FEELINGS AND FOOD
HOW CHEF GABRIEL BENITEZ IS REVOLUTIONIZING THE SPANISH FOOD SCENE IN NEW YORK CITY
Have you ever heard of txistorra, antxoas or goxua cake? Well, the first two dishes are respectively traditional Basque sausages and anchovies while the last one is a delicious cream-based cake. The Basque country located in Northern Spain is one of the most prominent gastronomical regions in the world. Chef Gabriel Benitez was born in Bilbao, the region’s biggest city. Being raised in a family that values the culinary arts (his father was also a chef), in one of the food capitals of the world is what inspired Gabriel to become a chef, a desire he has had since he was a teenager. He poetically notes that he sees “Food as memory” - it is true that for Mediterranean countries such as Spain, a lot of family recipes are viewed as an heirloom. A true ambassador for Spanish and Basque cuisine, he has now crossed over the Atlantic as he works and resides in New York City. How did the Chef navigate his journey in Manhattan and found his mark at one of the most prestigious food institutions in the city?
Gabriel is a Chef and a Culinary Artist but his background is also academic. He holds a Master’s Degree in Senior Technician in Kitchen Management from the Institute of Culinary and Hospitality Artxanda in Bilbao and a Master’s Degree in Hospitality and an additional Master’s in Management of Catering and Hospitality Services. Perhaps his love for food is paired with his love for research and the science behind it: “There are so many incredible editorial resources for chefs, from magazines to books written by culinary experts. Culinary texts can also be about ingredients, techniques, and flavors. I spend almost all my free time reading books and going to restaurants to try new flavors and products,” he quotes.
Chef Gabriel Benitez and celebrity Chef Ferran Adria during a World Central Kitchen's event at Mercado Little Spain, New York City
Research and development are a big part of Gabriel’s profile as a chef. Before settling in New York, he had worked for some celebrity Chefs and restaurants in his home country, recipe research and creation were a big part of the institutions’ practice. First starting at Los Fueros, the Bilbao-based restaurant, known for its delicious traditional Basque cuisine as a Chef de Partie before moving abroad to Amsterdam where he worked for BasQ Kitchen as a Head Chef. A unique concept, BasQ kitchen serves casual Spanish food and drinks. Looking at their menu is mouth-watering - a selection of tapas, pintxos, and grill dishes as well as BasQ sharing boxes.
This international stint truly solidified Gabriel Benitez’s expertise when it comes to Spanish and Basque cuisine. Working with locally sourced and high-quality ingredients, Gabriel developed new recipes introducing the finest of Basque cuisine to Dutch customers. The restaurant was awarded the prestigious Bib Gourmand by the Michelin Guide. “I learned about the different ingredients and the traditions of other countries. I want to transmit my knowledge to my colleagues and thus make a restaurant increase its culinary offerings.” Gabriel is certainly building bridges between his culture and the world.
Continuing his journey with Michelin-starred Spanish restaurants, Gabriel then landed jobs at Azurmendi and DiverXo. Following celebrity Chef Eneko Atxa’s philosophy, Azurmendi combines a strong commitment to sustainability to high-quality food and traditional Basque dishes. Located in a vineyard, the restaurant is directly integrated into the hillside, built as a unique bioclimatic building. The design is sleek and nothing or almost nothing is wasted, the energy is renewable and they also actively compost and use local ingredients. In 2018, the restaurant was voted “Most sustainable restaurant according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurant”. Gabriel mentions finding innovative solutions around the acts of eating and serving food as one of his priorities as a Chef and Culinary Artist - “Usually I fill my handbook with new ideas, the culinary world has no limits and there is always room for evolution”. In a world that is ever-changing, and with natural resources that are slowly becoming questionable, a sustainable and well-thought cuisine model such as Gabriel’s, one that challenges the status quo, is not only refreshing but also highly necessary.
New York City is home to the true foodie’s capital. Home to approximately 800 languages and almost all ethnic cuisines represented, it is a global hub for gastronomy. Gabriel had dreamed of working in New York City since he was young. In 2019, he got hired as the Sous-Chef for Mercado Little Spain in Manhattan. Something he describes as his biggest achievement up to date. Somewhere between the experience of a semester abroad in Barcelona or the best vacation of your life in Spain, Mercado Little Spain has everything your appetite might want. No need to pack your suitcase or renew your passport, you can experience the best of Spanish cuisine and the atmosphere of the Boqueria right here in New York City. You might want to invite a few friends and head to Hudson Yard. Mercado Little Spain is more than a food court, it is a global concept - the lovechild of celebrity Spanish Chef José Andrés and his team. With more than 3,200 square meters of space divided into different restaurants and areas with various flavors, and designs, and culinary concepts, we are halfway between a market and a small town. The space was thought to be multi-functional, from the business lunch meetings to a space to sit down for hours with your family.
Chef Gabriel Benitez and other members of the World Central Kitchen during the #ChefsforAmerica event presented at Mercado Little Spain in New York City
Walking through the maze of Mercado Little Spain feels like strolling through the meandering streets of Palma De Mallorca or Valencia. The choice of culinary experiences is also vast - A Spanish diner, a tapas bar or a Chiringuito, designed after the Spanish casual outdoor spaces often found by the seaside. As the Sous-Chef of Mercado Little Spain, you can imagine how busy Gabriel is. While the position certainly has challenges, he is excited and delighted to come to work every day - “The requirements are always very high, the pressure to satisfy clients and to achieve professional excellence in this work are universal, wherever you work, in Spain or in The United States. And as for the reception, I must confess that it has been excellent, I am very happy to have made the decision to come.” The New York Times covered the venue a couple of times and chose it as its top 10 restaurants of 2019.
When asked what are his client's favorite dishes at Mercado, Gabriel has a simple answer: Los chipirones en su tinta (Small squids in their own ink) and another dish called "Gilda" (after the iconic movie starring Rita Hayworth) which consists of anchovy with olives and chilies. Gabriel also mentions that while the dishes are cooked with the traditional ingredients and flavors, many of them are grown locally around New York City in an effort to encourage and promote circular economy and sustainability - txistorra, guindillas, queso, antxoas, pastel vasco o goxua, txakolí, pimientos so many dishes that New Yorkers, one of the most demanding culinary audience in the world, are fond of.
While Gabriel has recently moved to the United States, he has become a well-integrated community member in the New York cooking world. He talks about his experience during the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020, describing it as “brutal”. Like many other restaurant professionals, Gabriel had to face the shutdown of his industry, however, his natural stamina and dedication allowed him to turn this tragedy into an empowering experience. Working with World Central Kitchen, an organization that provides meals to communities in need, Gabriel cooked and delivered 5000 meals per day to hungry New Yorkers during the first months of the pandemic. While his background working for Michelin-starred restaurants might seem like a big stretch from a commissary kitchen for people in need, Gabriel was up to the challenge.
After a career that led him to work with celebrity chefs, acclaimed institutions and earned him several awards - Best academic file of the promotion by the Spanish Hospitality Federation and the ESHA contest winner for young chefs under 25 years old, Gabriel is now well adjusted and happy in New York City working for Mercado Little Spain, a place that stimulates his imagination allowing him to fulfill his passion of introducing Spanish food to an international audience - “I don’t know a better feeling than making people enjoy with the experience that I create with my food. The art of cooking or sitting down to a meal with friends and family, or simply that act of taking that first bite has the ability to transport us to another time and place,” Gabriel is right in his statement.
When asked if he has any advice for the new generation, Gabriel is very straightforward and simple: “They should start with the basics skills, never be late, improve their knife skills and listen, always listen and never be afraid to ask questions.” It seems like once again, his recipe for success never fails.
As the summer ends and we crave some patatas bravas with a side dish of NYC views, it might be time for us to pay a visit to Gabriel at Mercado Little Spain, congratulate him on his achievements, and ask for extra aioli on the side.