Daniel Agüera was born in Northern Spain to a food-loving family. He grew up watching his grandmother cook, creating an ongoing love for food. His formal culinary training began in Spain, but as he traveled to Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S., his cooking skills evolved. Agüera lives in Pittsburgh with his family, where he caters and makes Dinner with Daniel specials, in which he creates seasonally-inspired dishes.
Can you describe your cooking skills. How did this become your passion?
I always experimented with food from the time I was a little kid. Looking back, I don’t know how my grandmother put up with it; she was a busy woman who raised four grandchildren, while also running a shop. Something just drew me to the kitchen and to food. When I look back on my life, so many of my memories are food related. I think that’s true for a lot of people – that food becomes this touchstone for memory and emotion. Think of the food critic in the movie Ratatouille, or Proust with his madeleine, or everybody who says some dish is “not as good as Mom’s.” During culinary training, my relationship with food took on a new dimension. As I started learning different techniques, new ways to prepare staple ingredients like eggs, onions, potatoes, I started to think of them and of cooking a little differently. Instead of just enjoying food someone makes for you, or even learning to reproduce those dishes yourself, you become the master of them to try new things, new combinations, or recreate a particular flavor. The training gives you that control.
Did anyone inspire you to start creating with food?
My abuelita, my grandma, was my first inspiration and teacher in the kitchen. Every day I would spend time in her kitchen, watching her cook. That room was her domain. I can still see her in my mind, working with smooth coordination and total confidence. There was also my Uncle Zoilo, who had a restaurant and farm. He got me interested in gardening and growing food. That’s all long before I started my formal training in places like Luis Irizar Sukaldaritza Eskola and El Bulli. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of experiences in my life, a range of experiences with food, that have only increased my obsession! Today, I stay in touch with a lot of chefs and bakers all over the world via Facebook and Instagram. I get a lot of inspiration from them, as well as the local chefs and home cooks that I meet all the time. People are so generous with their time when they know you’re serious about food. I think they can recognize a kindred spirit (kitchen person, food obsessive…whatever you want to call it).
You used to own a restaurant – what was that like?
I always smile when somebody says they want to open a restaurant because they love to cook. You cook, but it’s obviously different from cooking at home. What I liked about it was the challenge of never being bored, and it tested my limits. I also liked the esprit de corps of working on the line, working on a teamーtogether.
How do you keep up your cooking skills today?
I do plenty of cooking at work or cooking for my family, collaborating with local chefs and Dinners with Daniel.
Writing my book Simple Pleasures with Chris Fennimore was fun and a new kind of food experience for me. Chris is a Pittsburgh legend. He has been sharing his love of food on his PBS cooking show for many years, but for me this was a new way of being able to connect with people through cooking.
Where can we find your food today?
Dinner with Daniel events only at this point.
What’s the future like for Daniel?
My latest obsession is bread, sourdough bread. People joke that my sourdough starter is like a pet: you have to pay attention to it, feed it, play with it, check on it, figure out what it needs, and take care of it. It’s a great challenge, but very rewarding. It’s fun because there are so many amazing experts–this is where the Facebook network of advisers comes in–who can help you and give you advice. They can make suggestions and troubleshoot, but ultimately you are the only one who can create the bread you want, because every single starter is unique and reacts differently to moisture, heat, and different flours. Each starter has its own personality, like a person. My starter and I are in a good place in our relationship right now! Winter is a good time to focus on baking because the garden has been put to bed for the winter. It’s always hard to wait for spring. Next year’s garden plots are already all planned. As for a restaurant opening, not at this point. I’m more focused in cooking for my family.