Tapa Tells All

¡Hola! It’s me, Tapa! The crazy small plate from Cádiz! I’m spending the summer in Cap d’Antibes with my girlfriend, who’s working a bit while we’re here (if you call what bikini models do “working”). As for my own schedule? Only sand, sea, and sun. It’s nice, no?

Yes, I admit things have been going pretty well lately. I’m everywhere these days—at office parties, baby showers, and, ¡Dios mío!, even the Olive Garden!

But it wasn’t always so. When I was small—smaller—things were very difficult. The other plates, they would pick on me constantly, poking fun at my modest portions. “Hey pequeñito!” they’d yell. “Your offerings couldn’t sate a fruit fly!” Always I was the last one selected for games of street fútbol. Always I was left alone, in the corner, as the others danced flamenco and shared passionate red wine kisses deep into the balmy Andalusian night.

One of the lowest moments came in my teenage years when, after agonizing for weeks, I finally worked up the huevos to ask Sherry to the homecoming bullfight. She went with Paella instead. I’ll never forget her devastating words: “Paella contains multitudes,” she told me. “He and I are just a better pairing.”

So I was happy to leave during university for a study abroad program in San Francisco. And that’s when I noticed it: people there actually liked me. In my ingredients’ rusticity they found not crudeness but purity, and in their simplicity not facileness but integrity. Everything about me, in fact—they ate it all up.

I jumped at the opportunity. I left school and the West Coast for New York, where I gathered investors, started a restaurant, and watched, open-faced, as people rushed at the chance to spend more money for less food. Braised quail knuckle on mint sprig: $19.00. Fried dandelion tuft with tarragon dust: $27.00. Plankton en papillote: $43.00. No matter what I listed on the menu, it seemed my customers just couldn’t put down their tweezers.

I called my good friend from home, Pintxo. “Amigo!” I said. “Drop everything and get to New York!” He did, and we opened another restaurant together.

There were a few critics, of course, who called us provincial. And in a way they were right: we weren’t born at Le Cordon Bleu, with silver spoons for beds; didn’t spend our afternoons at the Ritz, lounging in duck fat; and didn’t dress for dinner in fancy haute-sauces from the house of Escoffier. But we also didn’t care. We were happy to let our few ingredients just be themselves.

New Yorkers understood that. We couldn’t open restaurants fast enough! But then Pintxo started becoming distracted by the newfound wealth and fame. He started wearing expensive garnishes and foams and partying with a hip new crowd. And he started dating a beautiful actress with whom he fell deeply in love, Penelope Crudités.

But Pintxo’s feelings for Penelope weren’t reciprocated, and after seven months together she abandoned him, running away with some playboy Italian finger bowl. My friend was inconsolable but I, busy with my own life, didn’t realize how bad it was. I will never forget that dark morning when I arrived at the restaurant and found him, there in the kitchen. He had drowned himself in balsamic vinegar. He was inedible. 

All of Pintxo’s new friends vanished, and so it was I alone who organized the funeral and I alone who, at the end of the ceremony, scraped poor Pintxo’s remains into the trash. For weeks I mourned, shutting away and covering myself in squid ink. And then one day I woke at dawn—and went back to work.

I knew that without my partner I’d have to toil five times as hard and that’s what I did, dreaming up new menu ideas while also running the business. I was no longer the laid-back and fun-loving Tapa I’d been over the past several years; instead, I was determined and shrewd. When I heard Meze was up to his gills in debt I bought him out, and when I learned Dim Sum’s growth was slowing I negotiated a tough fusion. I was a blur of activity, authoring a cookbook, giving interviews to food blogs, doing segments on morning television, and wearing a distinctive red toque everywhere I went.

But then, at a routine medical check up, I learned my lifestyle had become unsustainable. My body’s ingredients, the doctor said, were getting fattier, and wilting at an alarming rate. My personal life was a disaster, too. Another night, another cute little amuse-bouche—but in the morning I’d feel empty all over again.

And for what? I was working hard but hurting myself, unable to find satisfaction in anything. Worst of all, I was violating the very motto I held most sacred, the one printed atop the menus in all my restaurants: Less, it is more, no?

And that’s when I determined to embrace my Mediterranean roots—to slow down, relax, and start enjoying life. So I took a vacation. I rekindled relationships with old friends. And I met beautiful Katya. Lately, I’ve taken up oil painting. The light here, in the south of France, is so wonderfully inspirational. Magical, even.

Who knows what the future holds for Tapa. But as for now more immediate matters are at hand: I must begin preparing dinner. After all, these snail cilia will not caramelize themselves!