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Chef Alex Raij’s Secret Weapons

The force behind New York City’s most beloved Spanish restaurants talks Basque food, essential drinks, and more.

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CHEF AND RESTAURATEUR ALEX Raij helmed the rise of Spanish cuisine and tapas culture in New York City in the early aughts. Alongside her husband Eder Montero, a chef from Spain’s Basque region, she now runs the city’s Andalusian-influenced La Vara, seafood-centered Saint Julivert, and Basque-inspired Txikito. But her background is even more diverse: She is the child of Jewish-Argentinian immigrants, and her work is a globe-crossing conversation in flavor.

How do you define delicious?

Cantonese food is undeniably delicious. I call it the perfect food — so calibrated, so diverse. It’s super elusive, like perfume almost. Basque food has that, too. It’s very quiet, but there’s something noble about it.

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What foods make you nostalgic?

Argentine food — Jewish-Argentine or Italian-Argentine. Gnocchi, tortellini, milanesa. I worked at a food court in Minneapolis in my teens with a lot of Vietnamese and Hmong immigrants. My food-court friends and I would go out to Brooklyn Center, kind of like Flushing [ in Queens, New York City]. I had never tried proper dim sum before, and it was a revelation.

What’s a dish that fascinates you?

In the Basque Country, they eat a lot of Ensaladilla Rusa — Russian [potato] salad with mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is from Mahón in the Balearic Islands. Even though it’s considered a base here now, it’s an important mother sauce. You could just make the best version of Russian salad instead of saying, “I’ve moved beyond it.” Constantly revising is innovative. Emulsion sauces are innovative. I obsess about pil pil — a mayonnaise of sorts — bound by the gelatin in cod. You poach the fish in olive oil and then make a sauce out of the poaching. It’s an onomatopoeia; the oil pings onto the side of the pot: “pil pil.”

What’s a food or drink that more people should know about?

When I opened Saint Julivert, I was obsessed with rhum agricole, pot still rum. It has a lot of strange aromatics and briny, olivey flavors because it’s made from cane juice which ferments, so it has more funky esters. When I tried a Ti’ Punch [a drink from the French Caribbean], I was like, “I want to drink this for the rest of my life.” It’s iced agricole, with a lime cheek in it. And you can put coconut water in it — delicious and savory.


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What do you like to bring to a dinner party?

I was drinking with this former floor sommelier from Le Bernardin, and she was like, “If you haven’t had this wine — oh, my God, you have to.” It was this [Domaine] Pattes Loup, a Chablis. [Chablis] has all this seashell, dead seabed stuff in the soil.

What’s your secret kitchen weapon?

Shrimp shells. Mushroom trim. We’ll twist off the ends, wash them, shake them dry, and make stock. My mom did stuff like that too: scrape all the meat off the bones, off the fish, and use the bones or shrimp shells to make stock. Make salsa macha or XO sauce. It’s just the responsible thing to do.

What are you wearing right now?

A Basque sailor shirt. It’s French, but I think it’s from Basque sailors. The Basque Country has one foot in France and one foot in Spain. The Spanish Basques have a stronger identity because they were persecuted under Franco, with efforts to destroy Basque language and culture. The Spanish side is what I’m more concerned with because my husband’s from there (and I probably shouldn’t say this), but I think the food’s superior.

What restaurants have inspired you?

Bar Magenta in Milan. It is beautiful inside, with two huge posters of yellow raincoats in the back. If you go there at lunch, you get tripe and salads. Etxebarri is probably the best restaurant I’ve ever been to. So innovative and so Basque. This one guy runs this grill. He would take these baby eels, put them in a basket and just kiss it with fire. He made mozzarella from his own water buffalo on the property and would even have Catalan products like gambas de Palamós, those ruby shrimps. Or [he would] buy an Iberian pig to make his own ham and chorizo.

What is a joyful memory from your restaurants?

In every restaurant I’ve ever owned — except for La Vara, strangely — people just break out in song. Opera. I think people feel free, or there’s some kind of exuberant joy. They do what they want, they consider it their place.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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