Growing up in Valencia, Francisco Javier Parreño, head chef of La Nacional Restaurant in New York, didn’t know he would grow to love cooking, travel the world and come back home every time with a new cooking book or magazine to add to his library collection. With 25 years of experience as of today, he started his profession as young as 15 and later on opened a restaurant in the center of Valencia that offers cuisines of the world. Currently taking a summer hiatus from the kitchen, Francisco has put his experience, knowledge, and love of cooking in each paella, patatas bravas, and other traditional Spanish dishes, that he has crafted for La Nacional Restaurant’s clients.
The restaurant is part of the Spanish Benevolent Society: La Nacional; the oldest Spanish institution in the United States, founded in 1868 and now an esteemed institution by many residents in Manhattan. Among chefs Jordi Morera, Salvador Boix and Gracia Sales, Francisco Parreño came to New York in 2018 to be part of the community effort that embarked on the project of reopening La Nacional Restaurant for the Society’s 150th anniversary.
Dressed in professional chef attire, a tall man with a full beard that no hipster can dream of acquiring, Francisco looks very busy in the open kitchen of the restaurant. His eyes are everywhere; sensing the restaurant’s ambience, recognizing faces, probably smiling inside, like when I asked him about his childhood and how important was food for him.
When I was a kid I never paid much attention to my mom’s food. Now as a grown-up, I give a lot of importance to dishes I ate as a child. When you don’t have a gastronomic registry, ‘traditional food’ is what you always known and eaten. And then you realize that what you were eating before was not just normal but spectacular. That is when you say ‘oh my mother food is so good’.
Food is, among many things, a developed relation with oneself and with people, especially with the ones closest to you. In a way, without knowing it just yet, Francisco’s attraction to professional cooking started with the people environment the restaurant creates around food. A synergy that captured Francisco early in life and that made him say to his mother, every time they went to a restaurant that he wanted to be a waiter. Not a doctor, nor a firefighter, but a waiter, arguably the most important person for a client’s experience.
A restaurant is after all a place made of and for human relationships, even if temporarily. The power of La Nacional Restaurant for Francisco relies on the level of connection it has and develops with the community neighbors and Spaniards living in New York. Contrary to the image of the New York business-client relation, the restaurant has a much closer relationship with its clients; many of them know about the Spanish Society or get interested about the Spanish immigration history in New York. “Something very beautiful for us,” says Francisco.
With my clients in Valencia, I have shortened that distance between business and client even more, I have clients–friends. I think La Nacional has already that public, and it will grow it even more. Because people don’t see it as a business restaurant but as a welcome house, a house of enjoyment, a house of friendship and collaboration.
In New York, Francisco aims to grow that connection by offering a recognizable cuisine for Spanish palates and those who have been in Spain, prepared in an adventurous, modern and fun fashion. Considering that Spanish cuisine has been modernized over the years, La National’s objective is to portray what is to eat in Spain nowadays, being faithful to Spanish products and flavors; and selecting the best from traditional and modern cooking techniques. “Tradition and innovation: you can’t have the latter without the former,” says Francisco.
In the end, the beauty of cooking, its joy –as Francisco puts it– is that each kitchen and each restaurant has its own way of cooking and clients. Francisco’s ways in La Nacional are a combination of both: past and present, and being faithful to his Mediterranean roots, having olive oil and azafrán always at hands reach. Therefore, it is important for him to have the right products needed to offer a traditional Spanish cuisine concept. That is why meeting and establishing good relationships with local providers are a must for him.
There has not been enough time in one year to reach La Nacional Restaurant’s potential and vision, Francisco tells me. However, plans and work are on route, such as opening the restaurant for lunch, including paella in the tapas menu, and offer more seafood options. “I hope to be part of La Nacional’s next phase. There is still a lot to do” says Francisco. As the relationship between La Nacional, its community and customers grows, so does the knowledge of the restaurant industry and the eating culture of New York. “We all are still getting to know us,'' says Francisco, “we still feel butterflies in the stomach.”
No one can deny how exciting is to be at this stage of a relationship. And for romance to endure time, knowledge of the parties involved is a must. For Francisco, learning about the community that surrounds a restaurant starts with knowing their produce:
Something sacred to me is walking to the farmers market in Union Square with my coffee in hand. It is something I am used to. The first thing I do when I go to a different city is to locate the food market. Where is it? When does it open? I’ll be there first thing in the morning. Wherever I go, it is essential for me to know how people work and function in order to enter their market.
Nostalgia can’t help to filter when Francisco talks about his love of the food markets around the world and Spain, confessing that every time he wants to feel more Spaniard, he goes to the recently opened Spanish Market: Little Spain, a place he celebrates as it contributes to make Spanish cuisine more visible and appreciated by the public. We become more aware of our food culture as we grow up. Do we become more appreciative when we are also far?
Francisco wakes up early to make the most of New York City, trying their different culinary options while enjoying long strolls by the Hudson River. Being born by the sea, he needs that river breeze that reminds us that even though buildings surround us, this is an island after all. “I need to be close to water”, he says, “even in Valencia, I would go between shifts to get closer to the beach, just to feel the air and breathe.” If Francisco were not the head chef of La Nacional, he would definitely go as a client. He would order Sangria thinking perhaps in the peaches his mother used to add in it, which gave an extra tasty touch that he later learned to apply to his restaurant in Valencia. Patatas bravas and a paella-tapa to accompany, he would order, only because he would know how much care even a simple dish of patatas bravas can have when you want to deliver something special. Whether one has a gastronomic register or not, anyone can notice when things are done with love and care; details that keep the spark alive and the butterflies in the stomach.