The Ambassador of Ecuadorian Flavors
Josie Albertson-Grove and Manuel Villa
Queens, New York.
The corner of Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, in Queens, is a rather special crossing. It constitutes the point where three of the borough’s neighborhoods converge: to the north, Jackson Heights; to the south, Elmhurst; and to the east, North Corona. However, if one was yanked from the surface of the Earth and placed at that corner, provided only with the information that she is at the border of three political demarcations, one could mistakely conclude she has landed at the common border of Colombia, Ecuador and Perú.
According to the 2010 Census data, the combined population of the three neighborhoods is roughly a quarter of a million, from which about 145,000, or close to 60%, trace their roots from Latin America. Areas which were predominantly Italian and Jewish prior to World War II became a magnet for Hispanic residents in the late 20th century. And when they arrived in Queens, they brought their cuisine with them, opening restaurants to serve their communities. Among those cooking in those restaurants is Eduardo Villa.
Originally from Ecuador, Villa is a chef with a mission. He hustles between jobs in Queens and Manhattan, making a name for himself as a promoter of Ecuadorian food (he thinks of himself as an “ambassador of Ecuadorian tastes to New York.”) Now twenty-seven years old, he has been working in restaurants since he first came to the US as a high school student.
As passionate as Villa is now about his profession and his mission, he did not start cooking out of conviction: he got his first job because he was a teenager who wanted pocket money. He started out as a prep cook, and moved up through the ranks at Manhattan restaurants, eventually became sous-chef at a Times Square steakhouse. That job was a turning point for him. For the first time, he was given ample leeway to experiment and invent. He discovered that cooking brought out an innate creativity dormant within him. From then on, food would be his life.
The fact that Villa learned to cook outside his country, in American restaurants, meant that he was never really trained in his native cuisine. So after eight years in the United States, Villa decided to return to Ecuador to study its food. But he did not plan to do it in a traditional way, such as enrolling at a culinary school. He had something more adventurous in mind.
He became a food nomad, crisscrossing the country in his car to research and its cuisine. Most of the time, he traveled alone, but sometimes with other chefs or with his family. Over three years, Villa traveled to almost all of Ecuador’s twenty-two states, experiencing much of its 1,400 miles of coastline, the Andes mountain range, and part of the Amazon rain forest. He met with home cooks and restaurant chefs alike, working always to discover traditional foods and traditional techniques, what he calls “grandmothers’ foods.”
Back in New York since 2014, Villa has been working to make a name not only for himself, but also for the styles of Ecuadorian food he uncovered. The unfortunate fact, he says, is that his country’s food arrived late to the North American scene. Well-know dishes from Mexican, Peruvian or Brazilian kitchens established themselves decades ago, leaving Ecuadorian cuisine uncertain in the minds of American eaters. But this is something he hopes to change.
Villa also wishes to share what he learned during his three years on the road with his countrymen. He considers part of his mission to restore Ecuadorians’ sense of history to their own food, which he believes has been lost for the last few generations.
Ceviche is a dish particularly close to Villa’s heart. While it is best known as a Peruvian dish, ceviche is common in other coastal countries, but the ways to prepare it are quite different. Most notably, Ecuadorian ceviche involves cooking fish with heat, while the Peruvian variation uses citrus juice to cook the fish.
To Villa, ceviche is not simply food, but a part of who he is and where he came from. The dish reminds him of his childhood, when vendors would walk around the streets, carrying the dish in buckets while shouting “¡Ceviche, ceviche, ceviche!” His mother taught him to prepare it at home. Later, as he developed his cooking skills, he ventured into new ways make ceviche, and now he is proud to say he does his own recipe.
Sabor Latino is one Queens restaurant where Villa cooks. Among many other dishes on the menu, he makes his shrimp ceviche.
Villa’s ceviche uses many of the same ingredients and techniques as his mother’s, varying only a few spices. The presentation, however, is a radical departure. Traditional ceviche is served in a bowl with some fried plantains or popcorn as an accompaniment.
Villa borrows the deconstructed style he learned in Manhattan kitchens — small plates and bowls in unexpected shapes, with many of the dish’s components separated from each other. There’s a bowl of ceviche with an angled rim, and little dishes of plantains, popcorn, toasted corn, and other sides, all arranged on a long white plate.
With his vast knowledge of Ecuadorian gastronomy, and his experience cooking for both Ecuadorian and American palates, Villa is primed to make a mark on New York, both for himself and for Ecuador.
See more of the reporting process on social media.