With no formal culinary training, Chef Francisco Antón of Cardón y el Tirano on Calle Ocho and the new Mama Fox in Brooklyn relies on lessons passed down from his mother and grandmother. He shares his story — and a sweet dish from his Venezuelan-Italian heritage. As told to Evan S. Benn:
“My grandmother moved to Venezuela from Italy to escape poverty and war. I still remember the flavors and aromas that came from her kitchen on Margarita Island: gnocchi on Mother’s Day, bacalao on Christmas, spaghetti with walnuts and anchovies on random afternoons, biscotti with cafe con leche, red sauce with summer tomatoes that we canned ourselves.
“It was real food, and it was knowledge that was passed from generation to generation, all the way down to me. I did not realize it at the time, but the sights and sounds of my grandmother’s kitchen were the most important lessons I received as a chef.
Learning to cook from Venezuela to the United States
“I came to the United States when I was 16, first to New Orleans, then to Orlando for college. After graduation, I moved to New York. Chef Maximo Tejada gave me a shot at his restaurant, Macondo, cooking Latin American food.
“Before he died in 2012, Chef Maximo and I had the most amazing conversations about food and the role of the chef. He said we have the power to transmit our feelings through food, the way my grandmother’s cooking felt like she was telling me that she loved me.
“When I was looking to open my own place, I was drawn to Calle Ocho. Our inspiration for Cardón was to create a restaurant where we could experiment with different cultures and ingredients, but always with a Latin American element and with elevated wine pairings. My mom works with me in the kitchen, and one of my brothers runs the dining room.
‘I did not realize it at the time, but the sights and sounds of my grandmother’s kitchen were the most important lessons I received as a chef.’
“The Plantain Bomboloni dessert comes from different places — Italy, obviously, but also from Maracaibo, Venezuela. They make these delicious mandocas there, basically a mix of cheese, cornmeal and ripe plantains that are twisted like pretzels and fried. You eat them hot with cheese.
“Our version gets a dusting of powdered sugar and is served with roasted pistachios and chocolate hazelnut spread. But you can also skip the sugar, and they taste really good with a soft cheese. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.”
Cardón y el Tirano, 3411 Southwest Eighth Street, Miami; 305-392-1257; cardonyeltirano.com.
Recipe: Yellow Plantain Bomboloni
Makes about 20 Bomboloni
1 large ripe plantain
8 ounces fresh white cheese, grated
1/2 cup shredded panela or dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1/2 cup water
1 quart grapeseed or vegetable oil for frying
Powdered sugar for dusting
- Bring about 6 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan; reduce heat to simmer. Peel plantain, cut it into four pieces, and add them to the water. Cook until soft, about 10-15 minutes.
- Remove plantains from water. In a mixing bowl, mash the plantains with a fork or potato masher until they form a smooth paste.
- Add the cheese, sugar, cornmeal, cinnamon and anise seeds to the mixing bowl, using your hands to mix into a thick dough. Slowly add water and continue kneading until dough feels firm but pliable. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 45 minutes.
- Heat cooking oil to 350 degrees in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven. Form the dough into walnut-size balls and, working in batches, fry until dark brown and crispy on the outside, about 3-5 minutes.
- Place bomboloni on paper towels to drain excess oil; dust with powdered sugar and serve with Nutella or dulce de leche.
Notes: Chef recommends using very ripe plantains — when the peel turns black — to accentuate their sweetness. Try using the starchy water that you used to boil the plantains as the dough liquid in Step 3. Leftover dough can be covered and refrigerated up to four days.