A Trip to Barcelona with Chef Jodi Bernhard

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I’ve always felt Barcelona Restaurant and Wine Bar was my own special spot. My hubby and I discovered their Norwalk location during a romantic weekend many years back, and we were enticed by the tapas (Spanish word for ‘little plates’) style menu. One of my favorite ways to eat is to try a little bit of everything, and that’s exactly what you’re encouraged to do. It’s like a trip to Spain without leaving the table. Eventually, we brought friends along to join in this fun and interactive dining experience. I’ve never been good at sharing my food, but learned to let go knowing I could taste so many dishes. I practically got heart palpitations trying to get the words out fast enough when describing the tapas they HAD to order, and choosing which new plates to check off our list. As everyone savored the delicate, flavorful and simply delicious food, it was clear they understood first hand why we love this place so much. My hubby and I continued to visit Barcelona in Norwalk, sipping on their refreshing mojitos that as I previously mentioned, we named our Yorkie after. (And we make it a point to share this pertinent information with the waitstaff every time we dine; I think they’re intrigued.) Being very goal oriented, we made it our business to visit every one of Barcelona’s locations across CT in Greenwich, Fairfield, Stamford, Norwalk, West Hartford and New Haven. It’s always nice to have a goal. We successfully hit our marks, and each dish and visit always delivers and keeps us coming back for more.

When I had the opportunity to interview Executive Chef of Barcelona Greenwich, Jodi Bernhard, I was ecstatic. What an honor to be face-to-face with the brilliant artist behind the work I’ve admired…and eaten…on so many occasions. Bernhard has been with Barcelona for a year and a half, beginning with her training phase in Stamford and then moving on to create and prepare dishes in New Haven, South Norwalk, and now Greenwich.

She greeted me from behind the kitchen doing what she does best. I watched her float between the industrial appliances, checking tickets and plating orders. Then, she uttered the magic words, “I’ve made us some sandwiches.” We sat down together and I bit into the toasted bread to reveal creamy avocado, crisp lettuce, sweet, juicy tomato and a savory aioli made of roasted and fresh garlic with the perfect hint of salt. I could barely put it down to write about it between bites. I eagerly dug further into her delicious food and inspiring story. Chef Bernhard has a special light about her that radiates passion, knowledge and skill, yet she doesn’t take herself too seriously to know there is always an opportunity to learn and grow, and she thrives off that. Below, I invite you to be a fly on the wall of our inspiring chat. But I’m not sharing my sandwich.

You’re on your feet in a hot kitchen for many grueling hours spending time away from your husband. What drives you to do what you do? 

There are some days when I don’t know why I do this, and that’s probably because all the challenges you mentioned are very real, but where it comes from is an extremely innate thing and it happened to me today. I don’t know what it was, but I was reading the NY times restaurant review and they mentioned a croquet, and from that moment on I went into a cathartic thing about how mesmerized I was thinking, ‘what could I do with that?’ Probably five stops on the train had passed and I literally lost time. I become entranced with cooking in my head. I am not an experimenter, I literally cook in my head and when I come up with ideas I need to be in my own little corner in my own daydream with it. The way that makes me feel relaxed and peaceful, that’s what it is. That’s a meditation for me basically. It’s that element. Sometimes I need to talk about this to remind myself why I do this.

Why Barcelona?

What attracted me to Barcelona as a whole was their general culinary philosophy that is ingredient focused, seasonal, local when possible, very simple and rustic.  That kind of style of food has naturally been my style. Very homey.

What does food mean to you?

The interaction and exchange with people about food like talking to a table that gets a cool interest in what I’m doing, or sometimes they’ll even teach me something new.  I love that part of this job. Or even socially. Literally when my husband and I are at home or out to dinner, probably 50% of our conversation is about food, and with my extended family it always gravitates towards food so that social interaction is also amazing for me.

What do you love about Spanish food and tapas style dining?

Once I started working here I realized tapas gives me the ability to make a dish that is literally just one ingredient, which is very hard to do in any other cuisine. For example, when I get farm fresh tomatoes in the summer, I can cut them, drizzle them with olive oil and salt and put them on a plate. It allows me to go to that extreme of super simple and non-manipulative to the other extreme of dishes that are very labor intensive like homemade pasta or terrines or guinea hen. It offers you two ends of that spectrum.

What’s so fun as a chef is taking your ego out of it and recognizing the quality of the ingredient and knowing what will make it come out the best without overdoing it.  I’ve literally had twinges of guilt that I’m not justifying myself enough by serving something simple, but I think the definition of a chef is to completely remove yourself from the plate and let the food speak for itself.

What is your favorite dish to cook?

I love working with savory based doughs like breads and pastas; gnocchi and anything that falls in that category. Also, slow roasted or braised proteins. I think a roast chicken is one of the most incredible things in the world.

What is your favorite ingredient to work with besides dough?

Mushrooms. If I want to play with something cool I will use wild mushrooms, fresh porcinis or French blue foot mushrooms, which I tried recently. And truffles fall into that category as well.

What ingredient do you feel is under appreciated?

Cabbage. I under appreciate it way too often. I will have it in house and I might have a really specific use for it, and it will still be there and I will be forced to play with it. Recently I made crispy suckling pig tapas with creamed cabbage. I sautéed onions, chiffanaded cabbage and added sherry and cream and let it cook down with a bay leaf and a bit of red pepper flakes for some heat. Holy heck was it good. It tasted like cabbage. It shouldn’t be this good. Cabbage, the unsung hero.

What is your favorite dish to eat?

Pizza. I’d love to be able to answer foie gras, but every time if I’m really hungry and think about what I want to eat, 70% of the time pizza pops into my head. I make a pizza dough here for our coca, or Spanish flatbread.

If you could describe yourself as a food or a dish, what would you choose and why?

I’m a sliced porcini mushroom a la plancha with chili flakes, garlic, a really nice fruity olive oil & sea salt. The porcini because I have expensive tastes & like nice things, sliced & cooked a la plancha because I am not patient, except when it comes to cooking, and I like things, problems and issues approached simply and quickly, chili flakes because I can tend to be a bit… how shall I say it… direct, and garlic, olive oil, sea salt because I believe in experiencing food & life sensuously. Cooking & eating should employ the use of all five senses.

Do you still enjoy cooking for leisure at home after working professionally in a kitchen?

Cooking for leisure is so different than cooking in a professional kitchen that I almost consider them two totally different activities. I enjoy both equally, but for different reasons. Cooking at home is like a relaxing stroll through the park, while cooking at work is like a roller coaster ride, complete with the terror. I love both.

How does it feel for you as a chef to be a customer in another restaurant?

I think when I eat out I’m probably a much easier diner that many people who are not chefs. I have one requirement of the chef or restaurant and that’s to do what you do well, whatever that is. So if it’s a street cart selling hot dogs, they should be pretty darn good hot dogs. I have this thing that I say to my husband when we are eating at a restaurant and are having a really well-prepared dish, “Somebody back there gives a sh*t.”  Pardon the language, but it’s just not the same meaning without it. That’s really all it’s about for me. You just have to care about whatever you are making and put a little love in it.

I know you teach some of Barcelona’s cooking classes, and the restaurant also has a cookbook. Why share their secrets?

The fact is they aren’t, or shouldn’t be, secrets. It’s not like there is an undercover ingredient or technique that goes with presenting what we do culinarily. I think I just made up a word there. People enjoy eating at Barcelona because of the whole package; the combination of the dishes, the atmosphere, the service. If someone has a favorite dish and they want to try to recreate it at home by using the cookbook or coming to a cooking class, that shouldn’t mean they won’t need to come to Barcelona anymore because they can have Barcelona at home. Also, I believe both our cookbook and my cooking classes are much more than a set of recipes. They are a peek behind the scenes of the Barcelona culture, which is really a lot of little things that come together to make up the dining experience in one of our restaurants.

How often do you change your menu items and what signature dishes will always remain? 

About 50% of our menu is the core section or a Barcelona staple like the albondigas, potato tortilla with chive crème fraiche and papas bravas. Others are Barcelona chef dishes they’ve run as specials that have caught on like the empanadas or chorizo with sweet and sour figs. My section is the other half.  Two of my dishes I started in New Haven. One is a Spanish blood sausage, or morsilla, with chickpeas and preserved lemon and another is a marinated bean salad with arugula and tomato that caught on as well. I started the other dish in Norwalk and I call it almejas lo golero, which is a clam dish named after an incredible restaurant we went to in a region of Spain south of Barcelona last March that served clams with white wine, garlic, parsley bread crumbs, ground almonds and Spanish paprika. The paprika made the sauce almost look like clams marinara, but you got the taste of almonds with smokey paprika and garlic. I asked permission to use the recipe for the dish and named it after the restaurant.

What’s next for Barcelona and for you that we can look forward to?

I expect to be in Greenwich for a while. Working in a group like this and being able to call a variety of different people for problem solving or creative development is really nice to have. As for Barcelona, they are almost always looking for opportunities and expanding geographically, like the new spot in Atlanta. We’re looking at places in Boston now. The company is taking more trips to Spain. It’s a constant evolution and a lot of what we do culturally as a company is promoting this style of food and dining as well as our culinary philosophy by introducing more people to it. I think that sort of defines the next step. A continuation of that. On a personal level I’m here for that progression very specifically to continue learning about all of that and having the opportunity to travel to some other places and to keep learning about food.

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