is closed there on Sunday. There's weird stuff.

Helen: Yeah. We clearly had not been clued into some code, and the only place that was open was Café Iruña. We went into this restaurant and it's a bar and they only have one food item and it's these incredible lamb skewers that are covered in cumin and doused with lemon juice. They are charcoal grilled and served with a hunk of bread on the end. I was like, "This is great. This reminds me of my favorite dish when I moved to New York in 2004, which was the lamb skewers at Tía Pol." My husband was like, "Shut up." I was like, "No, this is amazing." Then I started Googling it after we had a couple drinks and it turns out you were the chef at Tía Pol when it opened in 2004.

Alex: I was the chef and owner.

Helen: And owner.

Alex: Those skewers. My husband's dad works for —

Helen: That restaurant.

Alex: For that restaurant. He did PR, he's retired now. Our skewers were totally inspired by those. I had those at my wedding, too.

Helen: My husband was like, "Shut up, Helen. You see connections everywhere. There's not a connection." I was like, "No, this is real." It was so validating.

Alex: Yeah.

Greg: I feel like that's indicative, that story, of something that I think a lot of people justly give you credit for, which is this idea of serving specific, regional dishes. Did that all start at Tía Pol? Was that the Tía Pol menu?

Alex: Yes, but that menu preexisted that restaurant even. My husband and I were planning that for many, many years before. So yeah, that was the menu. The menu was to take you on a trip around Spain with wine and food.

Greg: Who wouldn't want to do that?

I didn't want to have paella. I didn't want to have anything that people could relate to this substandard Spanish cuisine that had come out of not professional cooks using not great ingredients just to create the food that they were used to from home.

Alex: Exactly. But at the time, it was also to set a new standard for Spanish cuisine by purposely not selecting items that people at that time associated with Spain. Because I felt like the state of Spanish food in New York wasn’t in particularly good shape, because they weren't using really good products, which is the key to producing good Spanish food. And so I didn't want to have things like gambas al ajillo, and so we did the head-on shrimp. I didn't want to have paella. I didn't want to have anything that people could relate to this substandard Spanish cuisine that had come out of not professional cooks using not great ingredients just to create the food that they were used to from home. It was like people came over here who were working in construction or even in meat markets. Definitely, what's really cool is that West Chelsea was always a Spanish area, and so I felt like it should be in West Chelsea, it should be just redefined.

Greg: That was the inspiration?

Alex: Just set everything straight. Yeah, but I didn't, at the time. My partners were the ones that had the real estate and I had the concept.

Helen: There was a little bit of drama around your departure from Tía Pol. The restaurant opened in ‘04 and then how long were you there?

Alex: From the beginning until after we opened El Quinto Pino.

Helen: I remember being shocked and horrified that you were leaving.

Alex: I was shocked and horrified too. It was not a beautiful ending.

Greg: Was that an experience where you learned something? Did you think, "I became a better business person? I became a better restaurateur?"

What I would tell young cooks would be: Whatever your agreement, no matter how good it is, make sure that it has an arbitration clause in it because if you had to go to court to defend your rights, that's a very expensive proposition.

Alex: I was a really good business person before. That place was pretty much at the time, like, a gold mine. A lot of people who copied it are doing really well. A lot of people kept it, and they're still doing really well, I'm sure. I was not an un-savvy business person. I had a really good agreement and you don't...just because you have an agreement doesn't mean that you don't have to enforce it. That's what I learned. What I would tell young cooks would be: Whatever your agreement, no matter how good it is, make sure that it has an arbitration clause in it because if you had to go to court to defend your rights, that's a very expensive proposition. And there's some people who are counting on it being too expensive for you. You have to be careful. And that's what I would share with anybody is an arbitration clause. Good agreement, and an arbitration clause.

Helen: I feel like a lot of young chefs get really excited about learning how to cook and don't really think about learning how to run a business or be a business person or look out. Even stuff like recipe development, or who owns a recipe? I was talking to a chef the other day who recently left a relatively high profile restaurant and they're still serving all of her deserts.

Alex: Unless you have this idea of intellectual property in your agreement, which I would — I guess that's another lesson. Don't put your intellectual property. Don't attach your IP to any concept, because nobody can own your recipes or keep you from making them. If you attach all that stuff, you roll all that stuff in. Nobody can take that from you, but if you give it away, you've given it away. Don't give it away.

Greg: There are so many restaurants in the city that are playing in someone else's hits now.

Helen: It's true. Everything's a remix.

Alex: I like it when the press notices. For me, it's not who is doing it or what they're doing, but it's nice for people to have a memory, like a collective memory, and it would be nice if people would just say, "This is inspired by this," or whatever. That's what I tried to do. When we opened Txikito, we opened it to serve two dishes. Fundamentally one was totally our own, and the other one was the whole turbot from Elkano. When we put on our board, it says "whole turbot Elkano-style." There's seven or eight restaurants that serve that. Or, there's a billion restaurants in the Basque country that serve whole turbot. But for me, the iconic one was Elkano.

Helen: Cocktail bars have started doing a lot of attribution. I think there's a record with cocktails.

Alex: It's nice.

Helen: I look at the menu and be like oh yeah, The Penicillin was invented by the guy whose name I forgot who invented The Penicillin. The name goes with it.

Greg: It's funny, though, there was a bar — I guess it's closed or changed — called Golden Cadillac, and they had a cocktail in the menu that had a "Benton's bacon wash." We were discussing in the office like, "So, if PDT exactly invented that and put that on the menu, can you just appropriate that? Now, it's just something everybody can do?"

Helen: You can't copyright the concept of a recipe. You can only copyright the specific language of it and the written document. This is why stuff like Coca-Cola or KFC —

Alex: They keep everything secret.

Helen: They keep it secret because as soon as it's out there, you have no control over it. You just have to never tell anyone, or be Eddie Van Halen playing the guitar facing away from the audience.

Alex: I love that. I never would've compared it. That's hilarious.

Helen: It's like, "No, don't look at what I'm doing."

Alex: I will say I'm very proprietary and I get very frustrated about this stuff. I don't get frustrated that people use or take. I get frustrated that people don't call them out, or that they don't call themselves out. It's not nice. It's one thing if you're in Atlanta or California, but if you're in the East Village or in Brooklyn, or you're in the East Village and West Village, that's not cool. At least just give a little homage you know?

Greg: As a diner, I love seeing any sort of attribution a menu. I think it's fun.

Helen: It creates a story in a community.

Greg: It makes it bigger than that one dish in that restaurant.

Alex: I agree. In fact, for Valentine's Day one year at Tia, we did a love letter to all the chefs that we loved. That night, the specials were all dishes from other cooks. We did Rebecca Charles' lobster roll, pintxos-style. We did a bánh mì from that one place on Kenmare and Grand Street; I forget, It was a long time ago. It was like foie gras bánh mì. We messed up Wylie's fried mayonnaise. We did pork buns, and Dave brought me the buns. That was fun. It was really cute and it was really fun. I guess maybe that's why it bothers me, just because I really do appreciate what cooks do and the integrity of them. I defend my friends a lot.

Helen: I think those pork buns are probably the most ripped off dish in America or the world right now. Maybe it's not even ripping off at this point. It's just entered the vernacular, like pizza. I remember when the Momofuku cookbook came out, there's a recipe for the pork buns in it and he has the recipe for making your own buns.

Greg: That's so hard though.

Helen: It's so hard. He had this tiny little line at the bottom or maybe it was at the top that he was just like, "We don't make these from scratch. We buy them. Here's the name of the bakery where we buy them from. If you want to make these from scratch, you're an insane person." Now you go to these restaurants all over the country and they're like, "We make our own spongy bun bread and not even freaking David Chang does this." You're ripping it off farther than it needs to go.

Alex: Because I think well, a lot of people are nixtamaling their own corn or grinding their own flour now. It's like a DIY thing. I'm also very much like Dave where it's not so much that I don't want to make it, but if you can't make it better, don't make it. I don't go home and make dumplings for my kids. I go to Hester Street and I buy them because I can't make them any better. It doesn't show more love to make a bad dumpling.

Greg: You've got three restaurants; two in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. I've always understood that you and your husband are very active in the kitchen and are still creating and still cooking and doing all that stuff. I know recently just reading Eater NY, you guys were maybe looking at other spaces. Three restaurants seems like a lot for a small team in New York. What is the impetus to do more? What do you want to do next?

Alex: Well, I want to send my son to the same school I'm sending my daughter to for starters. I want to keep sending my daughter there. But really, I think it's like, I'm the one that always wants to tell another story, and my husband's the one who's a little more like, "Alright, should we be doing this?" So far, we've had good ideas that worked in neighborhoods that have embraced us. We're not being offered huge opportunities to have restaurants built out for us.

Greg: Atlantic City is not calling you up and saying, "Hey, let's do Txikito."

Alex: They're not. They would be calling me and be like, "Let's do tuxedo." No, they're not calling me. That's what we do. We do that and our leases are ticking down at different places and so we're like, "Where would we put it next? Or what story would we tell next?" It also keeps you more engaged to be doing stuff.

Greg: You've been very forthcoming in the press, talking about being a mom and being a restaurateur. And something that Helen and I were discussing right before this...

Helen: You are the chef that people talk to about what it's like to be a really bad ass, hardcore, amazing chef and restaurateur, and also very demonstrably prioritize and value your family life. What is it like to constantly be asked what it's like to constantly be asked what it's like?

Alex: I don't mind people asking me, because I love talking about my kids, and I'm very nostalgic about childhood. I think that's one of the reasons I cook, is because my mom cooked with us. Now my kids probably, hopefully will not cook because I don't cook with them that much. We do other things and year to year, we've been having more and more time together. But yeah, we work a lot and our kids have an amazing babysitter during the week who makes sure that they go to their after school stuff, or schleps them around, and then one of us gets home usually in the evening. We don't live very balanced lives. I feel like it's all or nothing with us.

When you give people responsibility, I think they usually rise.

Last year, we took a month off — crazy. We were staffed, we had amazing people on, and this year, that’s not going to happen. We still have amazing people and staff, but we just don't have this couple of key people. We were never planning to take a month off. We rented a cabin an hour from here so we could get back and commute every day, then we stayed there. I think the other times when we came back, it was just because we needed a break from each other. But our staff was doing an amazing job. When you give people responsibility, I think they usually rise. I wish that we could do it every year.

Helen: Do you and your husband work in the same restaurant at the same time or do you split it up and have a rotating schedule?

Alex: We do work together, but we do very different things and a lot of times, we're like ships crossing. Like even today. Usually one of us gets up in the morning and takes one of our kids to school and the other one takes the other kid to school because they're at different schools right now. My daughter — who's older, she goes to school in Brooklyn — she goes to La Vara. Then the other one just comes straight to Txikito.

Greg: Do they like the restaurants? Do they feel comfortable there or is it like, "This is where mom works. It's weird."

Alex: No, they do. When my daughter was born, I went to work six weeks in because my husband had to have knee surgery. So, I would bring her in with me, but even from the very beginning, even in the first six weeks, I think I brought her in and my general manager was like, "You need to not bring her to work anymore." It was a real wake up call. But when you're used to going to work every day, you don't really know how not to. That was funny. My daughter spent a lot of time in the restaurant earlier, and then not at all. Because then, it was just like, let's not do this. Let's not have her here. Even though when I was little, I wished I could grow up in a restaurant. I loved going to Chinese restaurants with my parents and seeing the kids in there doing their homework.

Helen: There's something romantic about it.

Alex: Yeah.

Helen: You know that the kids who grow up sitting under the counter in the kitchen in their parent’s restaurants will tell the best stories when they're 50 or 60 years old, like they're going to write the amazing memoirs.

Alex: They do, but a lot of them are really resentful of the restaurant itself. Not my kids, but I have talked to people who just felt like that restaurant was this wall between them and their parents. They are very demanding, restaurants are, and it is really hard.

Helen: Do you think about that balance or is it just something that naturally resolves itself?

Alex: I don't think about the balance so much. We're in a good place now, where one or both of us is able to spend some time on the evenings. I have had guilt. I don't have guilt about not necessarily having enough time. I sometimes feel guilty about whenever I've had a disappointment. Any time you have to disappoint your kids when you're a parent, you feel bad about it.

Helen: And I don’t think cooks have a monopoly.

Alex: Exactly. But it feels like, because it's vocational, to disappoint your kid when you have a you might not be able to show up at a play. June fourth is Carousel Day at my daughter's school and all the parents are going to take the kids to Prospect Park carousel and I won't be there. Normally I could. I can do whatever I want. I own the place. But we're shooting our book that day, so I won't be there.

Helen: The book. We haven't talked about the book. The book is super exciting.

Greg: Your first book?

Alex: Yeah. The first one that we're writing cover to cover. We've participated in a couple others.

Helen: Is the title still Welcome Basque?

Alex: No. I liked it too. I'm glad you liked it. Ten Speed was like, "No." They're like, "You're diminishing the importance." Well, you went on your honeymoon to Basque country. Everywhere you go in the Basque country, there's these signs that say, "ongi etorri," which means "welcome" in Basque, so it was just to be punny.

Helen: What's the title now?

Alex: Now it's BASQUE in all capitals, and then it has a subtitle, which I don't know if I should say. I feel like, don't you want the surprise?

Helen: Is it going to be like the Basque font? Because when you're in the Basque region, there's this typeface that's everywhere.

Alex: I want it to be the Basque font.

Greg: I did not know this.

Alex: It's great.

Helen: I don't even know how to describe it. If you're a typographer, it’s like bubble letters with really huge serifs and the Ts come down really low. Every single thing is written in this type face, or hand lettered. It's so weird and cool.

Alex: Yes, in small doses is how I described it to the art director. Yeah, there will be some Basque font there. I don't know if it'll be right on the cover or elsewhere in the book.

Greg: Everything will be written, all the recipes in Basque font, right? You should release a special edition or something.

Alex: It'll be like chiseled out of wood. It'll be branded into the wood.

Helen: Oh my God, it's amazing.

Greg: Is this going to be more than recipes and how-tos? Is it going to be partially a biography?

Alex: It's kind of like a love story in recipes. It's about falling in love with the cuisine or finding a space in a cuisine. I'm editing it. We're editing it right now. The document I have right now is 270 pages.

Helen: That's huge.

Alex: It's a big book.

Helen: That's a big book.

Alex: I think they probably wanted to trim it a little bit.

Helen: Is it just very comprehensive for Basque cooking? Is it home cooking or restaurant cooking?

Alex: It's home cooking. But I think, again, our restaurant cooking is based on home cooking. I think that's why people like it. So yeah, it's home cooking. It’s not cursory. It's current, is what I would call it. I call it kind of neo-traditional. It's going to have how to make pil pil and how to make a really good ink sauce and all these things that you want to know if you want to make Basque food, but it's definitely our way.

Helen: The Basque region is — there's a reason it's referred to as "the Basque region." It's actually a country within a country in Spain and it has a very distinct identity.

Alex: Yes.

Helen: Is there something that you think helps encapsulate that for people who just think that Basque food is just Spanish food?

Alex: It's so much easier to describe Basque food by what it's not, and it's frustrating for me that there are Basque restaurants that have romesco sauce on the menu. The wine regions and the use of olive oil shows that there's a Mediterranean influence, but it's not a Mediterranean cuisine.

Greg: How often do you go back there?

Alex: Once or twice a year. This year, it'll be twice. We're going to go in August.

Helen: Do you have a path that you follow every time you go or what's your move?

Alex: I feel like everybody who goes to Basque country and goes to Spain is like light years ahead of me because they don't have in-laws and family that they check in with. Usually, we try to attach one excursion or some other place. Before we opened La Vara, we hit up on a bunch. We went to the Basque country but we also went to Granada, Toledo, and Cordoba. We always are trying to hit up something new .

Helen: Do you drive?

Alex: We do drive. I don't drive, but we drive around; my husband drives. I drive here but I'm afraid to drive there, but I think I need to. I think I'm going to break that fear. We're actually going to Castile and Leon this summer. It's pretty barren over there and I think I'll be able to try.

Helen: Because there won't be other cars.

Alex: Right. It’s also just that I haven’t driven stick shifts since I lived in Seattle. I learned on a stick, but I haven't driven one in a long time and all the rentals are sticks.

Helen: When I was in the Basque country, we got a car. The great thing is that it's so beautiful and there's so much stuff and you can just drive around and pull off the highway when you see something that looks interesting, like there's a farm in the distance with some sign that says "We make cheese in here." And I'm like, "I'm going to go eat your cheese now."

Alex: And they'll be so thrilled that you're there.

Helen: I know. It's so amazing. Just pull off the road.

Alex: Yeah.

La Vara

268 Clinton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 422-0065 Visit Website

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