Kon-Tiki Chef Cheo Avila on Venezuelan Christmas Traditions and More

Chef Jose "Cheo" Avila, Photo: Courtesy Courtesy Agency 21
Chef Jose "Cheo" Avila, Photo: Courtesy Agency 21

Chef Jose “Cheo” Avila of Kon-Tiki at the Gallery Hotel in Greenport loves his family’s seasonal traditions. Avila will bring his happy holiday spirit to Dan’s Holidays in the Vines hosted by RG|NY on Saturday, November 30.

Share some of your favorite holiday food traditions from growing up, and from your family today.
Growing up in Venezuela, Christmas, or Navidad in Spanish, is perhaps the most important holiday of the year. We begin the celebrations in November and carry them through until January 6. Gatherings are frequent among friends and family for sharing the contagious, happy aura of the season.

What is the one food or dish that defines the holiday season for you?
Although we have several food and drink preparations typical of the season, Hallaca “takes the cake.” It’s a cornmeal rectangular cake filled with a hearty stew, seasoned with spices and ingredients exchanged during the fusion of old- and new-world traditions during colonial times. Wrapped with a plantain leaf and boiled before plating, it is definitely full of flavor and textures, which are embedded in our collective identity. The preparation is long and intricate—ask my mother—it is truly a family task that kickstarts the holiday season.

Interesting fact: The Hallaca was developed as a preservation method by the lower cast by using scraps and leftovers from the banquets of landlords and the privileged, by wrapping them with plantain leaf and cooking them for later consumption. This method, like many others among different cultures, was developed over centuries by necessity of conservation that eventually was refined to produce distinctive flavor and traditions.

What is the secret to creating the perfect food-and-wine pairing?
Depends if the focus is on food or wine. Either way, one should enhance the other by balancing what is meant to be highlighted.

What goes into creating your fall and winter menus for the restaurant?
Kon-Tiki and 314 cocktail bar are seasonal establishments, although if we were to be open year-round, I would appeal to the emotions and feelings of the cold season. In fact, this is the same principle I use to create any menu for any season. I would utilize spices giving feelings of warmth, which changes a dish’s dimensions, aiming towards comfort and mellow feelings for winter.

What aspects define your idea of the perfect holiday celebration?
Reunion. That simplifies the meaning of holidays for me.

What is the best holiday gift you’ve ever received, and why?
A gift I remember fondly receiving as a child was the entire Jonny Quest action figures series. That’s was lit.

How do you enjoy the fall and winter season when you’re not in the kitchen?
I travel as much as I can. It’s an important input to my cooking.

What do you love about the cooler-weather seasons and the holiday time of year here on the East End?
The calm and crops of the season.

What is your favorite holiday movie or TV special, and why?
The Grinch—it’s just fantastic and an original vision of what the holidays are.

What is the best kind of holiday cookie?
Chocolate-chip cookies, always.

You have a glass of your favorite wine in-hand. What is your toast for the holiday season and the new year?
Cheers to a fantastic 2019, full of new experiences, learning, love, and friends. Hopefully 2020 will be the same.

For more on Kon-Tiki, visit galleryhotelny.com. Get tickets and more information on Dan’s Holidays in the Vines hosted by RG|NY at HolidaysInTheVines.com.

More from Our Sister Sites