Meet the Chef: An Interview with Jonah Miller of Huertas

At D’Artagnan we are proud to work with chefs across the country and learn about the innovative things they do at their restaurants. We recently spoke with Chef Jonah Miller, a New Yorker who fell in love with Basque food and opened Huertas, a pinxto bar in the East Village in 2014.

The exciting Basque-inspired fare served at Huertas evokes the relaxed lifestyle of the region. A long wine list (mostly Spanish, of course), housemade vermouth, and a lively atmosphere are all attractions, but the small plates – called pinxtos in Basque – are the main event. Some of those are made with D’Artagnan Rohan Duck!

We had a chat with Chef Jonah, the executive chef and owner of Huertas, to find out more about his journey, his philosophy and inspirations. By the way, Chef Jonah’s cookbook “The New Spanish” has just been published and you can order a signed copy at the restaurant’s website. We will be posting some of the recipes from that book soon, so subscribe to our blog to be notified. Read on for the interview…

You were fairly young when you opened Huertas in NYC. Tell us about that.

“Yeah, I had just turned 27 when we opened, and I left Maialino when I was 25 or 26. So I was a young guy. But the chefs and restaurateurs that I grew up working for were even younger when they opened up their businesses. Like David Waltuck at Chanterelle, Peter Hoffman at Savoy and Danny Meyer (I worked at a couple of his restaurants, including the opening of Union Square Café). They were all in their early twenties, so I figured I could do the same by 24 years old, and open my own restaurant.”

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Huertas is in NYC’s East Village.

“I’m a little behind on that goal in the end, but I think, without a doubt, that it’s a little more challenging to get off the ground today than it was 20 years ago. If nothing else, just financially more difficult, with real estate being what it is in New York, and labor and food costs. It just costs more to open a restaurant that it used to.”

So, why Basque cuisine in particular?

“I grew up in New York and started working at restaurants when I was 14 – and 17 years ago Spain was really at the forefront of modern, influential cooking in the world. That caught my eye. Naturally, I thought that New York had the best of everything and was ahead of everyone, but I realized that techniques they were developing in Spain were taking years to trickle down to our kitchens. So that’s what initially attracted me to Spain.”

“When I was in college, I took the chance to study abroad in Madrid. I quickly understood that the Michelin restaurants were not really the kinds of places I’d eat at a second time, or even at all. But the old school tapas and pinxto bars were just such a great time. The food was so simple and tasty, and really underrepresented in New York, and the U.S. in general.”

Pinxto bar in Donostia.

“So it became a goal of mine to help change that and bring a bit of Spain back to New York. It was a bit opportunistic as well because I understood it would be hard to open one of the best Thai restaurants or French restaurants, or new American restaurants in New York City. But there was a really short list of thoughtful, ambitious Spanish places.”

Sure, but Basque cuisine is a tough one. It’s a bold move.

“I was mostly looking at the opportunity. Because there’s not that many good Spanish restaurants, and who was focusing on Basque food and pinxtos? So there was an opportunity for us to really carve out a name for ourselves. I think we’ve been able to do that. At the same time, one of the lessons I’ve learned over the course of over four years here is that there’s a lot to be said for the challenge of giving people something a little bit different than what they already know they’re craving.”

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An example of pinxtos at Huertas. Photo: Huertas

“And it’s not like Spanish food is so bizarre that it’s a challenge to our guests, but it is food they don’t necessarily wake up thinking, “That’s what I want to go and have tonight” the same way they might with pasta, sushi or any number of things. We’ve seen it’s a struggle for a lot of Spanish restaurants to catch on the way that others have. There’s the give and the take of being different, and having the challenge of not being what everyone already knows they love.”

Any advice for people your age looking to open a restaurant?

“I think more than most of the restaurants opened by young cooks in the last handful of years, our restaurant is very focused on the cuisine. It’s more typical to be in a category like a wine bar, and not be biased or tied down necessarily to one cuisine.”

“Ultimately try not to be too concept driven, or not so tied to your vision of a space and menu. Instead, discover the right space and spend time looking for it and understand the vibe. Know what energy you’re trying to create in a restaurant. Who are the kinds of people who are not just going to eat there, but also, who’s going to work there?”

“That’s something I definitely didn’t think about much before: the people who really are the restaurant. Beyond just the menu, what kind of folks do you want to attract to work with you?”

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The team in action. Photo: Huertas

“And especially on the chef’s side when you’re dreaming of a bigger restaurant and you’re making mock menus and figuring out how many stations there might need to be and how many cooks you’ll need to hire. But ultimately I think that could almost be the final detail. More important is where it’s going to be, what the vibe is going to be like and why it going to appeal to guests, but also draw good people to work for you. And then the food? Food is sort of the easy part if you have the background and chops to do it.”

You started working at 14 so you’ve clocked some serious time in the kitchen. What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen?

“Accidents from time, like steamers exploding and sending cooks running or fryers being cleaned and someone’s arm slips into the hot fat or oil too far, a nice layer or two of skin peeling right off with it.”

“So besides accidents, there’s always some element of excitement about who’s dining with you that afternoon or that evening. My favorite experience in that regard was at Maialino, which was a bit of a power lunch spot. We had a lunch service, this was probably six years ago, and both Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter joined us at different tables, and this was at the height of their kind of rivalry and awkwardness, and they happened to be in the dining room at the same time.”

Were there glances exchanged?

“It was not ultimately clear to us if they even knew they were both there. They sat in separate parts. All of us in the kitchen kind of imagined them getting to the stadium later that night or the next day and, whether it would come up in conversation that somehow they were in the same place.”

Is there one crucial gadget or tool you can’t be without?

“It’s perhaps a boring answer, but it’s got to be a chef’s knife. A lot of stuff you can do with your hands or found objects, but it’s hard to break stuff down without a decent knife.”

What is the weirdest or most unique ingredient you’ve cooked with?

“Something we have from time to time here, and we haven’t had for a while, but I’m actually hoping to get a delivery of them this week, is Gooseneck barnacles. When they hit the table, more than anything else I’ve ever served, guests are kind of flummoxed. They do not look like something that you’re supposed to be eating and it’s not immediately obvious how you would even eat them. So those are definitely out there.”

People must ask a lot of questions, like what are we supposed to do with these?

“Yeah, there’s like a casing or sheath that protects the muscle inside. You have to pull that off, which we usually leave for the guest. It’s such a unique experience. I actually try – when I’m in the kitchen and have a moment – to run the dish out myself.”

Percebes or gooseneck barnacles plated at Huertas.  Photo: Huertas.

“But some folks crave them; people from Spain or those have eaten them before. They’re known to be an aphrodisiac. So much so that we’ve had a guest who called several times looking for them and we didn’t have them, and I told him when we do get them in, I’ll call you. So I called him up, and he came in with a date and got two orders – they’re quite expensive. And then he says “Give me everything else that you have.” And we only had another two orders. So they had the four orders and then they excused themselves to one of our two quite visibly located restrooms for an extended period of time … it was pretty clear something was going on in there. So whether or not there’s any science behind that or it’s purely a placebo effect, they seemed to do the trick.”

So along with a weird ingredient, what’s a commonplace ingredient that you can’t be without?

“For me, anchovies. We use a lot of anchovies in the kitchen here. They’re just an unbelievably deep way to add salt to something. Sometimes we serve just whole anchovies on a plate and not much more than that. But as a way to really add depth, we find it works in almost anything, whether it’s a vegetable preparation or meat. Even things like lamb are really enhanced by them. ”

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White anchovy and olive pinxto at Huertas. Photo: Huertas Instagram

Speaking of ingredients, why did you choose D’Artagnan Rohan Duck?

“I love duck. And I never got to serve duck at my previous places, so I was really eager to cook with it and have it on the menu at Huertas. Naturally, we reached out to D’Artagnan and then we tried all the duck varieties that you guys have and the Rohan, which I believe is exclusive to you, to just seemed like the perfect blend of what we’re looking for in terms of fat content but also the right amount of gaminess without being overwhelming, really tender. That’s the only type of duck we’ve ever served here.”

What is your favorite post-shift snack? Be honest.

“Before I leave the restaurant, almost every night I have caña, which is a short four-ounce pour of beer and a handful of Marcona almonds. That’s pretty much a nightly routine. And then depending on how well-stocked my fridge is at home, which is pretty well stocked most of the time, if I know I’m coming home hungry, I’ll stop by for a slice of pizza. I grew up in the city, so pizza always hits the spot.”

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View of the bar. Photo: Huertas

What is your fondest food memory?

“That’s a really tough question. I struggle with the favorite restaurant experience or food memory. I think of it’s so dependent on everything outside of the food, like how your day was leading up to it, and who you’re eating with. For me, I think cooking meals on vacation are often my favorite food memories. Going to a market and picking up what’s around and making a simple dinner with that. Whether it’s in Spain or Mexico City or in Maine, where I spent summers growing up, those are often my favorite meals. It’s definitely much more of a holistic experience beyond the dish in front of you.”

So it’s time for the “best meal of your life so far” question.

“It’d be impossible to pin down, but I used to go to Maine every summer when I was a child and we would go pick up lobsters at the dock where they are brought in, and cook them that night. That really enhanced it all. Everything tastes better when it has arrived in a special way. There are all sorts of little memories for me. Like picking blueberries and making pie with them.”

A dinner spread. Photo: Huertas

If you could share one of these special meals with anyone, who would it be?

“At the moment, probably Jose Andres, because he’s really the figurehead or ambassador of Spanish food in the US. He lives and breathes it in a way that I can’t.”

“Now he’s just really stepping up the kitchen in an amazing way. Just recently, seeing the volcano in Guatemala, then asking when he will go down there, and in the next day or two, he’s actually down there. It’s amazing. Beyond big. Impressive. And remarkable in that sense.”

“He also seems like such a fun person to be around and watching him on TV is one of the things that attracted me to Spanish food in the first place. There’s a real child-like earnestness to the way that modern Spanish chefs approach the cuisine. They don’t have the solemn seriousness that other modern food movements might have. They really try to keep it fun. That approach is really appealing to me.”

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?

“Assuming that I didn’t make it as a baseball player, then an architect. Definitely. I really like the constructive element of putting a dish together and the design of the restaurant, the menu, just all the importance of design aesthetic.  Restaurant design, plate design, the setup of a kitchen, all of it, that definitely appeals to me.”

Thanks for your time, Chef Jonah. We also have recipes from his cookbook available on the blog.

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