How This Chef Uses Modernist Techniques to Upgrade Traditional Spanish Tapas

Ruben Rodriguez, executive chef of Nai Tapas in New York City, shared his innovative techniques for refreshing the tapas genre
Spherified olives and oysters topped with “lemon air” foam? Definitely a unique spin on tapas.

Joanna Fantozzi

Spherified olives and oysters topped with “lemon air” foam? Definitely a unique spin on tapas.

At this point, we’re so saturated with tapas cuisine — from traditional Spanish tapas to Americanized small plates — that it’s hardly a trend anymore.

But Ruben Rodriguez, executive chef at Nai Tapas in New York City, is elevating classic Spanish bar food from the familiar potatas bravas and charcuterie to "molecular gastronomy"-inspired small plates. Two of his dishes that fuse classic tapas with these molecular techniques are olive spherifications — the process of shaping a liquid into spheres that originated at the now-closed elBulli in Spain by Ferran Adrià — and Manchego cheese foam atop “mini airbags,” in effect small hollow baguettes, another Adrià invention.

We spoke with Chef Rodriguez about this new technique and the concept behind the revamped Nai Tapas menu.

Can you talk about the effect of molecular gastronomy experimentation on your menu?

Molecular gastronomy has allowed Nai Tapas to meld our traditional techniques with modern flare. We believe that it was the natural progression for us as well as allowing us to establish our own path to where we want to go as a restaurant. Our first menus focused on very traditional techniques and cuisine. So, for us, molecular gastronomy provided excitement and the inspiration to work on new types of recipes. It allows us to create a unique experience both in the kitchen and for our customers.

How has Nai Tapas bar followed or broken the “rules” of traditional tapas?

We at Nai Tapas are always trying to find a balance between following and breaking tradition. We see ourselves as a combination of both. Our cuisine is based on a core of traditional techniques and food items, but we are also constantly in search of our own path. In a way, we are in search of creating our own unique DNA.

How do you transform Spanish olives into these unusual olive spherifications?

The process of making olive spherifications is a very delicate one. The measurements need to be incredibly precise otherwise an outer coating will not form.  The olives for our spherifications are carefully chosen and imported from Spain. We extract the juice by blending the olives and putting the contents of the blender through a strainer. After this step, we use a mixture of calcium lactate gluconate, which allows for the olive juice to react when placed in the sodium alginate bath, and xanthan (used to bind and thicken the olive juice). Sodium alginate and water are mixed together for the bath. When the thickened juice is submerged in the bath, an outer coating forms; thus creating the spheres. After this process is completed, these spheres can be infused with different flavors in a second submersion. We will often use olive oil, garlic, black peppercorn, and bay leaves to add more intense flavor.