Chef Shuffle

Akhtar Nawab Plans a ‘Long, Healthy Collaboration’ at Esquina

Now that onetime Elettaria chef Akhtar Nawab has had a chance to settle in at La Esquina, we thought we’d find out what he’s been up to. It sounds like he’s getting along swimmingly with owners Derek Sanders and James Gersten (funny enough, Sanders was the architect at Allen & Delancey, where Nawab was set to be opening chef). In fact, when he asked whether he might open a restaurant with them down the line, he said it was a possibility. Here’s the rest of our chat.

Is it different working with another chef, at Zengo, versus working with Derek and James?
Chef Sandoval is a very nice, easygoing, approachable guy. I left with a good experience from there. Here, James and Derek are really very confident in letting me go in a certain direction. We meet every week and have a tasting, and I’ll brainstorm a bunch of ideas, come up with different thoughts, seasonal things, and we figure out what works and what needs to be tweaked. The goal is two new dishes a week until we get to a point where we feel comfortable.

What have you added recently?
Today we’re putting on a plantain-wrapped corvina (it’s a South American fish — very tasty and delicious) with some zucchini blossoms and a Mexican tomato vinaigrette, if you want to call it that.

Are you planning to go the fusion route?
I don’t know if you’d call it fusion — it’s all got the Mexican flavors at the forefront, but some of the new dishes have more technique. They require a bit more attentiveness in the cooking.

What else are you planning?
We’re working on a lobster arepa — our version of a lobster sandwich. We put on a queso fundido with pumpkin seeds and plantain chips. We’re working on a roasted duck with some baby turnips and a mole vinaigrette, which is our lighter version of a mole (still with all the chocolate and chilies in there). We put a Creekstone Farms sirloin on last week with some hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and a mojo de ajo. The potatoes are confited in duck fat and olive oil and some chile, so it gets an aromatic element in the fat.

How did you get into Mexican, anyway? Is it something you’re just playing around with, or do you plan to do it for the long run?
I’ve always been interested in it along with many other foods and types of cooking, whether it’s Indian or French or Italian. I think James and Derek and I get along very well — we’re all interested in a long, healthy collaboration.

Where do you like to eat Mexican?
There’s a place in Brooklyn on Graham Avenue, Mesa Coyoacan, that’s very good.

Do you miss owning your own place or are you better off now?
The owners leave a lot of the decision-making up to me. Elettaria was an important restaurant for me — it was my first opportunity to do all those things and make those decisions, and it was an important learning experience for me.

Would you do it again, or does the city make it too hard for an independent operator?
It takes a lot of money in this town to do that, so I’m not entirely sure, if you’re asking what the future holds. I think there are a lot of opportunities with the guys I’m with right now. But for people who are starting small businesses in this city, and especially restaurants, it’s just fucking hard.

Finally, does being the chef at La Esquina mean you’re hobnobbing with Jay-Z every night?
I’m pretty much hanging out and working on dishes right now — to be honest, Jay-Z could walk right be me and I wouldn’t notice. I’m pretty clueless about the celebrity stuff. I’m not so hip that way. Although if Geddy Lee from Rush walked by, I’d probably catch him.

Akhtar Nawab Plans a ‘Long, Healthy Collaboration’ at Esquina