Héctor Sanz arrived in New York knowing no one. At the airport, he picked out the friend of a friend of an uncle back in Spain, because she carried a sign with his name on it. In his mind, this was a six-month hiatus from a soon-to-be settled life as an engineer in small-town Spain. In reality, he was coming home to a city he had never visited. He was about to embark on a career in the restaurant business that began with him as a bus boy in a bolero jacket and, little by little, over thirteen years, brought him to head his own burgeoning restaurant group.
But Sanz is not just opening restaurants. He is creating a system designed to deepen our experience of Latin culture and cuisine. “The engineering brain is something I always had,” Sanz says. “And there is not a single day that I do not approach the restaurants with the same mentality.” Which means that all his restaurants are part of a master plan. It was dreamed up by himself and Chef Máximo Tejada over six years and countless bottles of wine. Sanz and Chef Máximo imagined four restaurants situated on a small-town square—two Spanish and two Latino, two for fine dining and two for street food and snacks. They wanted to showcase the complex interconnections between these two cultures and cuisines. They wanted to bring to life the spirit they share, a certain ineffable energy: the spark in flamenco, the spice in salsa, the chills a sad song sends through the spine. The Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca summed up in a word: duende. “Easy to feel, difficult to quantify,” says Sanz.
New York City being what it is, Sanz was not able to create the small-town square of his dreams. But by the end of 2013, he will have succeeded in opening all four restaurants on the same little island in the Hudson River. His first restaurant, Rayuela, featuring fine Latino cuisine, opened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 2007, followed by Macondo Taperia Latina, its casual companion in 2008. In 2012, Barraca brought traditional Spanish tapas to the West Village, and, later this year, the fine and lovely Melibea will open next door. “From original idea to product, Melibea is the only one that bent a little bit,” Sanz admits. Over the course of its development, the concept evolved from an exclusive focus on Spain, to a broad take on the entire Mediterranean. This gave Chef Jesús Núñez a richer palette of flavors to play with. But it will also give New Yorkers the experience they’re looking for in a tough economy, Sanz hopes. “The real thing, the authentic, there is no such thing here. At the end of the day, it becomes a mathematical problem,” Sanz muses. “Are you going to stay true—if that’s the way of saying it—to the traditional authentic experience, even though less than ten percent of the people who come through the door are going to recognize it? Or are you going to appeal with food that is equally good and more creative—in the sense that it doesn’t replicate any traditional dish—to ninety percent of people? Are you opening it to the ninety or to the ten? It’s the balance that determines how successful you’re going to be.”
Another invention born of necessity for Sanz was Quimeria, which he has come to view as a backbone for his entire enterprise. A massive space of seven thousand square feet on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, Quimeria serves to centralize food purchase and prep for each of the restaurants. This allows Sanz to cut out the middle man and deal directly with farmers and fishermen at prices favorable to all. But more important and interesting to Sanz is how Quimeria creates a common basis of ingredients. Out of this common basis, in each of his restaurants, as in each of the cultures and cuisines they represent, an incredible diversity of flavors and dishes ultimately arises. So diners can encounter the same basic staple—octopus, for example—at Rayuela, in a light tempura batter, served with a mango-ají amarillo salsa and yuca fries . . . at Macondo, grilled and served with chorizo, cherry tomatoes and quinoa . . . and at Barraca, with baby potatoes, roasted peppers and pimentón de la vera. A rich and delicious cross-cultural journey!
This is precisely the kind of experience that Sanz and Chef Máximo dreamed of years ago, while working in someone else’s restaurant. “That’s the magic of New York. You can come up with crazy things and actually go for it and do it,” Sanz comments. Sadly, Chef Máximo passed away last year. Which means, more than ever, Sanz is committed to the continued well-being and growth of the experience they imagined together, wherever it may take him, his partners and the whole team behind the Quimeria Think Group. “As an owner, you are the person in charge of the well-being of that experience for every table,” Sanz says. “It’s no longer only about the food. To open the door that’s going to allow you to serve a table completely, forgetting about the transaction behind it, that’s the most important thing.”
Photos by Vanessa Griggs.