Born in Spain, Chef Manuel Romero of Olea in New Haven, was raised in a family that loved cooking traditional and tasty food. When he was a child, his family moved to the United States, and he developed a passion for cooking by watching, helping, and learning alongside his mother. He moved up the culinary ladder, and in 2014, Chef Romero opened Olea restaurant offering guests his innovative interpretation of Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine. His menu is masterful and his dishes are stunning. We spoke with Chef Romero about his hobbies, worst kitchen nightmare, and his guilty pleasures.
Why did you become a chef?
My family always cooked traditional Spanish meals and did a very good job. That’s what first inspired me, and even when I was young I wanted to become a chef and work in the restaurant business. I always loved being around the kitchen. I was always involved. If I had to stay home because of the bad weather, or for whatever reason, I was in the kitchen. It’s because of this foundation that I love so much what I do.
What is the last dish you cooked for yourself?
It was shellfish, Basque style, with onions, garlic, white wine, parsley and olive oil. Something simple. I grew up right next to the water in Spain and I love shellfish, which I cook a lot at home. I like things that are very flavorful and easy to make quickly. Sometimes I just cook an octopus and make a salad with it, or I make clams with salsa verde. And I have oysters, or sometimes grilled meat.
Guilty food pleasures?
Once in a while I prefer to eat a nice burger with French fries. I love sweets like cookies or ice cream. And I like to try chocolate from all over the world.
What ingredient could you not live without?
Olive oil is one of them, because in Spanish cooking we don’t use butter. The base in Spanish cooking is olive oil, garlic and onions. Those are the three. Fish or shellfish, too, are things I couldn’t live without.
The chef you’d most like to spend the day with is... Why?
Ferran Adrià. All the modern techniques, foams, all the new textures came from him and now they’re all over the world. I admire chefs not only for what they’ve accomplished but how they got there, especially chefs who climbed to the top all the way from the bottom. Those are the people I most admire; people who worked very hard to reach their goals.
What was your worst kitchen nightmare?
A long time ago, the power went out in New Haven in the middle of the dinner service and we cooked using candles and lanterns for a while. “The show must go on.”
What’s in your fridge?
I usually have some meat in my freezer (red meat or poultry). Sometimes I have Alaskan king crab legs. I have fresh vegetables, still water of course, the fish of the day and at least a bottle of white wine. A bunch of olives and a gourmet cheese as well. I always have some kind of charcuterie, like chorizo, and Iberico ham. It can be snowing for a week, but with bread, olive oil and those ingredients I can survive.
What is your most useful kitchen tool or appliance?
Without a knife I couldn’t do anything. A nice blender is a very useful appliance. Whenever I do purées I like to have a powerful blender. I think of our gazpacho. You don’t feel any texture when you eat it. It’s very creamy and light. And having a convection oven is essential for me. That helps me a lot with savory and sweet dishes, because it cooks everything very evenly.
Most memorable meal?
Some in restaurants and some at home—always with family and good friends, here in U.S. and Spain. I remember meals at Picasso in Las Vegas, La Mar in San Francisco and at lot of places in Spain; fine dinning and casual too. What makes a memorable meal is not only what you eat but who you’re dining with. It’s a combination of good food, nice wine and great company.
When you're not cooking, you’re...
It all depends on the season. I like fishing a lot. If there’s a big tennis tournament, I’m watching that. Or soccer. I like to walk a lot in the summertime, but I’m always doing something related to food. If I’m not cooking, I’m thinking about some new dishes or reading an interesting cooking book.
People would be surprised to know that you...
I used to play guitar. When I was living in New York, I used to play in an alternative rock band. We opened up for really good, famous bands in New York, Boston and Miami. If I don’t show pictures, people don’t believe it. When I was younger I used to paint on canvas too. And there are a lot of people who are surprised when they know I do the desserts as well.