Consider it your classic chef-meets-girl story. Luis Bollo was an ambitious young chef running a restaurant back in the mid-’90s, located on the same site as his present-day restaurant Ibiza. The “girl” was a Korean-American graduate student at Yale pursuing a doctorate in Spanish literature. She had offered to help young Bollo — a newcomer to the U.S. — learn a bit of English on the side.
“Yale has had a lot to do with my life,” the chef recalls fondly.
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On this particular Thursday afternoon, activity in the main dining room has slowed considerably by the end of the lunch service. Chef Luis props his elbow against the side of the bar counter as he reminisces to me about how he met his wife. Bollo’s English lessons led to dating and, soon, to a romance between one determined young man hailing from the Basque county of Spain and a doctoral student at Yale.
As their romance developed, Bollo was also busy cultivating his second love for the kitchen. When asked about his approach to cooking, Bollo orients his culinary sensibilities by his passions and experiences, rather than by tradition. By attending to his passions, he has no regrets, certainly least of all about his decision to become a chef.
“Food is more about my experience, what I love,” Bollo says. “I love food. I love eating.”
Chef Bollo laughs off the five years he spent in Spanish culinary schools, the 12-hour workdays he endured after arriving in Manhattan and the six months of slaving under Michelin-starred chefs in upscale hotel restaurants in Spain.
“I try to learn from every place I’ve been,” he says with a shrug. “Learning is the process in order to achieve the goal.”
For every aspiring young chef who has ever been told that the experiences of the real world foster only feelings of bitterness and disillusionment, Chef Bollo offers a rare glimmer of hope. I am eager to learn how Bollo has managed to keep his passion for the kitchen alive after all these years. As instructed by Chef Bollo, I arrive at 7:30 p.m., just in time for the evening rush, a time when most chefs would be averse to welcoming visitors into their kitchen. Of course, when I had initially suggested that I pay a visit at a more convenient time during the dinner service, Chef Bollo would not hear of it — it would defeat my purpose for being there, he declared, and that was that.
From the moment I enter the restaurant, the kitchen is in full swing. Chef Bollo waves me over and, taking care not to impede the constant stream of outgoing orders, I slowly navigate my way into Ibiza’s modestly-sized kitchen.
“I go to where the work is,” Bollo explains to me, just as a plate of braised calamari whizzes right past me.
Without a moment of hesitation, Bollo picks up two orders of pork tenderloin and begins plating. For a man who has worked in kitchens all his life, his movements about the kitchen are familiar but not over-rehearsed, combining the exactitude of a trained architect with the flair of a passionate artist. After carefully wiping down the sides of the plate, Bollo sets the plated appetizers back on the counter, ready to be picked up, and moves across the room to work on the entrees.
As Bollo continues to glide about the room, always one step ahead of everything else, he waxes poetic about his love for being a chef.
“In Spain, to be a chef is considered a very [esteemed] position in social matters,” he says.
Growing up in Basque county, he would often accompany his grandfather to gastronomic clubs where proper gentlemen, not women, would cook for each other and enjoy good food in the company of other male socialites. In a way, these highly-romanticized ideas have stuck with him throughout his career as a chef.
Yet, as a married man, Chef Bollo humbly acknowledges that at home, his wife, a college professor in New Jersey, gets the last say in the kitchen. With a little chuckle, Bollo admits that, because of his wife’s Korean heritage, he has cultivated a real appreciation for Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine.
The actual island of Ibiza is known as the “white isle,” not to be confused with the “white aisle,” though a fortuitous evening at Bollo’s Ibiza might just prove to the contrary. With Bollo at the helm, it is no wonder that Ibiza has become almost synonymous with both romance and good food, proof that, every so often, a little magic comes to even the city of New Haven.