Portland Monthly's Chef of the Year 2014: Ataula's Jose Chesa
One glass of ruby-red gazpacho holds everything you need to know about Ataula chef Jose Chesa: a shock of tomato intensity and fresh strawberry juice, swooped to your table by a guy who describes his latest food brainstorm with an exclamatory “Oh my goodness!” Tomatoes, bread, and olive oil—the bone and marrow of Spain—blended with ... berries? It’s a beautiful tale of a Catalan kitchen and a ripe Oregon summer, told in six glorious sips.
The Barcelona native, who fell hard for Portland two years ago, could have stopped the ingredient list for his gazpacho right there. But Chesa weaves his story in the extra details, the teeny ecstasies that make food personal: that salty pierce of anchovy, warming drops of sherry, the ricotta granita bobbing on top, melting into icy chips of luxury with each slurp.
It’s hard to turn cold soup into one of the year’s great food memories. It took a 32-year-old Spaniard honoring his roots while hiding a small galaxy of Michelin star–technique under his apron. Deep dives into national cuisines—Thai, Russian, Japanese—defined this year’s crop of compelling restaurants. Chesa put the first true taste of Catalan cooking on Portland’s table, rigorously spiced, then lifted it with little flavor intricacies and modernist know-how gleaned at top kitchens in France and Spain. His food is a rare treat: special, but accessible as a tater tot. Technically trained chefs typically try to impress. Chesa just wants to satisfy us, deeply.
What makes a chef of the year? Raging commitment and infectious charm—a guy doing it all, every night, from greeting to cooking. An ongoing sequence of plates that just make you smile: confident croquetas, inky, toasted rossejat noodles, and not a crumb of ego on the plate. It’s a virtuoso balance of heart, ambition, and craft, backed by inspired cocktails synced beautifully with the kitchen. At Chesa’s bustling house of seafood paellas and modern tapas, you taste his passion every day.
Five Dishes I'd Fight a Bull For
A plate of piping-hot spuds, each soaked in chorizo fumes, sliced with ninja precision, reassembled into wholes, then deep-fried like miraculous potato chip fans—a textural feat two hours in the making. Why not just blanch and fry, like Spain’s classic patatas bravas? “It’s not the same, it’s not me, it’s not what I stand for,” explains Chesa. A fiery tomato sauce, parsley oil drips, squiggles of Catalonian mayo, and a thousand specks of smoky piment d’espelette dance on top. Order two.
The Ataula Taco
A few months ago, Chesa made his first taco ever, and diners clearly approved. “Oh my gosh, it’s driving me crazy,” he blurted out one evening. “Everyone wants the taco!” It’s hard to argue with—or resist—a hand-rolled tortilla packing smoke and pungency, an ooze of fresh Catalan bean purée, and fat shreds of organic pork shoulder twice marinated and soaked in veal stock. And that’s not to mention the unexpected dabs of horseradish-pimenton sour cream and flourish of microflowers. Rationing orders are now in effect: only 15 per night, first come, first served.
Breakfast for dinner: two stacks of toast, roasted piquillo peppers, spicy chorizo, and a quail’s egg, sizzled over-easy with a crunch of salt and a tingle of hot pimento oil. Conjonudo takes its name from the macho slang “cojones.” Chesa tells his waiters: “Just tell them it’s like saying, ‘That’s damn good.’” Well played.
The pitch-dark paella comes on like an Almodóvar flick: dark, complex, and thrilling, its delicate nubs of prized Bomba rice creamed in a blaze of squid ink and lobster stock. Dig in to find cuttlefish curls galore, little blobs of tarragon tartar sauce, and the mysterious seduction of saffron bread crumbs.
Pa amb Xocolata I Oili d’Oliva
Leave it to a Spaniard to make magic out of bread and chocolate. To deconstruct the childhood sandwich his mom would tuck into his backpack, Chesa uses a sous-vide immersion circulator to transform dark Spanish chocolate, cream, and butter into soft, glistening balls of wonder, drizzled with good olive oil and salt. Scoop them up with shards of homemade bread, toasted. (Thank you, Mrs. Chesa).