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Slow and steady wins the race.

For the past twenty years, Alex Urena has slowly and steadily been making a name for himself. Like the fabled tortoise, he understands the wisdom of proceeding with a purpose and has not allowed haste to lead him astray. Although his dedication has led to a dream come true-his own restaurant--he's not at the finish line yet.


Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Urena came to the United States when he was fifteen and immediately went to work for Charlie Palmer at The River Cafe. "My father was working for him too, that's why I got the job," he says. He stayed for two years before going to work for David Bouley, an experience that shaped his career. "When I was at Bouley, I started to discover that this is what I want to do. Bouley inspired me," he explains. "I wanted to be like him. That's why I stayed with him--I stayed there for ten years."

They weren't ten continuous years. While he always returned to Bouley and Bouley Bakery, Urena took every opportunity available to stage in Europe. Among his stints were a two-month stage with Roger Verge; six months in the kitchen with Ferran Adria; a short stint with Martin Berasategui; four months with Laurent and Jacques Pourcel; and another four with Regis Marcon. Still, it was his time at Bouley that counted most. "Everything that I learned, I think I learned at Bouley. I learned a lot working for Ferran, but Bouley had already taught me how to cook fish, how to cook meat, how to cook anything. I learned how to cook at Bouley," he says simply.

When he finally left Bouley, he heard from fellow Bouley veteran Dan Barber, who needed an executive chef to open Blue Hill. "I thought I would give it a shot, you know? I had nothing to lose," he shrugs. So in 1999, he took the position and stayed on for two years, to much positive acclaim. "That's when I started making my name," he points out. Ultimately, however, it didn't work out and he felt he needed to move on. He became the executive chef of Marseilles for its opening, even as he began to plan a path towards a place of his own.

When he left Marseilles, he looked back on his stage with Adria and thought about the possibilities for Spanish cuisine in New York. "There weren't many good Spanish restaurants here," he recalls. "So I thought there was room for somebody to come in. I decided to go to Suba. That's where I started doing what I want to do." At Suba, he gained more familiarity with Spanish cuisine and found ways to make it more contemporary. While still there, he began searching for a space of his own and, when he found it, he opened Urena in 2006.

Right now, he is only working on modernizing classic Spanish dishes and isn't trying to emulate Adria's brand of innovation. As much as he might like to experiment, he believes the time is not right. "I'm not doing things like el Bulli. Personally, I don't think New York is ready for food like that. It could be that forty percent of people like it, sixty don't. I don't think that everybody's ready." Instead he delves into the history of a particular region of Spain to find its most traditional ingredients and recipes, then "gives a little more upscale touch" to them.

But he feels highly experimental cuisine will eventually have its proponent here. "A lot of young people want to do molecular food. Every young chef wants to do something different than everybody else," he observes. "But it depends on who is going to do it, and how he is going to go about it. I think it's still too early for New York. But maybe if someone like Ferran comes here, maybe it would be different. For a guy like me, I don't think it's a good idea."

In the meantime, he plans on opening one or two more restaurants. There's no doubt he will move carefully, waiting until he is more like his most important mentor, David Bouley. "Right now I'm not like him. But in the future, I want to be a chef like him. Slowly, slowly, I'm going to get there."

Alex Urena

Chef/Owner Urena

New York City
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Author:Urena, Alex
Publication:Art Culinaire
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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