When Daniel Olivella came to the United States in 1979 at the age of 18, he had stars in his eyes — though not the kind you might expect. He was going to be a famous jazz saxophonist, and his uncle Paco was going to help by giving him a job at his Continental restaurant in Chicago while Daniel pursued his dream.
“My career as a musician was spent in kitchens and bartending,” the now-seasoned chef and recent cookbook author tells me on a sunny afternoon at Barlata, his South Lamar tapas restaurant and bar. “I knew from the beginning I liked cooking. I had a feeling in my hands and in my palate for food. I was lucky — in my mid-20s, I found out that I was a better cook than a musician.”
Back in those days, aside from Julia Child on PBS and a few others, the idea of a “celebrity chef” was unthinkable. Chefs stayed in the kitchen, sweating it out on the line night after night while their guests were safely ensconced in the dining room.
“When I was a kid, we went out once a year, on my mother’s birthdayor something,” Olivella says. “And when we went out, we didn’t meet the chef. We met the maître d’, the guy with the bow tie.I remember there was one good restaurant in my hometown, in the ramblas, in the main street, and next to it there was a little alley they called ‘The Alley of the Flies.’ And I would go through this alley, and I remember seeing the chef in the back, outside the kitchen, smoking these unfiltered cigarettes with a big bottle of beer.”
Even now, as a successful restaurateur, lecturer and author of "Catalan Food," his stunning first cookbook, Olivella still runs service at Barlata with a solid understanding that cheffing is not glamorous and it certainly isn’t a job for someone with stars in their eyes.
“We’re servants, basically. I always remember that in the Medieval times, cooks were not inside the castle, but they were living right next to the door of the castle, because the king wanted to be fed by a good chef. So we feed the royalty, but we’re still working class. That’s what I think people have forgotten.”
Such are the insights from a man who’s been in the business for 40 years, who still regularly cooks on his own line at Barlata and has no illusions about exactly what it takes to bring the traditional cuisine of his home to eager diners and, now, curious home cooks. The following interview contains some of the best pearls of wisdom I could gather from this veteran chef, entrepreneur, father and proud Austinite.
Your cookbook has, at its core, the recipes and techniques of Catalonia, but dishes like your smoked paella and your chorizo burger hint at a distinctly Austin influence. How has Austin informed the food you cook?
I wanted to make a cookbook about my food and my culture. When you come to Barlata, it’s a tapas bar. But if you start scratching at the layers of my food, at the end, you can close your eyes and you can taste Catalonia — more than Sevilla, Madrid or San Sebastian. You can taste sofrito from Catalonia, you can taste my picadas. The way that I sweat my onions, the way that I braise my vegetables, it’s Catalan. I haven’t invented anything. I’m just trying to recreate the flavors of my mouth onto the plates. Then, at the end, I might make a smoked paella because we’re in Austin, and if I don’t have fun creating food, then I will be bored. My cookbook is authentic because it contains stories from a Catalan guy who has somehow never left Catalonia but has somehow understood American palates, too.
Catalan food is a distinct cuisine from Spanish food, and yet it shares so much in common with it and other European traditions. What makes Catalan food so special?
When you see geographically where we’re located, people sometimes ask me, “How come there is pasta in your food?” Because the Romans founded us. “Why is there béchamel?” Because the French are next to us. In our culture, in our food, there are a few staples of the Mediterranean diet. Nuts. We use a lot of nuts. We use walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and pine nuts. We pound them to make sauces. Not many other cuisines do that. Extra virgin olive oil — everywhere; small fish — everywhere; sardines. Almost every single day of my life I’ve had sardines. A lot of vegetables, a lot of fruit, a lot of beans, especially garbanzos. What don’t we eat in Catalonia? A lot of beef. We don’t eat beef because we don’t have beef, because it is super expensive. What do we eat? A lot of rabbit, little game, little birds, snails.
Some people tell me that my book is an ode to the onion. I worship onions. I sweat my onions two hours every single day. I tell everybody the acoustic base of my food is my sweated onions. I think there are three things in food for me — acidity, fat and seasoning. These three things are what dictate your palate. How you put fat in food. My fat, it’s done by a scoop of onions that have been sweated with extra virgin olive oil. There’s integration there. Sweat your onions first. With that you’re gonna do wonders.
Is there a dish you make, or that you feature in your book, that best illustrates your philosophy of food and service?
There’s a dish we make that’s fried potatoes — patatas bravas. That’s the most traditional tapa in Spain. That potato needs to be boiled to the point that it almost disintegrates, then cooled off. We deep fry it once, cool it off, then we deep fry it again in order to create that crunchiness and tenderness inside. I fight for this potato. I’ve done this potato for years and years and years every day, and every day I’m still excited to make sure the potato comes out good. And every day I eat at least one with aioli to make sure it’s crunchy. That’s what a restaurant needs to drive it: that passion for perfection for that silly potato, the humble potato.
Being in restaurants is a hard line of work, yet there are so many restaurants opening in Austin right now. What advice would you give a young restaurateur about the business that you’ve learned along the way?
It’s a hard business. If you’re lucky and you’re good at it, you make a 5 percent profit, and that 5 percent is eaten up right away by the things that start breaking once you’re over four or five years in. You gotta love it, and you gotta understand that the business doesn’t start in the food or the wine or in the kitchen — it starts up here at the front door. The floor has to be shiny every day.
What do you look for in a restaurant when you go out to eat?
When I go out to a place, I always check for chewing gum under the table. If there’s no chewing gum, that’s a good sign. If the place is clean, that’s a super positive second sign. And then I just look to have a good time. And honestly, I’ve been to elBulli, I’ve been to all the best restaurants and I could be happy eating at a taco truck if the food is good. As long as it’s solid and clean and people are smiling and happy to have me there, that’s all I want.
Beyond Catalonian cuisine, what other culinary traditions get you really excited?
The only food that really, really excites me, the only food that gets me out of my chair to go eat, is Japanese food. I like the way the Japanese marinate things, so I do some of the marinades of my meats with the Japanese influence. I always put the Catalan touch on it. I’ve done all of that to grow as a cook, to grow as a professional.
I always think of the Japanese way of serving people and respecting the food as a platform for how I envision my business. When you go to a Japanese restaurant, you can’t hear a sound, because everybody is focused. It’s how I perceive my kitchen, you know — a place of concentration.
You’ve already accomplished so much in your career. What’s next for you? What keeps you going?
I’m baking now and I’m so excited. I could not find a pastry chef, so now I’m teaching myself. I’m proud because I’m making all the desserts for my restaurant. You always have to find that edge of excitement.
You spend a good deal of time on the road doing talks and lectures. What are some of the things a crowd can expect to hear from you?
The first thing I tell the people is that if you want to do a Mediterranean diet, the most important thing is to go shopping. A cook at home has to understand the basics, but shopping is the most important thing. Then you have to understand that food should be eaten in peace, with family, and you should be taking your time to cook. Listening to the seasons, listening to what’s closer to where you live, it’s important. The life in this part of the world centers around food because it’s a family oriented lifestyle. The table is where you gather with everybody every single day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
By Adam Boles • Photography by Melanie Grizzel