Oozing boyish charm and patience, Chef NicolÃ¡s Jimenez sweetly smiled as he shook my hand and told me (after I had gone on for a good 10 minutes about how happy I was to meet him and learn more about his native Navarre cuisine) that he speaks “No English.” Thank goodness, the PR woman was fluent in Spanish and offered to translate.
Seemingly full of energy, you’d never guess that the night before, the 31-year-old chef had prepared the same Navarra Food and Wine banquet for New York’s AIWF chapter; well, almost the same — they didn’t get to try the ethereal White Asparagus Tempura since their produce didn’t pass the Jimenez freshness test. He then flew cross-country and had spent all morning prepping for the sold-out repeat performance at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel.
JN: When did you first know you wanted to cook?
NJ: How you say…I was like the cobbler’s child, with no food. (Which, when translated correctly, meant that Nicholas had to learn to cook, for self-preservation, at a very early age since his mother, Chef Atxen Jimenez, was always busy working downstairs in Tubal , the family restaurant.
Even though she repeatedly told him the same thing that her parents had told her– that she did not want him following in her footsteps. Too late — the cooking gene was obviously passed on to yet another generation). After spending years learning from my mother, I decided to further my culinary education and study with some of Spain’s best Chefs. For the next few years I worked with Chef Jose Maria Arzak at Arzak’s, San Sebastian, (which has a three-star Michelin rating,) Chef Hilario Arbelaitz at the smaller two-star village Restaurante Zuberoa, and with the great Chef Martin Berasategui.
JN: Who is your favorite chef?
NJ: Although I greatly increased my skills learning from all these chefs, and I’m a big fan of Ferran AdriÃ¡’s (El Bulli) creative techniques, I must say my favorite chef is my Mama, because she cooks with her whole soul and also was one of the first chefs to experiment with Nueva Cocina. Even though she never traveled, she used to stay up late at night reading cookbooks in bed to come up with all these new ideas.
JN: Is your mother still involved in the restaurant?
NJ: Very much so. She is the heart of the restaurant. Also, my sister runs the business side of things while my wife manages the dining room and the wine cellar. We all live above Restaurante Tubal. My mother lives on the fourth floor while my wife and I and our baby daughter live on the third floor. (He proudly whips out his phone and shows me her picture, then looking a little forlorn says that this is the first time he’s been away from her). I hope that she did not inherit the restaurant gene or else (grinning) I will never be able to retire, because I’d have to stay on forever to help her run things.
JN: How would you describe Navarrese Food?
NJ: Our food really reigns supreme for its vegetables. Navarra has the world’s best artichokes, cardo, white asparagus, borage (like a leafy bok choy), white beans, and Piquillo peppers. Not only that, but at the restaurant we get the very freshest produce because our relationship with the farmers goes back for generations. With the exception of the artichokes, all my produce is grown within minutes of Tubal. When I need something, I just call the farmers and they run out to the fields and pull up the vegetables and run them in, still warm from the sun.
JN: What do you think of the food in New York?
NJ: I really enjoyed eating at WD-50, Olives, and Mario Batali’s Del Posto, but I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. The vegetables in America are so large and beautiful, but they have no taste! At home, our vegetables may be little and ugly but they are bursting with flavor.
He sounded a little homesick. I couldn’t tell whether it was for his ugly veggies or beautiful baby girl.
When Chef Nicolas returns home, he will continue to cook his own way. He will work to keep the Navarre traditional slow food recipes alive, but will also add his own touches. But he promises that even as the Nueva Cocina further evolves, it will always be based on the tradition of using only the highest quality local ingredients.
(Photo: Chef Nicolas at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, CA)