THOMAS HEATON MEETS A CHEF EXPLORING THE FASCINATING CUISINES OF THE HISPANIC WORLD.
Photography Josh Griggs
Stuff NZ Magazines
Thomas Heaton meets Javier Carmona of Auckland Hispanic restaurant Inti CHEF JAVIER CARMONA enthusiastically explains every dish on his menu at Inti, focusing on the provenance and history of each single ingredient. Many are ancient, native to South America, while others are classically Spanish; and Carmona is melding them using contemporary techniques. Inti opened in August in downtown Auckland’s Chancery Square, and its thought-provoking Hispanic focus is a new concept for New Zealand. Alpaca meat, crickets and ants appear in his dishes, but he’s not doing it for the shock factor, Carmona says. Every dish needs to make sense, and each is a clever way of looking at both Spanish influences and the pre-Hispanic foods of South and Central America. Carmona, who has embraced the life of a travelling chef since he was 18, says Inti is a sum of his experiences. The 45-year-old was born in Madrid but grew up in Sydney and moved to New Zealand five years ago. Before opening Inti, he was executive chef for Mouthful Group, which owns the Mexico restaurants, Auckland’s Beirut and Oaken, among others. Growing up, Carmona says he didn’t see much point in grasping on to ties to his country of birth. He felt he was living two lives at the time, going to Spanish school twice a week on top of his regular schooling, which was something that went largely unappreciated. “You had a sense of duality, really. When you went home, you were eating Spanish food and experiencing Spanish traditions. “It all felt unnecessary, because here I was in Australia. I was speaking English, I didn’t speak Spanish with anyone else and I didn’t really have any Spanish friends,” he says. “It was an unfortunate reaction.” It was later, through food, that he started to feel a sense of national pride, but he admits cooking wasn’t necessarily a pursuit he was born for. “I often hear chefs saying they started cooking when they were three, and I don’t think that was the case for me. I certainly can’t remember that far back.” His chef step-brother, combined with a strong wanderlust, influenced him to pursue cookery when he was 16. In just two years, thanks to a work ethic he says he picked up from his father, he was heading up a traditional restaurant in the heart of the Spanish community in Sydney. “I suddenly got this huge surge of nationalism, talking to all these people who loved Spanish food. It was a really revealing and rewarding time for me in regards to my Spanish identity. Suddenly I felt really fortunate.” Following that success, the young chef began travelling. He stayed on the road for a long time, working in London, Canada, France and Scotland. “There was a great sense of flexibility, which was really good in my career. It opened my mind to different cuisines and techniques.” The father of two moved to New Zealand with his Kiwi partner to “take a step back” and raise his young family. Although he didn’t get away from the intensity of restaurant kitchens initially, he says he’s now in a good space doing his own thing at Inti. Carmona says he never considered himself a Mexican or South Americanfocused chef, despite his integral role in the success of the Mexico restaurants. “Once you get a bit older, all the chaos gets funnelled into one direction and you become better at delivering a message. “For me, I think I’m only getting more creative. I think that I’m becoming more interesting now than I ever have been. I’m asking more questions. More goes into the decisions I make.” After he left Mouthful Group, Carmona says he felt there was still more to be done with South American food, so he continued investigating the cuisines at his pop-up Etxeberria, which ran for a few months in Avondale, west Auckland, in early 2017. “It just kind of felt like a natural process to keep investigating that, and then applying my Spanish background.” At Etxeberria, his small, everchanging menus featuring intelligent Spanish-South American combinations quickly impressed diners. “We felt that we could really do anything we wanted to do, and that was quite liberating.” Now working in his permanent fixture, named after the Peruvian sun god, Carmona says he is content. While some of Inti’s food may be polarising or confronting to diners, it’s all necessary, he says. “It’s a hard sell, but it’s part of what I want to do. “I think the pre-Hispanic story and the Hispanic influence, and the evolution of the cuisines together and separately, is really interesting.” Dishes like green chorizo with a 65-degree egg, pepitas and wood sorrel take both worlds and combine them in the antojito (Mexican Spanish for “little craving”) section of the menu. “The idea of a chorizo is a red pork sausage that would have been a dish that was introduced to South America,” Carmona explains. “Somewhere along the line someone would have thought: ‘Well, you know what, we have coriander, we’ve got green chillies’. They have created a hybrid, with the scope and nuance of a chorizo sausage, but with their flavour profiles,” he explains. “We talk about all the wonderful ingredients that were discovered in South America, but it was also about what the Spanish offered in regards to produce, livestock and recipes,” he says. “If you look at South America, most of the proteins that they cook with now were all introduced.” In another dish, Spanish morcilla, a popular blood sausage found in different forms and under many names around Europe, appears atop a tostada with native South American ingredients: black ants, dragonfruit and peanuts. South America’s influence on Spain and the rest of Europe, meanwhile, can be seen in any dish containing potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate or chillies. “It’s intriguing, again, the whole idea that you’ve got a product that’s ensconced in South America and they use it in a certain way, but when it goes to Europe it’s used in a completely different way. For those reasons, it’s amazing.” While Carmona is just a few months into running Inti, his enthusiasm is palpable and desire to learn more infectious. He says embracing his heritage has proved crucial. “It took a while for me to really embrace my ‘Spanishness’... but I’m fortunate that I’ve got that culture and that ethnic experience. I think that potentially makes it easier for me to investigate other ethnicities, and feel comfortable doing so.”