When Nair Lacruz, private chef, owner of Nair’s Spanish Food Experiences, and long-time Hamiltonian, set out on the QEW one cold day this past January, she had no idea that this would be the last service she would provide for some time.
“It was a couple in Oakville,” she says. “The wife was a holistic nutritionist and was very interested in food. They lived in a gorgeous house and had hired me for a hands-on cooking experience in their kitchen, using a gift certificate that their girls had bought for them for Christmas. They had been to Spain quite a few times, are quite knowledgeable about Spanish cuisine, but wanted the experience of seeing the food prepared.”
“We made two tapas,” says Lacruz, “chorizo and red wine and tortilla española — potatoes, eggs, onions, salt, and that’s it. The husband was fascinated that I had this lid I put on the pan. You have to keep turning it so the eggs would cook in the centre.”
For dessert, Lacruz made leche frita, one of the oldest traditional Spanish desserts that takes a day to prepare before serving. “It was created by dairy farmers to use up extra milk,” she says. “You infuse it for at least eight hours with cinnamon sticks, lemon and orange rinds, bring it to a boil and let it cool, then you add sugar and cornstarch. Some regions add eggs, some regions don’t; it’s up to you. It’s almost like a béchamel sauce, but sweeter. You put it in a baking sheet, let it cool overnight, then dip into cornstarch and egg and get it golden. Traditionally, leche frita is served with cinnamon sugar, but you can add anything. If you want to be more decadent, you can add strawberries, vanilla sugar, and whip cream.”
Following dessert, Lacruz cleaned everything up in the kitchen (part of her service), and as often happens after a great experience, the couple invited her to stay a while for a glass of wine and conversation. “It’s that connection that I’m missing the most,” she says. “The financial impact of having to close a new business is bad, of course, but I miss being able to sit in person with people and just talk.”
Like many other professionals in the food and hospitality industry, Lacruz had to close her business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite having two outdoor “paella parties” booked in advance, cooking lessons at Drummond Manor, and a planned return to Spain this July, Lacruz has now found herself focusing her energies on her Facebook page and taking private baking orders for Spanish cheesecakes.
The loss is further compounded as her private cooking services were barely a year old. Truly, Chef Lacruz was just getting started.
“Many friends and people who I started to meet through networking had come to my house to enjoy my cooking,” she says, “and whenever I go somewhere, I always bring food. They kept telling me I had to start doing this. ‘This is what you love!’, they said. So, one day, I decided to take the bull by the horns, and started up in 2019.”
All of a sudden, Lacruz’s passion of cooking for people – one she’d had since she was 10 years old – became something she could do for a living. “My passion has always been showing people the culture and food of Spain,” she says.
A STORIED LIFE IN FOOD AND CULTURE
Indeed, Lacruz’s life had been leading to this. Born during the Francoist dictatorship in the Galicia region, which borders Portugal and the Atlantic, her family migrated to Canada when she was young. Lacruz identifies both countries as “home”.
“I’m still very Spanish,” she says. “I still like my roots. I’ve been returning to Spain every other year — I’m actually supposed to be there now, in fact. I married a Spanish guy [but] there is a part of me that is Canadian. When I leave for Spain, I say ‘I’m going home’. When I leave Spain, I say ‘I’m going home’. I’m very grateful for my life here.”
During her first years in Canada, the family rented out their home to boarders to help offset the costs, and each night they would have “family dinners” for everyone. This is where she continued to learn many Spanish dishes. “99% of what I make for others, I have already cooked. My mother was an excellent cook. There would be something different so it wasn’t the same dinner everyday.”
Lacruz began working at the now-defunct Miracle Mart grocery chain and became a deli manager, working in that capacity for 25 years. After her husband passed away, Lacruz and her children launched their first enterprise, opening one of Hamilton’s most popular bars and restaurants, Aout & About on Augusta Street, in 2001.
“It was a lot of work,” says Lacruz. “The years were good running it. It was something that we needed as a family.”
They sold Aout & About after a few years, and though Lacruz does not miss the headaches of being an owner-operator, she does miss the busy nights and the crowds of people having fun.
SPANISH VERSUS “MEXICAN” FOOD
When many North Americans hear “Spanish” cooking, they think “Mexican” — very spicy food, corn or flour tortillas, etc.. Lacruz notes that they are, of course, not the same. “The main distinction is in the spices. Spanish food is flavourful, but not overly hot and spicy. We do put chilies in a few things for a kick, but that’s all.”
Spanish food, like many other cuisines, is a blanket term that covers a wide variety of regional culinary differences.
“When you talk about Spanish food,” says Lacruz, “the first thing many people here think about is paella, but the diversity of our gastronomy is huge. You go from region to region and taste something different.”
Galician fare centres around fish and seafood, especially octopus, as well as large empanadas that are prepared in a pan. “We also eat a lot of pork and wild game,” she says. “My late husband was from Aragon and they have great lamb, jamon, wild game as well, and some vegetables like borraja that I’d never heard of growing up.”
As she looks ahead to a post-COVID world, Chef Lacruz has fond hopes for returning to private cooking. “I want to be able to go to someone’s home, even outside in the backyard, respecting the distancing rules of course, and being able to do what I love. I show up, I cook, I serve, I clean up, and go home, all the while bringing a little bit of Spain to your party with a culinary and cultural experience.”
Further, Lacruz has a goal to someday cook on a live TV program, such as the Marilyn Denis Show, though she acknowledges she still has much to learn and is using her social media livestreams to build experience.
Ultimately, for Chef Lacruz, it’s about passion. “I love what I do. It’s one of those things where it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how much effort you put into it – and it is a lot at times – but you love what you do and you love to see the smiles on people’s faces.”
You can follow Chef Nair Lacruz’ page, Nair’s Spanish Food Experiences, on Facebook, and tune in to her Facebook Lives which take place every Friday at 11 am.