A great meal starts with great ingredients (even in a not-so-great kitchen).
Cities have bigger populations, bigger airports, and bigger nightlife, but that’s matched with bite-sized apartments and even tinier kitchens. While it’s easy to underestimate the power of the kitchenette, you can still make amazing meals. To find out how, we spoke with Rafa Zaga, a Mexico City-born and New York City-based chef who trained at Le Cordon Bleu, was a full-time chef, and now manages to create multi-course meals in his small East Village apartment as a host for EatWith.
A cut above: Start with fresh herbs, a sharp knife, and a decent cutting board.
Rafa marries his heritage with a modern approach to make “Mexican cuisine with a twist” for his dinner parties, which he hosts with his roommate, Max. Even under the constraints of small cooking quarters, he serves up fresh, seasonal creations to groups of up to seven hungry guests (yeah, we’re in awe too). We asked him for his wisdom to help wean us off PB&Js and pizza delivery.
Small square footage can’t stop Rafa from making culinary miracles happen in the kitchen.
For starters (no pun intended), fresh is best! Don’t use limited counter space as an excuse to substitute seasonal products for canned fruit and vegetables. “The basics of cooking can be learned from a small kitchen. All you need is high quality products to make something excellent,” says Rafa. What New York City apartments may lack in square footage, the city makes up for with access to a wide range of international ingredients. That’s how Rafa’s able to source a mash-up of flavors from all over the city, like aloe vera, fresh mint, and Peekytoe Crab from Maine.
Setting the stage (aka the table) for a meal with ambiance.
In the kitchen, Rafa’s motto is to keep it simple, whether it’s the seasoning or the minimal amount of equipment he uses. You don’t need to shell out on elaborate ingredients like expensive saffron or star anise. Instead, keep only basic spices on hand (because who has space for a spice rack, anyways?) and use them as instant enhancers. “You can really taste the natural flavor of the dish,” says Rafa, who favors salt, pepper, and a touch of chili as his go-to seasonings.
Even a simple dish can feel upscale with some Top-Chef-worthy plating.
LESS IS MORE
In the theme of minimalism, “the only thing that you need is a stove and an oven and you can make magic in the kitchen,” he says. Rafa insists that time, not space, is the key to a quality plate. One of his favorite methods is slow cooking, which shines in his signature pork al pastor, a dish from Central Mexico derived from Lebanese Shawarma split-grill meat that simply requires a pot and time on the stove. “The longer it takes you to cook, the more you can taste the love of the food,” he says. (Sorry, Easy Mac.)
Ultimately, the people at the table are more important than the food on it. (Aw.)
ALL FOR FUN
Whether you have a restaurant-size kitchen or only a hot plate, there’s no joy from a stressed-out chef, so make the fun factor as important as what’s on the menu. “People want to try amazing food,” Rafa says, “but they also want to enjoy your company, so always be yourself when you’re cooking and entertaining. Great things can happen around a table with great food and company.”
So go ahead and plan a dinner party—without styrofoam containers. You may be surprised by what you can make with just one pot, some fresh ingredients, and a dash of seasoning. Now, where’s our invite?
That’s a wrap! Now, who’s washing dishes?
Got must-try recipes or great city-cooking tips? Tell us in the comments below!