Was Jesús Nuñez of Graffit surprised to find out he was being sued by Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti? You betcha! The former graffiti artist tells us he didn’t even know Jehangir’s Graffiti existed when he chose the name and hadn’t heard of Mehta, and he’s not happy to suddenly be fighting a lawsuit two months into getting Graffit off the ground. “I have enough creativity and enough style,” he tells us. “I don’t need someone saying that I used the fame of another chef.” Here’s the rest of what Nuñez told us.
What was your first reaction when you read the complaint against you?
First of all, I didn’t know Graffiti existed when I created Graffit. The meaning is the fusion of “graffiti” — because I was a graffiti artist and there was graffiti in the restaurant — and Eat. It’s a trick name. I have the Zagat guide right now and there are five or six or seven “Graffiti” restaurants in New York. There’s a Graffiti that’s in Long Island with very good notes on décor and service. I didn’t copy any name — I created my name with a reason and a story behind it. The second thing is that it’s totally wrong that there is the same style of food. He has chopsticks on the table — I have silverware. I’m Spanish, and he’s Indian or Asian — I don’t have any idea. I work with Spanish ingredients: pimenton, saffron, jamón Ibérico, lomo, chorizo, piquillo peppers, octopus …
These dishes must be very much similar to what you were doing in Spain.
I’ve been working in this style for seventeen years — I opened my first restaurant when I was 23, my second when I was 26 … I like to be provocative with my food — I’m not doing molecular. I’m just doing this to do something different. This isn’t something I copied from this guy.
So what about the Pop Rocks?
This so funny because I don’t have Pop Rocks on my menu. I’ve used pop rocks in these seventeen years a few times. Why? For me, it’s not a serious ingredient — I use it to have fun. I use it when I find a very, very good extra virgin olive oil with a lot of flavors in it like herbs, almonds … the Pop Rocks explode in your mouth. I think he’s talking about an interview where they asked, “What different ingredients do you use?” I said, “Pop Rocks, but I use tongue, and saffron, and tripe, and Oreo cookies.” It’s the same as if I’m doing false caviar, with watermelon or pepper or whatever, and Ferran Adrià came and told me, “I created this false caviar years ago.”
And they’ve been doing Pop Rocks in Spain for some time, no?
In 1995, I think — and that probably is not correct — Arzak, with his three-star Michelin restaurant, used strawberry soup with Pop Rocks.
Were there any other surprising accusations in the suit?
[They said] he’s in the same location. Wrong. He’s in the Lower East Side, I’m in the Upper West Side. For the attorney, it’s because we’re both in Manhattan … But that’s as if you told me, “We’re both in the United States.” The people in the Lower East Side aren’t the same people coming to the Upper West Side. He’s saying, “Our clients are going to Graffit instead.” Great for you, because we have publicity so our clients must be going to your restaurant, too!
Surely you couldn’t have anticipated this when you decided to open a restaurant in New York.
It’s hard enough to open a restaurant in this city without this kind of situation. I was in the construction process for one year. I had no idea that when a building is landmarked you’re going to spend a few months waiting for permits. Then there’s the Health Department telling you the coffee machine is a prep area so you need a sink. All these things made me have a hard time with the SLA. This is a nasty world.
It sounds like he didn’t call you personally about this?
For me, the chef job is a very honest job — we work with the hands and we try to make the people happy, so if I have any problems with anybody the first thing I do is call this person. And I didn’t receive any calls. The first thing I received to my personal e-mail was a three or four page e-mail telling me I’m going to court. I was thinking of talking to the chef, but when someone decides to talk to an attorney before talking to you, I know how it’s going to go. If this chef calls me and tells me, “This name is similar,” then I can explain that I didn’t have any idea and didn’t want to offend anyone; I was thinking that New York is a city of fashion, design, and art — I’m going to start doing something with graffiti (which nobody understands is an art) and I’m going to do something in a stylish restaurant in an old neighborhood like the Upper West Side …
Has there ever been a case of this in Spain, where chefs pride themselves on innovation?
No. I went to the Starchefs Congress and the last chef to talk was Albert Adria and I remember he told everybody, “I was in this Congress and I see 40 different techniques that I created,” and he’s not saying, “Oh, you bad people — you’re copying me.” He’s saying I feel happy because I created these techniques and everybody is using them. The best chefs in the world give all their recipes and all their experiments and evolution to the other chefs because this is a profession where we help other chefs and give all information to everybody.