This past March, Nadia Yotti Ruiz took over the kitchen of fledgling Mi Tomatina, a hip and intimate indoor-outdoor Spanish restaurant in Winter Park's Hannibal Square. At age 33, this is the young chef's second career: Before attending the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, she earned a bachelor's degree in food science and technology and worked for several years as a food safety inspector. Yotti Ruiz may be new to receiving a paycheck for spending time at the stove, but she's a lifelong student of Spanish cuisine. She was born and raised in Madrid and learned about native foods at her mother and grand-mother's apron strings. We had some questions for her.
Winter Park Magazine: Central Florida has many restaurants featuring the foods of Latin American cultures, but your menu seems authentically Spain-oriented. Where did you learn about Spanish cuisine?
Yotti Ruiz: Not only did I grow up in Madrid, I also spent my culinary school externship there and then worked in a Michelin one-star restaurant [Michelin restaurant guides are among the world's most respected because of their high standards]. That taught me a lot about both traditional Spanish foods and the contemporary things they're doing there now.
WPM: Has Spanish food changed?
Yotti Ruiz: Very much. In the past 10 years, the cuisine has changed from everything being very traditional to chefs taking traditional ingredients and turning them into something new, using different textures to trick your eyes before delivering familiar flavors. An example on my menu is truffled potato mousse. It looks like mashed potato, and the flavor is that of mashed potato, yet it's very airy, very fluffy. We get that palate texture using a device meant for whipping heavy cream; it uses nitrous oxide to introduce air into the potatoes.
WPM: How did you bring what you learned to Mi Tomatina?
Yotti Ruiz: I don't think Orlando is ready for the molecular gastronomy [changing the textures of foods using experimental chemistry techniques, such as the one used on potatoes] that's going on there [Spain]. This market is more into the trend of using local products, so we try to use produce, meats and seafood from here and incorporate them with the flavors of Spain. It's a challenge because, for example, pigs are grown differently here. In Spain pigs are fed on acorns, and they have more space to walk around, so the fat content is lower and the meat tastes gamier. I believe pigs here are mostly fed on corn.
WPM: Do you find you have to import some ingredients?
Yotti Ruiz: Absolutely. We import our Serrano ham, all of our cheeses and the chorizo, and also olives, special peppers and the rice used to make our paella. These items make our dishes authentic. Most chorizo sold here isn't like the sausage back home. It doesn't have that intense flavor of Spanish smoked paprika and the intensity of the pork taste, so it seems a little bit more like a spiced-up hot dog.
WPM: You inherited a menu from the original chef, Tyler Faviere. What have you changed?
Yotti Ruiz: So far I changed the fillings for the empanadas. The pastries were stuffed with, say, just chorizo and cheese, or black sausage. Now I add sofrito, which is like a little stew made from onions, red peppers and garlic.
WPM: I always liked Mi Tomatina's tortilla Española. Please tell me that's the same.
Yotti Ruiz: It's better now. I make it just like my Mom does, slicing the potatoes instead of cubing them and pan-frying the omelet in extra virgin olive oil instead of baking it. The texture is better. Now it's exactly as you'd find it in any restaurant in Spain.
WPM: What did you put on the menu that nobody has ordered?
Yotti Ruiz: Our gazpacho hasn't been ordered much. I think people don't quite understand what a chilled tomato soup is.
WPM: What would you like to remove that everyone loves?
Yotti Ruiz: The croquetas del chef. They're potato-based croquettes, which are French. Spanish ones are made with Béchamel. They do taste good; they're just not authentic. But people keep ordering them.
WPM: What cookbooks have been most helpful to you?
Yotti Ruiz: There are a couple that I go back to all the time: Tapas Seleccion by Carlos Herrera and The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking by Teresa Barrenechea.
WPM: Is there anything special about your sangria?
Yotti Ruiz: We make it close to the way I do at home: You put in fruit, some Spanish wine like Tempranillo, a little splash of orange juice, a little splash of Sprite and a little sugar.
WPM: Your tapas are moderately priced, but your paellas run from $28 to $44, which is high. How do you justify that?
Yotti Ruiz: Tapas is a small quantity, meant to be three bites of something. Paella is an entree meant to be shared, and we use very high-quality ingredients like lobster tails, baby octopus and shrimp that come directly from Port Canaveral. On top of that we import the rice from Spain, so that increases the price. We also provide an experience that no one else does: Every paella comes out with socarrat, a caramelized bottom. In Spain everybody fights over that part.
WPM: The restaurant is named, essentially, after a huge tomato fight held every summer in Buñol, Spain. How is that reflected on your menu?
Yotti Ruiz: Every meal begins with bread and a tomato concoction made with tomatoes, fresh garlic, olive oil and salt.
WPM: Are you relieved it wasn't named instead after Pamplona's running of the bulls, another summer tradition?
Yotti Ruiz: No, I like it either way. Both festivities are dear to my heart because they're from my country. I always watched La Tomatina on TV, but I was afraid to go. You see people with goggles and helmets and construction hats in case a tomato is not entirely soft. I have to say it might be a little scary.
WPM: Mi Tomatina is tiny. Are you alone in the kitchen?
Yotti Ruiz: I have a sous chef, José Baranenko, and a cook who assists us. José works here full-time and is studying at the culinary college at night.
WPM: Does it feel odd training people when you're so new to being head chef?
Yotti Ruiz: No, it comes naturally to me because as a food safety inspector I trained people all the time. In fact, I last worked for Disney World where I trained chefs to prepare for Disney's own inspections because those are more rigorous than the county ones. Plus, José knows quite a bit about Spanish food because he's from Venezuela, which has a large Spanish community. I teach by demonstrating because it's easier to learn if you can see something done through the eyes.
WPM: How did you land in the Orlando/Winter Park area?
Yotti Ruiz: I was living in Houston and my husband found a job here. We relocated and I went to work for Disney World.