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In a New York Minute
From flirting with gang culture in New York to pioneering fusion culture in Moscow, Isaac Correa now finds himself one of the city’s most innovative and respected chefs.
By Jillian Ong
The inside of bustling New York-style cafe Correa’s.
In the frenetic midst of his tiny cafe’s lunchtime crowd, Isaac Correa is laidback and smiling. “This place has made me a lot more relaxed than before,” he observes, looking around. What strikes me is the sense I get that he’s genuinely a calm person, unlike the stereotypical prima donna chef, and certainly not the “bad boy” I’m expecting from what I’d researched of his background.
This soft-spoken 40-year-old is actually one of Moscow’s most celebrated restaurateurs and the man behind Correa’s, a cafe so popular that it’s usually impossible to get a lunchtime table on weekdays without a reservation. Despite being tucked away on a small corner somewhere between metro Belorusskaya and the Moscow Zoo, Correa’s has a substantial and loyal following ready to vouch that this place serves some of the best food in town. But there is much more to Isaac Correa than meets the eye.
Born to Puerto-Rican immigrants in Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown district, Isaac started to cook at a young age — “just eggs and things” — and confesses to always having liked to eat. But he never had any long-term ambitions to become a chef, with daily life posing enough challenges and problems.
“Growing up in the ghetto was tough,” he shrugs matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t an angel, I cut school and everything, but I wasn’t part of any gangs.” Rather, in between hanging out playing basketball with gang members, he channeled much of his energy into mobile DJing as a way to earn money. He doesn’t have a favorite song, though, likening the query to times when people ask him what his favorite food is. “I can’t answer that,” he smiles wryly, “or I would go on forever.”
Perhaps it’s fuzzy logic, but I’m starting to see a link between his early graffiti-painting days, DJing, and eventually winding up as a chef — all creative yet practical activities. However, he doesn’t give himself any credit for getting onto the culinary path, observing instead that it was simply a matter of chance that he got offered a restaurant job when he was young. “I knew that it was a good way of earning money, but I never thought of it as a career,” he reflects. But he stuck with it anyway? “Yeah, and because girls seem to like guys who can cook!” he laughs.
Isaac Correa prepares one of his specialties in his open kitchen.
With CIA credentials (Culinary Institute of America, in case anyone’s getting alarmed) and experience gained from stints in several New York restaurants, Isaac came to Moscow in 1995 on a job with the Rosinter Group. What happened next is well-known to many — he stayed on long past his initial two-month arrangement, pioneered fusion cuisine in Moscow as head chef at the hugely popular Uley restaurant, and eventually opened his own cafe in early 2003.
Isaac admits that there’s a big difference between being a chef and running a restaurant. He’s had to make the transition from a person whose main task is to produce good food to someone who has to think out loud, plan and convey a vision to staff who have never seen the inside of a real New York cafe. “If you look at the size of this place, you can see that I had my doubts,” he admits, gesturing around the small cafe. “But I did it because it was something I was missing for ten years and I just wanted a place where I felt at home.”
Today, Correa’s is an undisputed success that’s perennially full. Admittedly, the place only has seven tables, but it’s still not hard to see why it’s so popular. In the air, there is an aromatic fug that is a seductive combination of freshly-brewed coffee and the promising aroma of an Italian kitchen — tomatoes, basil and olive oil. The dark wood tables and chairs are complemented by comfy cushions, and a white plant holder separating the cafe and deli is piled full of green apples, oranges and lemons. The overall effect is modern yet cheery, airy yet snug.
So what’s the secret of his success? For a moment, Isaac looks perturbed at the question. “I guess it’s the difference between being a boy and being a man,” he finally muses. “It’s easy to give up, but the hardest part is really to stay around.”
Good news, then, for fans of Correa’s — not only is the cafe here to stay, but a sister outlet is opening this month that will be larger but retain the same basic elements of the original that make it such a success. In particular, Isaac plans to keep the same core menu with two or three specials of the day.
Right now, for example, the continental breakfast (200 rubles), a spread of muffins, pastries, hot cereals and more, is a great option for a leisurely morning. If you’ve woken up feeling greedy, try the pancakes (150 rubles) or one of the omelettes (180-200 rubles). Beyond breakfast, soups and salads include chicken noodle soup (120 rubles), tomato and buffalo mozzarella salad (260 rubles) and a variety of other choices. For mains, choose between a range of personal pizzas (an excellent vegetarian option is the four-sectioned artichoke, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and eggplant, 350 rubles), pastas and entrees. Finally, if you still have room for dessert, a slice of NYC cheesecake (180 rubles) or carrot cake (100 rubles) always go down well with that cappuccino (150 rubles).
“I’m not trying to change things so much,” Isaac says in closing, with reference to his new restaurant. And if the popularity of the existing cafe is any indication, it’s clear that this is a wise policy to live by.