Fernando Navas Brings El Bulli’s ‘Cheese Air’ to SushiSamba

Fernando Navas

Fernando Navas makes cheese air.
What can you do?Photo: Melissa Hom

About a year ago, Argentine-born Fernando Navas, then a sous-chef at Nobu Miami, got the news that he was one of the 50 applicants out of 6,000 chosen for a four-month stage at Spain’s El Bulli, the stomping grounds of hallowed molecular gastronomist Ferran Adrià and pretty much the most famous restaurant in the world. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays in January, Navas will present an Adrià-influenced $110 tasting menu at his current restaurant, SushiSamba. We’re not saying it’ll be as hard as scoring a table at El Bulli, but only twelve people will be accommodated per night. We asked Navas what it was like to fulfill every young chef’s dream.

What's a typical day like at El Bulli?
We got there at 1 p.m. sharp. We had a meeting talking about the progress we had the night before. After that it was nonstop till 1 a.m. preparing for the menu of the day. We only had 30 minutes to eat and rest.

What was working with Ferran Adrià like?
He was involved in everything. When we got there, he was there. When we left, he was there as well. He was even involved in the family meals.

What’s the most valuable thing you learned from him?
The philosophy he has about cooking — that it’s a lifestyle. The bosses in the kitchen live in a bungalow next to the restaurant. They turn into the restaurant for six months.

What are some of the specific techniques you picked up?
They had a dry-freeze machine. I’m not doing it here, because the machine is expensive, but I’m using dry-freeze fruits for different things. I love spherification — it’s a technique that they use to make caviar. They add alginate to products like a fruit purée or sauce, and they put it inside of calcic — when those two products touch it jellifies the sauce. The outside is hard as a gelatin, and inside it tastes like liquid.

What’s the most inventive thing you’re doing on the tasting menu?
I’m doing sweet corn in different ways — sweet-corn granité, sweet-corn bread, foams, caviar, ice cream, chips.

Did certain dishes fail before they succeeded?
I have a lamb loin that I’m serving with polenta gnocchi. In the beginning I tried to do it with quinoa and soba. When I dropped the quinoa and soba into the calcic, it didn’t jellify. I kept adding more alginate and gluco. I couldn’t make it till I decided to use polenta instead of quinoa and soba and buckwheat.

And you serve this with “cheese air”?
We bring Idiazabal cheese to a boil, strain it, we add lecithin, and with a hand mixer we work it out till it brings all the foam to the surface. It makes an air the same texture of the espuma on top of the cappuccino. It disappears when you put it in your mouth, but the cheese taste stays in your mouth.

What do you think about the state of molecular gastronomy in the U.S.?
I don’t like the term molecular gastronomy, because it doesn’t get into a molecular thing. Only in the U.S. do people use it. But I think [the genre] will be more popular — people need to know how to use it and play with it.

For more details and to view Fernando Navas’s tasting menu, visit sushisamba.com.