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Chef Jesús Núñez sits in his newly opened Manhattan restaurant, Graffit, scrolling through hundreds of photos of his dishes and relating them to his former life as a graffiti artist.
“I don’t only think like a chef,” he explains, pointing at his MacBook’s screen. “I try to create art. The plate is my picture. The food are my colors.…My food is not beautiful because it’s modern. It’s beautiful because there’s passion and there’s love.”
New to the city’s culinary scene, Núñez has been wowing foodies for years at his Madrid-based restaurants Polenta and Flou, both of which were recently shuttered due to the poor economy in Spain. Núñez arrived in the U.S. three years ago speaking very little English and with a sparse address book. Aside from his girlfriend, his only other Stateside contact was his cousin, Spanish model Almudena Fernández. But he’s quickly acclimated to New York. In the days leading up to Graffit’s opening early this month, Núñez was in full-on work mode, juggling phone calls in English, and going over final preparations with his staff.
The restaurant, which seats about 80 guests, is in a subterranean space on 69th Street off Broadway. A long, smooth bar and a scattering of tapas tables await patrons looking for a seat in the softly lit dining room, where mirrors in gilded frames hang on illuminated exposed brick walls. Dining room tables line opposite sides of the space, leading to the back of the restaurant where customers can dine in a glass-enclosed atrium.
Paying homage to his past, Núñez hired Chilean graffiti artist Dasic Fernández to adorn three of the restaurant’s walls with vibrant murals of a matador, a señorita and a smaller portrait of the chef’s American girlfriend.
Four blocks from fashion week’s new home at Lincoln Center, the eatery injects a somewhat buttoned-up neighborhood with a much-needed sense of style. Núñez plays with textures, bold colors and flavors to create a contemporary spin on traditional Spanish cuisine. But to call the food modern doesn’t do it justice. Núñez infuses his dishes with a vibrant and whimsical, yet visually clean aesthetic that garners its influence from urban art, architecture and fashion. One deceptively simple dish, which took the chef a year to perfect, is called “not-your-average egg,” and showcases that dynamic. Núñez plays with diners’ perceptions by taking a cauliflower and making it structurally and texturally similar to a poached egg.
“I like to bring diners back to their childhood by exciting them with new flavors and techniques that make dining a new experience,” he says. “The difference between me and other chefs is that I have the heart of a child. I like to discover.”