American foodies rejoice: Spanish-born chef Daniel Olivella declares this country’s food culture among the best in the world.
“In Spain it’d be hard to get anybody interested in anything but Spanish cuisine or French food perhaps,” Olivella said. “But in America, everybody tries everything if it’s good.”
After 35 years in the American restaurant business, he ought to know. Olivella, 53, who specializes in Spanish classics such as paella and tapas, runs B44 Catalan Bistro in San Francisco and Barlata Tapas Bars in Oakland – it’s closing in August – and Austin, Texas, where he now lives with his family after years in the Bay Area.
On Sept. 13, the chef will inaugurate the Great Chefs Program at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California, Davis. He spoke with The Bee about the event, his career and what makes America a great place to be a chef.
What made you want to travel from Austin to host the inaugural Great Chefs Program?
I love the campus there. I’ve been at the Robert Mondavi Institute for jazz concerts. The wine and the food department there has got a productive vibe and a great purpose. I’m excited I’m able to contribute to the positivity there.
What can attendees expect from your lecture and the food you’ll prepare?
As far as the lecture, my main goal is just to explain to people how difficult it is to run restaurants. It’s a business that everybody can relate to because everybody eats and cooks. It often gets criticized without much thought. In terms of food, I want to be able to showcase some of Spain’s most traditional dishes and make sure that people who attend get to know from the approach of a professional chef how they can do those dishes.
How have you seen the business change over the past 35 years?
Overall, what I’ve seen the most is the desire of American palates to improve their knowledge and then to get exposed to stuff that they’ve never tasted before. It’s more than in most countries in the world. For a chef like me who’s been working so many years in this country, it’s a luxury.
That might surprise some readers. Europe is often viewed as more cosmopolitan and culturally sophisticated than the U.S.
Well, the food scenes are changing a lot – like food sections of the newspaper. In Europe we never had food sections until America started having it. We never had food crazes. I have stayed authentic to Spanish food, but there’s all sorts of things going on in the U.S. My kids, one is 9 and one is 14 and they know how to use chopsticks. They know what to order at dim sum, sushi, Mexican. That tells you the way the food industry is moving in the U.S.
Clare Hasler-Lewis, executive director of the Mondavi Institute, praises your work at Barlata as particularly innovative and interesting. How do you set yourself apart as a chef of Spanish cuisine?
I haven’t invented anything that wasn’t discovered before my time. I’m trying to be fresh, overall clean in my restaurants and to have a menu that’s large enough that it can entertain everybody. What we do now more and more is small plates. You can go out for a dinner and not have only one course but try three or four different dishes completely.
What’s your next step in the restaurant business?
I would love to do food trucks. I’m probably going to start doing a cookbook.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on July 28 to to correct the spelling of Daniel Olivella’s name in the photo caption and that of Clare Hasler-Lewis’ name in the text.
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