Hispanic chefs influencing the U.S. culinary world one chile at a time

With more than 50 million Hispanics calling America home, it’s no wonder that Hispanic foods are influencing how Americans eat.

From taco nights to ceviche lunch, Latinos have altered the American menu as they continue to grow in numbers and political strength. And it’s not just Mexican food becoming a staple in the U.S. culinary scene – cuisines from Peru, Spain and even Colombia are becoming almost as familiar as apple pie.

A lot of that change in what we cook at home and the dishes we order at restaurants is based on what we see celebrity chefs preparing, many of whom have a cult-like following on television and at their handful of restaurants across the country.

One thing missing, though, is Hispanic chefs becoming household names.

That may be changing, as these chefs are taking over the culinary world. Dozens of Hispanic chefs – from everywhere from Argentina to Spain to Venezuela – were in attendance at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami Beach, Fla. this past weekend, showcasing their heritage and culinary skills.

“We really wanted to expand upon the spirit of South Florida for our 15th anniversary, so there was a strong presence of our hometown chefs bringing Miami's Latin culture to the forefront throughout the Festival and at new events like our Croquetas & Champagne party hosted by Jean-Georges,” festival founder Lee Schrager said in a statement.

And while no Latino has yet risen to be a food world rock star like Mario Batali or Anthony Bourdain, that does not mean that Hispanics are not becoming influential players in the culinary world.

“It is one thing to see the same superstar names at these festivals,” said Phil Vettel, a restaurant critic at the Chicago Tribune. “It’s when you hear the Latino names of people you haven’t really heard of but are running restaurants [when] you realize something more significant is going on.”

Vettel, who is also the chair of the restaurant and chef committee for the James Beard Awards, said it was inevitable that some of this year's nominees become “superstars.”

“Some of these guys are not unknown to us, some we have been tracking for some time and some have been on the ballot before. We may be slowly tiptoeing to the point that none of this
matters, but you can’t get there until you recognize progress. It’s been a slow process but it gets
us to where we are here.”

Here are a few of the Hispanic chefs making waves in the American culinary world, one tapa at a time.

José Andrés

An array of seafood simmered in oversized paelleras when famed restaurateur and chef José Andrés hosted the Paellas & Tapas event at last weekend's South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Hundreds gathered for a taste of Spain’s national dish, made by one of Spain’s most recognized culinary exports.

“No one is going to stop us from contributing to the future of this country,” Andrés said of Hispanics in the U.S. “The American kitchen would not exist without Latin cuisine and with many other minority foods. There are many people who work behind the scenes, undocumented, not only in the restaurants but in the farms, fishing, and we all have to be logical and conscious of the reality we live in,” he explained.

Andrés, who was recently named one of President Obama’s ambassadors for citizenship and naturalization, said he was honored for the recognition and would encourage other immigrants to take an oath to this country while still savoring the taste of home.

“I think it’s the little things that make us Latinos," he said. "Knowing where we came from, but also where we live and loving this country, where our presence without a doubt will be felt more and more each day at all levels,” said the Spanish immigrant who became a U.S. citizen two years ago.

“And so, here we are. And for however much they want to build a wall, no one is going to prevent us from contributing to the history and the future of this country,” he said, referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (The two clashed over Andrés backing out of a restaurant deal after Trump’s derogatory comments about immigrants. Trump’s team fired back with a $10 million lawsuit that was eventually dismissed).

Jose Icardi

“Our population is getting bigger and the chefs are getting out there,” said Argentinian chef Jose Icardi of the Hispanic culinary influence in the U.S. But the same can’t be said of the country's cuisine – or at least not yet.

“It’s going to take a little longer,” he said, “but we are coming, little by little.”

The Argentinian native may now call Miami home, but don’t expect him to be cooking up a parrillada (think barbecue) as the executive chef of the Japanese restaurant Katsuya. One of his tapas: chu-toro nigiri sushi (tuna) with Osetra caviar.

Why go from his Latin roots to Japanese cuisine? The two have much in common, he explained.

“The techniques are simple. They use the ingredients in the right way,” he said of Japanese cuisine, adding that “Argentinian food is pretty much the same way, simple and straightforward.”

Ilde Ferrer

“We’ve just been in the business for so long, pretty much on the line hustling and bustling, and now we are finally getting up there in the sous chef and chef ranks,” said Ilde Ferrer, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela and raised in New Rochelle, New York.

Chef Ilde predicted that in 2016 Hispanic chefs will “start getting recognized a lot more than in the previous years,” noting that a large number in the James Beard Awards, a lot more than before.

Ferrer said he adds a bit of his culinary heritage to every dish at his Miami Beach’s Mediterranean concept KLIMA. His main tapa on display: the tuna toast made with tuna crudo (raw), served on a tortilla chip with homemade aioli-chipotle sauce and crispy leeks on top. The Venezuelan influence in this dish, he said, can be found in the freshness provided by the lemon and the lime and in the different textures.

Ernesto Lorenzo Veloz

Spanish chef Ernesto Lorenzo Veloz is from the port city Alicante, which is famous for its rice dishes.

“I think we are doing a lot of interesting dishes for people to become acquainted with the culture of our kitchen.”

Veloz serves up Spanish dishes with a modern flair at "Piripi" in Miami, such as the octopus salad with avocado mousse, mango gel and risotto with calamari ink.

“The food, the Spanish culture is very broad, from tapas to desserts,” he said, adding that he felt it was his responsibility as a chef to “demonstrate here in America what Spanish food is.”