Behind the throngs of java guzzlers at Starbucks and before the Victorian facade of Sigma Nu on High Street lies Ibiza, the culinary brainchild of Luis Bollo. Bollo has garnered national acclaim for the sophisticated Basque French cuisine he produces at the small New Haven eatery — heralded by the discriminating palates at the New York Times as the best Spanish restaurant in the country. Esquire magazine recently declared him “Chef of the Year” and praised his ability to blend traditional Spanish ingredients with more unusual fare. And all without going too far over the top in search of a postmodern cuisine.
Bollo is the antithesis of “celebrity chef.” Contemporary American culinary culture has a newfound infatuation with the chef, typified by the maddeningly repetitive “Bams!” of super chef/businessmen/Teflon-coated spatula spokesman Emeril Lagasse. One almost expects Bollo to throw around chopped garlic and ooze his charming Spanish accent to the bravado of television cameras and a live band.
On the contrary, Bollo is strikingly modest and forthright about the rigors of the business. When asked what advice he would give to future chefs, Bollo replies that as a foreigner, he is not sure if he can really advise anyone. What he means is that the concept of becoming a chef in Spain is radically different from the immediate need for superstardom that he perceives in the States.
“In the U.S., the idea is to make more money, have more restaurants, make your name big,” Bollo said. He describes how he spent years apprenticing under top chefs, trying to pass test after test in the kitchen for little or no pay. Often, his stipend was no more than a healthy dose of intimidation.
Most important, the Spanish penchant for gastronomy trained Bollo’s gustatory mindset.
“All Spaniards know about quality of products, like to know what is fresh, what looks nice — When we are eating a meal we are already planning our next meal,” Bollo said. “Here, most of the people don’t care too much.”
So what exactly makes Bollo’s food so desirable? Bollo proudly states, “Spanish food is the hottest food in Europe. We express ourselves in gastronomic ways.”
Many Americans are familiar with the concept of tapas, essentially small flavorful dishes meant to be enjoyed while drinking, and universally known Spanish dishes such as paella. Bollo purposefully does not limit himself to this trite, standard fare. His ingenuity is unlimited, his food a culinary education in the qualities of ambrosia. His artistic creations range from the crowd-pleasing roasted suckling pig with honey sherry vinegar to more esoteric fare such as veal cheeks and tripe.
With regard to the more experimental dishes, Ibiza’s proximity to Yale is a huge plus. Bollo finds that Yalies are well-traveled and hence better equipped to appreciate the complexities of his more adventurous creations. However, he stresses that although Americans are more open to new types of food they ironically always revert back to ordering the standard chicken and salmon.
Bollo likes to micromanage his restaurants. He stresses keeping the menu small — 16 dishes and daily specials contrived from the freshest market ingredients — and employs 10 additional chefs so that “there is a chef for every dish.” Bollo is hesitant when discussing future plans about venturing back into New York City where he was the chef at Meigas, a trendy Spanish restaurant that fell victim to the post 9/11 economy. It’s not that Bollo fears failure, but that he is reluctant to leave “a hole” behind at Ibiza.
In fact, Bollo is rather attached to the Yale community. He met his wife in New Haven while she was a Ph.D. candidate in the Spanish department. He likes the atmosphere of New Haven because of the “young people and the informal ambience of cafes.”
Bollo has never eaten in a Yale dining hall, but expresses interest in learning how such large amounts of food are handled — although he has heard that the trays of cafeteria cuisine are “sometimes not so good.”
As I stand to leave, Bollo leans in and offers a frank final contemplation on the restaurant business.
“Remember that your life is run by your customers. Sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t — but if your passion is there you know that you are doing the right thing.”
Once again, Bollo’s modest nature and pure passion shines through.
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