A Chef's-Eye View

At Chowder, we do a lot of the talking (and eating, but hey—it’s our job). So we thought we’d hand over the mic back over to Boston uber-chef and guest blogger Ken Oringer for a moment. Following the successful launch of Coppa in December—a collaboration with chef Jamie Bissonnette—Oringer found time for a little culinary getaway to Spain. Here, he explains why the best thing a busy chef can do for his business is get the heck outta town.

The most important aspect in motivating me as a chef and restaurateur is travel. I don’t have to go far: While it’s great to escape to the romantic, wild, wooded countryside of La Alberca, Spain to attend a traditional auction of the famed black-footed Iberico pig—more on that later—even the least exotic places, like a taco truck in Newark, can create taste memories and inspire me to create new restaurant concepts and signature dishes. It’s about personal development, and challenging yourself to become more open-minded.

But back to Spain: I recently returned from a trip through the Castilla y Leon region of central Spain with chefs Ming Tsai and Chris Cosentino (the famous “guts and lips” chef from San Francisco and the Food Network). We were led on a fearless adventure by Jose Andres, the most well-known Spanish chef in America. He’s quite the celebrity in Spain, too—almost as popular as David Hasselhoff is in Germany.

With Spanish paparazzi following our every move, we nibbled on crispy pork jowls and blood sausage from Burgos, gazed into ancient wood ovens to see suckling pigs roasting, finished with chorizo, jamon, and salads made with the fat of the pig. We stepped back five centuries and walked the cobblestone streets of ancient Moorish villages, eating every single part of the jamon iberico. Vegetables? Nutritious, refreshing, and cleansing foods? No such thing—at least not on this trip.

Being in the restaurant business and having a passion for eating, drinking wine and passing hours on end at the dinner table, we’re pros at this kind of at-length indulgence. But perhaps even more inspiring than the food were our late-night discussions. We spent hours drinking homemade Spanish grappa and debating topics like the history of cuisine and its importance to young cooks. With Jose, Ming, and Chris at the table, the conversation might wander from the best soccer teams in Europe to miraculous healers and meditation gurus in the rain forests of Brazil.

When I returned, I briefed my staff and management team on all the great dishes we ate, showing pictures and videos and sharing what I’d learned in my travels. (One takeaway? Even if you eat pig for 18 hours a day, you will not grow pointy ears and a snout, or snort after hearing a joke—even if it feels like you might.) But the most important goal was to try and help them understand the soul of the region: the rustic cooking, the hospitality, and the beauty of Spain. We talked about how we can continue to try to bring these concepts into the restaurants on a daily basis. And those lessons, even more than the ham, are worth leaving home for.

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