There is something very special about sitting around a fire into the late hours of the night, socializing with good friends and grilling delicious foods. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to spend time with the people you love.
I come by this appreciation honestly. When I was a boy, my family lived in Argentina, where life is a simple affair celebrated nearly every evening with friends, good wine, and great asados—the grilled meats Argentineans so love. Everywhere in the capital city of Buenos Aires you can smell the tantalizing aroma of meat sizzling over a charcoal fire. You will find asados being cooked in fine restaurants as well as by street vendors. People without backyards set up cinder blocks on the sidewalks, balance a grate on them, and build a fire to cook the meat. It’s not uncommon to find groups of happy Argentineans sitting around one of these makeshift braziers long into the night. This gleeful approach to food imbued me with a love for the ritual surrounding mealtimes.
As far back as I can remember, food has been a big part of my life. Both of my parents loved to cook, and we four kids grew up helping in the kitchen. The great thing about learning to cook this way was that we laughed and joked while we worked together. In many ways, dinnertime was just one big party that we threw nearly every night.
My mother was born in Vienna, Austria, famous, of course, for its pastries, its Wiener schnitzel, and a delicious dumpling called a knoedel that is served with a wild mushroom sauce. She also had spent four years of her youth in Lago di Garda, Italy, where she embraced the cuisine with a passion, along with the culture and the language. I love her for that because it nurtured my own appreciation for Italian food.
My father came from Budapest, which has a long and proud culinary tradition. Among other things, it involves lots of paprika—think goulash and chicken paprikash—as well as delicacies such as spicy smoked kolbasz sausage; töportyü, a fatty bacon; and glorious Hungarian stuffed peppers.
My parents and their families left Europe during the Second World War and settled in Argentina, where they met, fell in love, and married and where three of their four children were born. There are vital English and Italian populations in Argentina, which have had a noticeable influence on the food. This meant that in addition to my parents’ backgrounds, I was exposed to the cooking and food from a number of cultures—an exposure that was only enhanced when we later moved to Austria, where I learned to speak German and to enjoy the food and culture.
In 1973 my parents moved our family again, this time to New York City, where my father, a painter of modern art, secured his reputation and his fourth child was born. We were all profoundly affected by the experience. There was excitement in the air, a palpable sense that anything could happen.
During these years I developed a passion for tennis and eventually dropped out of high school to play full-time. I spent the next seven years traveling the world. My first overseas tournament was in Murcia, Spain. I fell in love with the country and with a beautiful girl, María Antonía García Jiménez, which explains why I played so often in Spain during those years. When, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, I realized I would not rise to the top of my sport, I decided to investigate other ways to make a living. i happened to be in Porto, Portugal, where I had just won both the singles and doubles open titles. The victories gave me a great deal of recognition around town, and, because I had good friends there as well, I decided to make the beautiful old city my home. I helped a friend open a successful aerobics and fitness center, while planning a pizza and fresh pasta store.
After a while i found my way back to the United States and got a job at a fabulous restaurant called Pasta Nostra in South Norwalk, Connecticut, where I learned a lot and met Carl Zuanelli, with whom I founded Nuovo Pasta Company 1989, which is a premier maker of fresh pasta in the nation.
By 1994 I had an itch to open a restaurant. I helped open an Asian-fusion restaurant in Greenwich called Baang with Jody Pennette, who taught me numerous valuable lessons; made a lot more contacts; and decided I loved the restaurant business. I especially appreciated meeting the architect Bruce Beinfield, who at the time was developing a building in South Norwalk. What a perfect locale for the tapas restaurant I had dreamed of since my days in Spain.
I contacted Andy Pforzheimer, who at the time was a colleague but not a business partner, showed him the space, and talked up the tapas concept. He loved it. We decided to take the plunge, and so, in 1996, the first Barcelona restaurant and Wine Bar opened its doors. A highly trained chef, Andy oversaw the menu, and I took care of the design and overall ambience. Today our roles intermingle and are far from static, the two of us sharing equally in the excitement and energy that define all six Barcelona restaurants. Our dream of warm, welcoming places with great wine lists and small plates of tantalizing food that can be eaten as easily at the bar as at a table was realized. What could be better?
Excerpt from The Barcelona Cookbook