March 1, 2009
New Yorkers certainly love their Broadway revivals, but what about a restaurant revival? It seems fitting that within just a few weeks of each other, West Side Story and La Fonda Del Sol will both experience a Manhattan re-awakening about 50 years since their original birth dates. Both feature modern updates. The Broadway production will be different from its previous three theatrical runs in that a new bilingual approach will be introduced, which will selectively weave Spanish and English throughout. La Fonda will also be the culinary equivalent of bilingual; it features a two-level approach with a tapas bar and long watering hole facing a busy Vanderbilt Street, and the upstairs fine-dining room where Chef Josh DeChellis can be more creative. DeChellisí menu itself embraces a certain bilingual quality, being borne from his extensive French background yet heavily influenced from multiple trips to Spain.
Patina Restaurant Group CEO Nick Valenti always loved the original concept of La Fonda (which translates to ďInn of the SunĒ), but felt the timing was not quite right for the 1960 Latin American original, which was one of Joe Baumís first theme restaurants. Valenti, whose first job for Restaurant Associates had been to oversee La Fonda, was not only savvy enough to hire the talented DeChellis and to keep La Fondaís price point recession-friendly, he also retained renowned architect Adam Tihany to design the restaurant. Tihany has a knack for managing to blend elegance with comfort, and in La Fonda he has done so once again in the two distinct yet related areas of the restaurant.
We interviewed Chef DeChellis and Mr. Valenti for both a business and a creative perspective on the 21st century version of La Fonda Del Sol.
Interview with Patina Group CEO Nick Valenti
Restaurant Insider: Would you give us a brief history lesson on the original La Fonda restaurant?
Nick Valenti: I was actually recruited by Restaurant Associates in the late 1960ís to work at La Fonda. The restaurant was very well thought of but it was beginning to go through some changes at that point. I think the issue was that the restaurant was well ahead of its time. Most people thought Spanish food was Mexican food. It was very contemporary, and restaurants were not designed in a contemporary way back in the 1960ís. Most restaurants were either French or Italian. The restaurant was not a huge financial success, it had problems from the get-go and went through several incarnations. I was really taken by it; it was exciting and it stayed with me. I liked the idea and the energy, and what weíve done is to re-create that. We purposely set out not to copy it because that would have been wasteful. Adam Tihany and I spent a lot of time talking about this project before we even started it, and what we have done is to create a very modern interpretation of that original restaurant.
Restaurant Insider: What were some of the directions you gave Mr. Tihany when discussing this new design?
Nick Valenti: One of the elements of the original restaurant was that it had strong graphics - the interpretation of the sun as an example. I liked that notion and I wanted there to be strong visuals inside the restaurant. I wanted there to be two distinct dining options so that you could dine very informally and casually in the bar with Tapas, and you could eat more formally in another one so that there would be a reason to come back to the restaurant for different occasions. Certainly we had no idea what the economy was going to be like. We are opening up at a pretty challenging time, but I think that the notion that we have a very affordable option in the bar with Tapas, I think that is really going to help, given the timing.
Restaurant Insider: Iím sure youíre pleased with having Josh DeChellis as the chef at La Fonda, how did that come together, and were you concerned that his training leaned more toward French and Japanese than Spanish?
Nick Valenti: We auditioned several chefs and had multiple tastings, and Josh actually did have some Spanish influence in his background. He had spent time in Spain previously and so he did have some connection there. He is a very bright young guy and he understands food and he understands ingredients. I donít know whether youíre familiar with Victor Broceaux, who is semi-retired now and works with us on a consulting basis. He had been chef at La Fonda and chef with the Twelve Caesars and at the Four Seasons during the 1960ís and 70ís. He was just a library of information, and he worked with Josh and then we sent Josh to Spain for a couple of months after we hired him. We put together an itinerary of restaurants where Josh was able to go and work and meet the chef and get to understand the cuisine.
Restaurant Insider: So do you anticipate that this version of La Fonda will last as long as the original did?
Nick Valenti: Yes, we are very confident. This is a much better location than the other one. Weíve done business in that building for almost 40 years. We traded the La Fonda location for the old Tropica space that had an interior location with no access to the outside and we were in that location for 30 years, so we think this is a big home run. Vanderbilt is a wonderful street.
Restaurant Insider: What had the restaurantís space been previously?
Nick Valenti: It was previously a Smith Barney brokerage office. A small portion of it was a Cucina Express but that was about 3% of the space. This is the first time it has been a food operation.
Restaurant Insider: When did the construction begin?
Nick Valenti: Construction began about eight months ago and when you see the space, you will understand what some of the challenges were. Itís physically divided into two spaces because itís over the railroad tracks. There is a back room and a front room, but the back room is raised about five feet above the lower level, and when you come in and sit in the dining room, you can look down onto the bar scene.
Restaurant Insider: Besides La Fonda, are there any other projects you have in the works that you might want to discuss?
Nick Valenti: The big thing that we are working on is Patina. Itís coming to New York in a building that is now being erected. You can see it now at Lincoln Center on the Plaza. It is a freestanding building and right now the iron work is up.
Restaurant Insider: What similarities would it share with the original Patina establishment on the west coast, and what will the cuisine be?
Nick Valenti: It will share itís name only. Physically, this is truly a one of a kind space. There will be a chef that is hired but Joachim Splichal will oversee all of it. The cuisine has been described in a number of ways but I would say that it is going to be a combination of French American.
Restaurant Insider: What association and arrangement will it have with Lincoln Center?
Nick Valenti: It is a lease with Lincoln Center and it is something what we have developed with them jointly. I have worked on putting this together with Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center. The restaurant is going to open in the fall of 2010, but we will probably announce the chef this year. We do not have the person identified yet.
Restaurant Insider: Are you looking at chefs across the country?
Nick Valenti: We are looking in Europe as well as here.
Interview with La Fonda Del Sol Executive Chef Josh DeChellis
Restaurant Insider: You were born in Columbia - how much did your heritage contribute to this project, if anything?
Josh DeChellis: My heritage is a very unromantic story, Iím afraid. I was born in Columbia and was adopted by my parents who are essentially American, and I was raised in New Jersey. My Spanish is terrible, and I donít know anything about Latin American foods. La Fonda Del Sol is a Spanish restaurant focusing on the cuisine of Spain, and I had visited Spain for a while when I was 21. I was in Paris in 1994, working at a couple of three-star places, and I had a friend who is in Granada studying abroad. So in-between these two restaurants in Paris I went down there and spent two weeks in Granada for my first introduction to Spain and the tapas bars, the Spanish lifestyle, and the Spanish hospitality which is almost unparalleled. The two weeks were spent walking the markets and cooking. We ended up doing dinner parties 12 out of 14 nights I was there and it was a blast. I met this woman who was the host parent of one of my friendís and she heard I was a chef from France. She wanted me to make her a dish and I said no problem as long as you make me a paella. So I spent the day in the kitchen with this Spanish housewife making paellas and cooking.
Restaurant Insider: Have you found it difficult to change gears from French and Japanese cooking to Spanish?
Josh DeChellis: A lot of people ask ďHow do you go from focusing on Japanese food and turn around and do something Spanish?Ē The answer is quite simple. I do not think you could do that necessarily with any cultureís cuisine, but the best food in Spain is very simple, just like Japanese food. They really have a firm belief in simplicity, and in not over-adorning food with too much ego or ingredients.
Restaurant Insider: People say that no matter what part of the country you are in, you can always taste that you are in Spain.
Josh DeChellis: Spain historically and politically has gone through many, many changes and has quite a large cross section of different ethnicities. Down south you will have all these wonderful spices and teas and exotic fruits that are really taking influence from Morocco on its border. And when you cruise up north to San Sebastian the food is completely different, in that section alone itís is the biggest concentration of Michelin starred restaurants in the world. The best thing about San Sebastian though are the Mom and Pop joints, all the little tapas bars that are littered across the whole city. There are actually more truffle-producing areas in Spain than there are in France, and of course you have the wonderful fish of Galicia and Bilbao. Smack in the middle, youíve got La Mancha where they eat tons of venison and rabbit. It was really amazing and a wonderful experience to learn and digest and of course eat my way through Spain.
Restaurant Insider: Patina Group also sent you on a culinary fact-finding tour through Spain recently, to prepare for La Fonda. How much of that trip influenced the current menu?
Josh DeChellis: Everything we do here is a result of my travels in Spain. There is so much going on there, and what America sees of Spain in terms of food and gastronomy is like looking through a cocktail straw and trying to see everything that Spain has. Some of the food on the menu might not be recognized as being Spanish or inspired from Spain, but after you came back from a two-week tour you would say ďOh, I get it.Ē
Restaurant Insider: During your tour of Spain did you take notes in a notebook or use a computer?
Josh DeChellis: The best thing for me is to simply use a Blackberry because I can take pictures of things and email it to myself with notes. For me thatís the easiest way to do it because otherwise, I will just forget. When Iím traveling Iím all over the place, I will just lose notes, or get wine and olive oil all over them.
Restaurant Insider: What were some of your most influential memories during your trip through Spain? Josh DeChellis: I would say that the biggest impact would probably be having the opportunity to work with Victor Broceaux, who has been working with Patina for years. Heís a 75-year-old chef who was the original chef of La Fonda Del Sol, and heís been here mentoring me with Spanish food throughout this whole process. Before I left for Spain, he gave me a list with maps of where to go and where not to go. I went to his hometown in Getaria, which is between Galicia and San Sebastian on the northern cost of Spain. Itís a tiny little fishing village that takes the fish and puts them on these outdoor grills. I had the best sardines Iíve ever had there. They were grilled whole with the head on, the guts in it and everything. You just sort of pull the bone out from the head and leave the bone as you pull it out, and youíre left with a grilled sardine that has salt burnt onto the edges of it. It was perfect! When I got back, Victor proved to be an indispensable, irreplaceable person. We collectively were able to digest and think and tweak the menu, and make sure everything was genuine within the Spanish context. I came back with irreplaceable knowledge from my trip, and better yet, inspiration.
Restaurant Insider: Can you briefly explain the concept between the separate areas of the restaurant and how the menu will be different in each area?
Josh DeChellis: The tapas bar downstairs has a menu of about 22 to 25 tapas that will rotate with the seasons. The tapas bar here is definitely designed to show off the interpretation of tapas. It is designed so you can roll up your sleeves, drink a little too much, be a little too loud and sample multiple things, just have a really fun ultra-casual experience. I do not consider upstairs fine dining, I also consider upstairs casual. The difference is the dining style, the appetizers and entrees. Of course, we are using ingredients that we would not be able to use for items that we are going to sell downstairs for $8.00. Very simple dishes, but dishes that would not be suitable in a tapas environment.
Restaurant Insider: What are some of your favorite dishes that you think are really going to become popular?
Josh DeChellis: Downstairs people seem to be loving these little tuna tacos. It is my version of a fish taco made with raw tuna and Jalapeno and pickled onions, and the shells are made out of pumpkin seeds. That is taking a little latitude with the old La Fonda, which was more Latin influenced. Upstairs, the strongest responses we are getting are the simplest dishes, this wild white shrimp that are four per pound, itís an enormous shrimp and we butterfly it and cook it on the Plancha. The whole garnish for the dish is a wedge of lemon and sofrito. Itís just a simple Plancha and a few aromas that definitely shout Spain.