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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Rufino Lopez, Founder and Owner of Solera Restaurant Our Coverage Sponsored by Fresh Origins

Rufino Lopez

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Whom You Know has said that Solera is the best Spanish restaurant in Manhattan, and the primary reason is the talent behind it: Rufino Lopez. Rufino hails from Cedeira, a village in Coruna, in Northwest Spain. On his paternal side, Rufino’s grandmother Andrea Diaz was a passionate baker who excelled in breads and pies from the early 20th century until the 1940’s, when she retired. As a child, Rufino was inspired by her culinary skills and she taught him everything from skinning a rabbit to baking bollo, which is a large loaf of bread in Spain. Rufino’s mother Carmen Lourido was mentored by her mother who had owned CafĂ© da Costa, a fresh fish and local produce-oriented tavern in Cedeira which started in the late 1920’s and closed when the Spanish War commenced. Carmen met Francisco Lopez who was born a mile apart from her, and they discovered they both had a common desire to make beautiful cuisine, and not only did they make gorgeous food, but they actually farmed 100% of the food: goats, chicken, sheep, rabbits, pigs, vegetables, butter in the churn, and Rufino only remembers olive oil, sugar, salt and spices being purchased at the market ever. Everything else was from their own creation. Their best creation came in 1955: Rufino, who is an only child. 

His father would fish in the morning and farm in the afternoon. The authentic fresh taste of the food that his family values is quite evident in Solera today and the skills of Rufino's predecessors are the inspiration for many of the dishes. In 1971, Francisco Lopez acquired a position in construction in New York with his brother and the Lopez family emigrated to America. Rufino graduated from Lehman College of CUNY in 1976 with a BA in Spanish and French Literature. During this period, Rufino was highly influenced by the thoughts of Jean-Paul Satre and Moliere, however, he remains true to his Spanish heritage by also adhering to the philosophies of Cervantes, Unamuno and Ortega. Cervantes wrote the first modern novel Don Quixote and the phethora of references to food and wine permeated the dreams of Rufino who was ready to conquer the restaurant industry of Manhattan, which continues to delight us all today. 

As Rufino was going to school at Lehman, he worked at Italian restaurants and French restaurants since there weren’t Spanish restaurants of the caliber that Solera is today. In 1987, Rufino opened Alcala on the Upper West side until 1990, when he had the opportunity to begin the gem we’ve told you about. Solera has been around for 22 years, and it was named after the process of blending and aging sherries and brandies. 

In the prehistoric days of Manhattan cuisine when chefs made paella in pot with a lid, Rufino given his heightened culinary background, noticed an opportunity not only to educate the cooking world but also to capitalize on the business opportunity of making the famous dish of paella the way it is meant to be prepared: in a pan. Paella in Spanish is actually the word for that particular shallow 2 inch high pan with either an oval or circular diameter of any circumference. The rice cooks by expansion so this shape is ideal for the rice. In 1991, when Solera opened Rufino’s partner was Executive Chef Dominick Cerrone and together they brought contemporary regional dishes from Spain to New York, and this was on the cutting edge of cuisine in 1991 in Manhattan. Calamares is a notable appetizer along with Peachy’s favorite Gambas Al Ajillo, and Croquetas. Although Paella is the star dish here, fish and shellfish are staples of the menu and everything you will discover at Solera is the best you’ll find in Spanish cuisine. 

In 2009, the first Paella parade was inaugurated in Manhattan and Rufino Lopez was the key catalyst in this new tradition. Also, El Coto Winery, a wine distributing company from Rioja sponsors the event. The mission of the parade is to involve the culinary industry of Manhattan: in 2012 ten restaurants, six of whom were Spanish, celebrated their cuisine together in the South Street Seaport.   We are absolutely thrilled to present Rufino Lopez as our latest Mover and Shaker.  Peachy Deegan interviewed Rufino Lopez for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: How did each person in your family influence you? 
Rufino Lopez: 
My parents and grandparents gave me a lot of love, a lot of discipline, and perseverance was instilled into my nature along with a healthy dose of encouragement. They were very loving, however they were also very strict. 

What at Solera are you proudest of and why? 
What we accomplished in opening the restaurant in bringing new Spanish dishes to New York and the fact we’ve been around for 22 years gives me tremendous pride! We’re 22 years young and have been consistently excellent. Our clients includes a wide variety of clients that have frequented Solera countlessly over the past several years and that in itself is a something to be proud of. Anyone that comes in I am proud to serve because of what we serve. 

What should the world know about the paella pan? 
I wish that we had one in every American backyard right next to the BBQ grill! 

What can we look forward to at Solera for the next 22 years? 
We want to keep doing what we’ve been doing and keep improving upon it. 

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? 
Other restaurants we compete with and the caliber of chefs in Manhattan influence us. What’s in and what’s not is something to consider. 

What are you proudest of and why? 
I’m proudest of my family. I was lucky to be raised by great parents and I’m also very lucky to have a great wife and two fantastic children. Everything else is just work, commitment and passion. 

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do? 
I just want to continue doing what I’ve been doing the past 22 years but on a day-to-day basis in a continuously changing world. I want to stay on the cutting edge of Spanish cuisine.

What honors and awards have you received in your profession? 
My honors and awards include reviews by The New York Times, Gourmet, New York Magazine, Wine Spectator and Whom You Know!

What one word best describes you and why? 
Persistent because it’s the only way to achieve your goals. 

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
I like midtown where I am! I’ve always worked and lived in Midtown.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? 
The historic Balducci’s, Zabar’s and Morrell’s. 

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why?
I want Peachy Deegan to do my PR [but she doesn’t do that so I’ll settle for this interview!] 

What is your favorite drink? 
Wine, all colors! Especially from Spain. 

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party? 
I’ve been mistaken for Robert Wagner years ago!

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
Too many to mention one! 

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature? 
The Great Gatsby and anything by Woody Allen 

Who would you like to be for a day and why? 
Mayor Bloomberg and I’d like to change some idiotic codes of the health industry in New York!

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? 
53rd street between 2nd and 3rd avenues should be called Solera place from now on! 

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? 
I’ve used every form of transport in the city from walking to biking to cars to helicopters and everything that’s legal

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? 
The opportunity to experience the diversity of foods and wines that you can find in this city. 

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why? 
The Roman Philosopher Lucullus 

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? 
I came to New York at age 16 and then I saw Grease on Broadway when I first came to New York! 

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
I like to help my employees in any way I can teaching them and enriching their lives. 

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here? 
Underrated: Spanish cuisine and wines 
Overrated: Trendy restaurants

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 
I like Sporty Peachy and I wish she wrote about soccer more and called it football 

Have you tried The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
No but I’m working on putting it on the cocktail menu! 

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
They should come to Solera and find out!

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 
I’d like them to come to dinner and say hi!


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