Vitals: Born in Barcelona, Chef Jesús Núñez is a self-proclaimed culinary rebel who currently helms the kitchen as executive chef at traditional Spanish eatery Barraca in downtown New York City. Núñez spent his teen years as a graffiti artist before being persuaded to go to culinary school (“my mom and dad were teachers, scared that I didn’t want to continue my studies – I was told I would be good at cooking, and here I am!” he recalls) and as a forward-thinking chef in his native Spain he quickly earned international recognition for his style, with features in Vogue, Gourmet, Elle and InStyle magazines. And stateside accolades have been piling up for the 37-year-old, who was named a “Key Newcomer” by the 2012 Zagat guide for his interpretation of hearty Spanish classics like patatas bravas, croquetas and paella.
Experience: A graduate of the Casa de Capo Escuela Superior de Hostelería y Turismo with degrees in culinary arts and tourism, Chef Núñez worked at Madrid restaurants Polenta and Flou before following his sweetheart to New York City nearly four years ago. He opened Gastroarte before moving to Barraca just four months ago and is currently working on a new restaurant named Melibea, which will highlight classic Mediterranean cuisine. “I love Spanish food, but I make the best homemade pasta in New York,” says Núñez, “So I’m looking forward to exciting my diners with a different experience.”
His food philosophy: “I try to help people understand the root of Spanish cuisine because many Americans and New Yorkers just don’t understand our tradition. People confuse Latin, Caribbean and Mexican food because you can refer to all of it as ‘Spanish.’ At Gastroarte, my food was modern – too modern for diners to understand, because they weren’t familiar with its roots. So now at Barraca, my philosophy is to offer people a true taste of rustic Spain. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
On being a culinary rebel: “I only follow one rule in my kitchen – that if it’s not perfect, I don’t serve it. Other than that, it’s complete anarchy. I ask the same questions every day: how can I tackle something different? How can I try a new concept? How can I translate an idea? How do I do something that hasn’t been done before? That’s what it means for me to be a culinary rebel.”
On the joys of fresh, simple ingredients: “My grandparents lived on a very small village of about 60 people in northern Spain. My family had cows, pigs, rabbits and chickens, and my grandmother made everything from scratch, including cream. My grandmother would milk the cow and boil the milk three times to pasteurize it, later skimming the top of the milk for cream. As a child I would put that beautiful cream on a slice of homemade bread and sprinkle it with sugar. That was my favorite breakfast, and to me, it represents how beauty can be made from the simplest ingredients.”
On the last dish he’d cook: “I think I would create something difficult but simple; something with humble ingredients. I don’t use truffles, caviar or expensive produce. So it would be fun to surprise someone with a potato. Confit potatoes, with beets cooked in beet juice, carrots cooked in carrot juice and a beautiful, organic egg would be perfect – a dish that is gorgeous in its simplicity with beautiful colors, flavors and textures.”
His favorite snack: “I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I love pizza – it’s one of my favorite foods. I also love warming a slice of bread in the oven and then topping it with a slice of beautiful tomato, a bit of bellota ham – which I always shave at home myself – and extra virgin olive oil.”
On his fantasy dinner companion: “Frank Gehry is my biggest inspiration and I would love to meet him. He created new standards in architecture because he broke all the rules. He created a fusion between art and architecture that inspires what I do with food: creating art on a plate that you can consume with all five of your senses.”