Journy regularly profiles expert chefs, sommeliers, hoteliers, and locals around the world to get the inside scoop on where to send our travelers. It's part of our formula for deeper, more meaningful travel. In this installment of "Meet The Experts," we sit down with Joaquin "Quino" Baca, an expert on the NYC dining scene and chef of the recently-opened Būmu.
I reach Joaquin Baca on his cell phone on a chilly, late January afternoon in New York City. It’s 1pm, and he’s in the middle of prepping for evening service. Post-holiday “breathing room” aside, Joaquin, who goes by Quino, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“We’re not here for easy,” he tells me.
Quino, who started his career as David Chang’s first and only employee at Momofuku Noodle Bar back in 2004, is now the executive chef at the recently-opened, bustling izakaya-style restaurant, Būmu in the West Village.
It’s located on West Eight between Fifth and Sixth—in the space where the now-shuttered sushi omakase spot, Neta, once stood. The menu skews communal, with small, shared plates like tataki beef carpaccio and miso eggplant, along with heftier entrees such as cast-iron okonomiyaki and the oft-Instagrammed grilled short ribs with SPAM® fried rice. True to the izakaya tradition, skewers are standard. But in a dance between tradition and creativity—a dance that Quino performs with understated elegance—skewers like the buttermilk chicken skins come doused in Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. Or adorned with foie gras butter, as is the case with his wagyu surf and turf.
As of late last month, Būmu has also finalized their ramen and fried chicken-heavy late-night menu, along with weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 3PM.
If Būmu’s menu seems, at first glance, to scream “fusion” to you, well, Quino would agree. Less so with the word—"I think that fusion has become a bad word, and it kind of makes me cringe a little bit," he admits—and more so with the concept, a concept that, he argues, is an inevitability.
“The term ‘fusion’ is a very late 80s, early 90s kind of thing that we clip on to the idea of two cuisines fused together. But it’s not really that. It’s just sort of a guilty term that people use anytime anything is a mixed bag.”
And since we’re on the topic of watered-down, overused culinary descriptors, I throw “authenticity” in the mix, which Quino promptly eschews. Partly out of practicality, but mostly because he doesn’t deem it necessary, especially in a city like New York.
“I find it fascinating to go to a 100% authentic Japanese restaurant where everything is sourced from Japan,” explains Quino, “but it’s not very practical, and I just don’t see the necessity for it when we have all these cool things here. And I’m pretty sure that in Tokyo there are Thai restaurants and French restaurants, and I’m pretty sure it’s not the Thai and French people working there.”
Būmu’s quote-unquote “authenticity,” or lack thereof, is a frequent topic of conversation, Quino explains, because the restaurant is firmly rooted in the exclusive, “close-jacketed” Japanese culinary tradition (which, like that of the French, occupies a spot on the United Nation’s Cultural Heritage list). “It’s not so much about sharing with the outside world,” says Quino, “so I guess fusion is how we’re described. But I think more than that we’re just a New York restaurant, and I’m drawing on my background.”
Growing up with a father in the foreign service, Quino spent part of his childhood in Iran, as well as South and Central America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. Two to four years was the average amount of time he spent anywhere until moving to the states at age 18 to study at the University of Texas at Austin.
“I grew up in a hyper-concentrated New York City,” jokes Quino.
His nomadic childhood instilled in him a high tolerance for novelty as he was “forcibly exposed to new things” as simple as different flavors of candy and chips in every country he lived, from Uruguay to Manila. But come dinnertime, it was “comfort Americana” with his mother—who hailed from a “super huge South Texas cow rancher family—at the helm of the home kitchen. Mexican food make frequent appearances on the dinner table, as did “casseroley stuff.”
Falling into cooking in diners and cafés to pay his way through college, Quino never aspired to the “celebrity chef” status that many ascribe to today—the irony of which, of course, being that he ended up working with someone who very much so did: David Chang.
“I never wanted the spotlight, but somebody had to do it,” says Quino, “and Dave reluctantly did and turned out to be good at it. I left because it was growing into a giant and was less personal than I wanted it to be, but me and Dave are still buddies, and I don't feel like I'm working under a veil. I have no problem being associated with Dave and Momo.”
From Momofuku, Quino returned to his roots to strike out on his own at the Southern-inflected, wood burning-oven spot, Brooklyn Star, in Williamsburg. A short stint at Bushwick-based Teo followed before Būmu was born—arguably the the penultimate embodiment of Quino’s international background: Asian, American, and a little bit of everywhere else.
But whatever you do, don’t call him successful.
“Success implies a finality, meaning it’s the end of the race,” posits Quino. “I am nowhere near the end, so I couldn’t say whether I’ve succeeded or not. Have I succeeded in some things? Have I done well? Have I made some cool things that left a mark? Yeah, but have I succeeded at what I set out to do? That remains to be seen. I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
To hear from another NYC-based chef on the topic of "authenticity" in cuisine, read what Ohm Suansilphong of Fish Cheeks had to say.