Hurry to New York’s Upper West Side, where, on the east side of Amsterdam Avenue between 80th and 81st streets, you’re sure to find a diamond. Look closeyou might miss it. The rowdy bunch at Brother Jimmy’s across the street may distract you, and the unfortunate scaffolding that hides it is apt to fool you.
At least that’s how it feels to pass by Taberna, a gem of a Spanish tapas restaurant helmed by chef Jennifer Cole. The restaurant opened in late spring, but New York foodies have yet to overrun its gracious interior of dark wood (hand-stained by Cole and the owners David Santos and Gabe Collazo) and warm brick walls.
That’s a shame because Cole, who has worked in Spain with Andres Madrigal, a two-time Michelin star winner, has decades of very good culinary experience. Originally trained by famed chef Heinz Schwab in Atlanta during the early 90s, Cole then worked under Susan Spicer, co-owner of Bayona in New Orleans and the recipient of a James Beard Award, before migrating to Europe. Now back in New York she’s crafted a menu that cleaves tightly to authentic Spanish cuisine. Other tapas bars, she believes, offer what tourists are likely to come across when they visit Spain. “At Taberna,”says Cole, “you’ll have what Spaniards eat”
Seen in print, Cole’s proclamation reads more imperiously than the diminutive, flame-haired chef is ever to likely sound. In person, she’s soft-spoken but firm, a real authority on food matters. It’s easy to sit rapt as we did at a West Village cafe one afternoon and listen to her speak knowledgeably about what it’s like to cook in Europe versus America, what direction she believes dining trends are headed, and how she can still love cooking after all these years. We thought you’d enjoy the conversation as much as we did and so share below a bit of our time with her.
Tell us what you learned overseas that you don’t think you could’ve learned cooking in the States.
There’s quality overseas, because the food isn’t mass-produced. There’s a tradition of going to the source. It’s always been that way. I’ve been to foie gras farms in France; I’ve been to slaughterhouses in Spain. I’ve met the people who produced my eggs. It’s really important to have that kind of contact so you know exactly what you’re getting.
The average American is used to seeing his or her food packaged and cleaned and processed in a way that it doesn’t look like an animal anymore. I grew up in the country, and I helped kill chickens when I was a kid and would have chicken for dinner. As a hunter, I’ve helped kill game, but the average American doesn’t do that. When I went to Europe, it reaffirmed a lot of my experience that that’s the right way to do it.
What’s the difference between cooking for European versus American diners?
See, that’s hard to say because cooking for New Yorkers is not like cooking for someone in Kansas or Biloxi, Mississippi. There are so many ethnic groups and so many traditions that I think New Yorkersnot all of them, obviouslyare more willing to try things. It’s more town-to-town: rabbit you can’t sell in Atlanta, but you can sell it in New Orleans. It’s like trout in Spainyou can’t sell it in Madrid, but you can sell it in Toledo.
You know that because you have a long history cooking in America and Europe. Tell us about the trends you’ve seen and where you think fine cuisine is headed.
With the big boom in new cuisineall the gels, the foamsthere’s a backlash with that, at least in Spain. Here it’s still pretty new; there everybody has them.
Okay, a casual diner walks in and gets oysters with a seawater foam on topit’s a nice dish, actually. I’ve had that and it’s quite tastybut that’s what it is: you put it in your mouth and it dissolves. It’s like cotton candy but salty. I use things like that to enhance the flavor, but it’s not the body of the meal. It’s not a staple, but when you use it like one, it leaves people taken aback, like, “Where’s my dinner?”In Spain, people feel a bit abused.
It’s gonna be a problem because the students coming out of culinary school, they don’t know how to fry an egg. I’m not kidding. They know foams and gels. I could make a better Spanish tortilla than someone from Madrid could, but that’s what a lot of culinary schools are like these days. Students don’t know how to cook because there’s too many people in class, and they have one beef finger loin for all of them to wash and clean. It’s so sad.
So what’s your solution?
That they learn the basics at school and at home. Frying an egg should be something you learn at home in Spain, because they eat eggs over there like you wouldn’t believe. France, too. Eggs are a huge part of their diet. They don’t eat them just for breakfast; they eat them all day long.
It should be the same way here. People coming out of culinary school, they’re paper chefs. They know how to do the paperwork and that’s about it. You have to learn the basics. You have to learn how cut. You have to learn how to identify the productif it’s good quality, bad qualityand that takes time.
You’ve been cooking since the late 80s. You’ve definitely put in your time. What still excites you about cooking?
Everything excites me about cooking! I love it. I’m so curious about everything. There are things coming from all parts of the world that I don’t know about. There are still things in Spain, new cheeses I’ve never tried. Well, not new cheeses, but cheese I’ve never been able to get my hands on because the production is so small. In the States, you have so many opportunities, because there are so many ethnic groups here and they’re bringing things over and you’re, like, “Oh my god.”There’s a spice market near Union Square that I have yet to find, but urban legend has it that they’re all these Pakistani booths. I love going to the market and seeing things.
We’d like to thank Chef Cole for her time and for sharing the following recipe with us:
John Fazio Farm Rabbit Terrine with Micro Greens and Lavender Aioli
sprig of thyme
1 small carrot cut into sticks lightly blanched
Carefully debone rabbit. Spread it out into a the most square shape possible on top of of plastic wrap using the leg meat to fill in gaps. Place carrot sticks, chopped thyme and a touch of salt and pepper. Roll the rabbit inside the plastic in the same fashion as making a maki. Tie the ends and then wrap in aluminum foil. Using a hot saute pan mark the roll all the way around and then place in a 425 oven for 12 mins. Remove and let cool.
For the aioli take a cup of mayonnaise and add a quarter of garlic clove finely minced and a tsp of dried lavender.
Taberna is located at 429 Amsterdam Avenue (between 80th &81st), New York, NY 917-388-3500