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Chef speak
Peter Sandroni - Chef/owner La Merenda

BY PAM PERCY

 

Opening in 2007, Peter Sandroni’s awarding-winning La Merenda is a charming, always bustling Walker’s Point tapas restaurant. La Merenda name means "early snack," referring to the custom of early evening socializing over small-plate dining and exquisite beverages.

What inspired you to open a Tapas restaurant?

I was working at Rambutan, a Filipino restaurant in Chicago that served tapas and, having also worked in other ethnic restaurants, was well-versed in different cuisines. Jennifer Aranas, Rambutan’s head chef, told me that when I opened my own restaurant, I should do international tapas. So, there you have it.

After "eat local" and "slow food," are there any new culinary trends?

Now there’s "hyper-local," having a menu dedicated to as much as you can do locally or doing as much of the work as you can, such buying whole animals and breaking them down to dinner-size portions, or making your own vinegars and oils. Another trend is being more in tune with people’s different allergies and aversions. And there is "sous vide," which is cooking vacuum-sealed food in a low temperature water bath to achieve texture and doneness not found in other cooking techniques.

How has the economy affected your business?

Honestly, we have seen very little affect on our business. I think it helps that we opened a year before the downturn. We started slow our first year; it could only go up, and it did.

What have you learned in the last five years?

As a restaurateur, you really need to listen to your customers. I like to come out of the kitchen and engage our customers about the menu, neighborhood and buying local. Customers have helped us become more vegetarian-friendly and environmentally friendly. Some have even come in and taught us how to make some items.

How do you decide on a new dish? How often do you change the menu?

Chef Ramses Alvarez and I are constantly pouring over menus, cookbooks and other recipe databases for new items. We have a ton of varied experience that we are constantly pulling from. We first try a lot of dishes as specials. If they go over well, we’ll add them to the menu. We change the menu at least four times a year, depending on the growing season. M

Gambas al Ajillo

Serves four

1 pound 16-20 shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup garlic, minced
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons parsley, minced
1 baguette, thinly sliced

Mix olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, paprika and parsley all together in a large mixing bowl and let sit. Take four crème brulee molds and place four shrimp in each one; salt each side of shrimp. Top with oil-garlic mixture. Place in convection oven set at 450 degrees; cook for four minutes. Turn over shrimp and place four pieces of baguette on tray; cook for additional four more minutes. Serve on triangle plate with baguettes on side for dipping into leftover oil.