Get us in your inbox

Chef Roger Martinez
Photograph: Courtesy Il Buco

Chef Roger Martinez of Il Buco on daily collaboration and innovation

A deep appreciation for his colleagues and customer base fuels the Barcelona-born chef’s ever-changing menu at the NYC hot spot.

Virginia Gil
Written by
Virginia Gil

Chef Roger Martinez is coming up on his tenth anniversary as executive chef of Il Buco, a place he considers home away from home. “This isn’t just a job; coming to work is like coming home—the servers, managers and Donna, we all help each other out,” says the Barcelona-born chef of his second family and its matriarch, Donna Lennard. The restaurateur, who opened the NYC hotspot 29 years ago, hired Martinez to lead the kitchen in 2012, but their relationship has been more of a partnership than anything else. Chef Martinez conceptualizes new dishes for Il Buco’s daily menu, gives them to Lennard to try and make changes and then makes adjustments until they’re perfect. His collaborative approach to cooking includes his daily meetings with Lennard and chef de cuisine Harding Aldonzar, his relationship with local purveyors and the rapport he’s built with his entire team—from the dishwashers to the servers to the sommeliers.

Il Buco’s customer base is another integral part of Chef Martinez’s found family, informing his dishes and sparking creativity as he works to innovate the restaurant’s ever-changing options. “We have regulars who come in several times a week and we want the food to be exciting for them but still taste like Il Buco,” he says, referring to the reason for the nine new dishes he puts out daily. Here, Martinez tells us more about his affinity for Mediterranean cuisine, his affection for high-quality ingredients and what keeps him inspired.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe your food and cooking style?

My cooking style varies because I can make all types of things as I’ve worked in various restaurants. I like classic cuisine as well as avant-garde, creative cooking. I like global cuisine—picking the best of each country and developing my own style. For me, the most important thing is cooking from the heart, making what I feel at that moment and expressing myself through food. It’s one of the things I like most about Il Buco: My chef de cuisine Harding Aldonzar and I change the menu daily based on what’s in season. We try to create new dishes as well as a special dining experience.

What kind of special experience do you hope for guests?

I want Il Buco to be an extension of their home, their dining room. That’s what it’s like for Donna, who lives upstairs and comes for dinner every night.

Speaking of Donna, what’s it like working together? How do the two of you collaborate on Il Buco’s menu?

Donna makes you feel as though you are a part of her family. Harding has been here 24 years and I’ve been here nine, and we all feel a part of the Il Buco family. The three of us [Donna, Harding and myself] are a trio; Donna is not in the kitchen but she’s our palate and she knows what customers like. We’ll present a menu and she’ll say, ‘more salt, add spice, try a different ingredient.’ She suggests what we need to finalize a dish. The kind of relationship we have is very important and quite uncommon. Chefs are usually on their own and they think they’re always right but that’s not the case. You have 200 people coming in every night and not everyone likes what you like. Donna’s criteria helps us figure out what’s good but also what’s good for her customers.

It’s been nearly a decade since you joined Il Buco. How has the menu evolved?
What are some of the significant changes you’ve made through the years?

Il Buco is where I’ve felt most at home professionally. I worked with Ferran Adriá and Joan Roca i Fontané, but I wasn’t particularly passionate about avant-garde cooking. Il Buco is a return to my roots, the Mediterranean flavors that are part of my DNA. So, I’ve returned the restaurant to its origins when it opened 30 years ago, going back to its Mediterranean roots. We have clients who dine with us two or three times a week and we vary the menu so they can continue to do so and feel like it’s still Il Buco, but every night is different.

Do you have certain guiding principles behind your cooking that you return to often?

It’s always about the product. We source the best products and pay attention to quality and value. It’s not about paying more for something if it’s not worth it. Because we switch things up daily, we focus on what’s fresh. For example, the fish we serve depends on what’s been caught and sold to us that day—salmon, halibut or fluke. It’s only on the menu that day.

Rice is your specialty. What tips can you offer home cooks who want to incorporate rice into their routine?

It’s important to choose the right grain for your dish. For instance, you can’t make a risotto with a bomba or basmati rice; you need arborio because it has more starch. Paella needs a small grain that can be loose and fluffy.

Do you have a particular pot you use to make rice?

We use a copper pot for risotto—it helps the rice boil better. Paella requires a paella pan, which gives the dish its name.

What inspires you in the kitchen?

Seasonality. Il Buco is a seasonal restaurant, meaning we only use products in season and work with many New York farms to keep it as local as possible. We also work with farms in California because their climate is similar to that in the Mediterranean.

Is there a current culinary trend you're especially excited about?

We’re working with farms to source ingredients that haven’t been exposed to the elements and whose flavor is as close to what it’s supposed to taste like. Instead of getting creative with techniques, I’m using seasonal ingredients and creating the best flavor combinations possible that you won’t find anywhere else. For instance, we slow-roasted pork ribs with a mix of peppers we sourced from Morocco and paired them with a blueberry sauce and a little pickled watermelon radish. The combination of sweet, salty, spicy and vinegary represents the umami flavors.

As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, how do you approach food-and-drink pairings at the restaurant?

I work closely with our beverage director, Jarred Roth, and our team of sommeliers, who taste everything we make. I thoroughly explain the dish and they come up with the perfect wine pairing. My job is to cook the food and theirs is to select the wine. Our customers are always pleased with the suggestions.

What’s always in your fridge or pantry at home?

My wife, three kids and I are boring. We eat the way we did back home in Barcelona; we don’t like spices or hot sauce. Americans would say we’re very plain. We always have good-quality olive oil, pan con tomate, salami, ham and cheese.

What are some of your favorite things to cook for your family?

If it’s the weekend, I make a paella—either seafood or meat and vegetables. But on weekdays, it’s either a piece of good quality meat or fish, and a vegetable—nothing fancy.

    You may also like
    You may also like