Felipe Rojas-Lombardi did not invent quinoa, of course, but he gets much of the credit for introducing it to North Americans.
The Peruvian-born chef, honored a few years ago with a Celebrity Chefs stamp from the United States Postal Service, did much to popularize the ingredients, cooking and food traditions of Latin America and Spain — notably tapas-like small plates — in the U.S.
“He defined what is ’80s food as much as the ‘Silver Palate’ women,” says Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant and trend spotter. “He brought South American and other Latin cuisine forward in a way that was delightful.”
Wolf says Rojas-Lombardi helped shape food sensibilities while serving as the founding chef for Dean & DeLuca in New York and by becoming an owner in the Ballroom, a New York cabaret where the food soon shared billing with the entertainment.
Rojas-Lombardi’s creativity was a huge draw — he seemed to be there first on a variety of culinary fronts, writing what may have been the first “talking” cookbook on game cookery (two 40-minute cassettes and a recipe booklet, according to a 1973 New York Times article); foraging for food on Fire Island (duly noted in a 1978 New York Times article), or serving up quinoa at the Ballroom in a stew, in a salad, and in a dessert. “Nobody knows what it is, but they love it,” he told the Times’ Florence Fabricant in 1986.
In his book “The United States of Arugula,” David Kamp called Rojas-Lombardi “Dean & DeLuca’s secret weapon” in winning over the public to the idea of buying prepared foods. Kamp quoted Jack Ceglic, one of the founding partners, as saying, “Felipe did some of the first pasta salads that people had ever seen. He did everything with the products we sold, and people cottoned to it.”
“Felipe was known for doing beautiful food at a time when people didn’t think about presentation,” says Gael Greene, who served for decades as the dining critic at New York Magazine. “He was one of the first to do tapas and barbecue suckling pig.”
“Everything he did was done with incredible style,” agreed Maricel E. Presilla, the Hoboken, N.J.-based restaurateur and author of “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America.”
Rojas-Lombardi’s last book, “The Art of South American Cooking,” was published a few weeks after he died in 1991 at age 46. He opened it with a childhood memory: hiding in his grandmother’s kitchen from his father, who wanted him to go outside and play soccer.
“I didn’t want to go out and play,” he wrote. “I never wanted to go out and play. I loved my grandmother’s kitchen — its smells, its tastes; for me this was an enchanted place. My grandmother, and even my mother, could take food of one kind or another and magically make it into something delicious and wondrous.”
When he arrived in New York City in 1967, Rojas-Lombardi began creating his own culinary magic as he assisted James Beard, often called the dean of American cookery, with cooking classes. Evan Jones, in his 1990 biography of Beard called “Epicurean Delight,” wrote that Rojas-Lombardi believed Beard provided him with “the finishing touches” necessary to be a cook.
Beard himself described Rojas-Lombardi in a 1972 Associated Press article as “the greatest natural cook for his age I’ve ever met.” Rojas-Lombardi was then 25 and described by the reporter, Tom Hoge, as a “celebrity in the world of cooking,” a man who had already written two books and was a food columnist, lecturer and teacher.
“A most unusual egg dish that makes a nice change from pasta as a first course or a light luncheon,” wrote James Beard of this Felipe Rojas-Lombardi recipe, which was included in 1981’s “The New James Beard” cookbook. The dish is like crepes cut into ribbons like fettuccine. It can be served with butter or tomato sauce.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 4 minutes per batch
- 12 eggs
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
- 3 tablespoons crushed soda crackers or English water biscuits
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
- Dash of hot sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Tomato sauce, about 2 cups, or melted butter
- Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Put the eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk lightly. Add the cheese, crackers, milk, basil, hot sauce, salt and pepper, and mix well. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the mixture into a well-heated and buttered omelet pan, 8 to 10 inches in diameter, and spread around the pan to about 1/8-inch thickness.
When lightly browned on one side, turn and brown the other. Remove to a plate. Continue with the remaining mixture and stack omelets on the plate. Roll each one up and cut as you would noodles.
Heat the strips in tomato sauce well seasoned with basil and garlic, or just in melted butter. In either case, serve with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.
Makes 8 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 144 calories, 8 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 282 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 12 g protein, 776 mg sodium, 1 g fiber