The relationship between food and culture is both inextricable and difficult to define. As Americans, we view cuisine from a monolithic standpoint: when we go out to eat, it’s for Chinese food, Italian food, Mexican food. But within those cultures — and the many others around the world — cuisine is regionally varied and splendidly distinctive.
Normally, to get a taste of a region’s authentic cuisine one has to travel to that area and make a concerted effort to avoid tourist traps. In the Capital Region, we can indulge in a true cultural experience without even leaving the Albany area. Marcela Garcés and Yuri Morejón are the entrepreneurial couple behind La Centralita, a culinary studio that celebrates Spain’s many cuisines through immersive small group dining experiences.
The Story Behind La Centralita
Morejón grew up in Bilbao, a city in the Basque region of northern Spain about an hour from the French border. Garcés, originally from Michigan, is a full professor of Spanish at Siena College, where her main areas of research are contemporary Spanish culture, gastronomy, and film studies pedagogy. The two met in Spain in 2011 and married just a year later. After Morejón moved to the U.S. in 2013, he started using cooking as a communication tool, a way “to express myself while connecting emotionally with my homeland.”
People from the Basque region take their food very seriously. The region — which is an area approximately half the size of the state of Connecticut — is home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris. In addition to upscale haute cuisine, however, the Basque region is known for its gastronomic societies. Called txokos in Basque, or sociedad gastronómicas in Spanish, these gastronomic societies are private dining clubs that gather to cook, eat, drink, and socialize. They’ve been around since the late 1800s, surviving the dark Franco years by prohibiting any discussion of politics, thus making them one of the few places where the Basque language was allowed to be spoken. Today, approximately 1,000 txokos gather regularly to revel over meals with fresh, quality ingredients.
With food such a large part of his heritage, Morejón wanted to form something like a txoko — a private place where people can cook, eat, and enjoy incredible Spanish cuisine — here in the United States. In 2018, after a long search for the perfect location, Morejón and Garcés found 49 Dove Street, a historic home built in 1876, just steps from the state capital. They carefully renovated the home for the next two years, and in December of 2021 opened La Centralita on the garden level.
What to Expect At A Centralita Event
Decorated with authentic Spanish tile and antique rotary phones collected by Morejón as an homage to his grandfather (who worked for Spain’s telephone company, Telefonica, for 40 years), La Centralita is a unique, personalized experience. “Everything that we do is on a really small scale; we offer events on the weekends only, with space for 6-10 people in a quiet, private room. A lot of people find it very relaxing, to be in an atmosphere that is so different from a crowded restaurant,” says Garcés.
Setting the right atmosphere is important, because above all, Garcés and Morejón want to facilitate a learning environment. “Whether people are cooking with us or doing a themed tasting, it requires them to learn something about the culture.”
As a professor, Garcés can’t help but refer to the academic term “pedagogy of the senses.” It’s the theory that learning is best accomplished by stimulating all five of our senses through lived experiences.
“Food is very powerful, because it’s a way people can get into a culture by learning about it through taste, touch, and smell,” she says. “It’s more lasting, and it’s more fun!”
Many of their tastings or cooking experiences have themes celebrating famous Spanish people or honing in on a certain culinary tradition. For example, in mid-September they are offering “Dine Like a Basque,” which is an eight-course Txoko Meal, and the next weekend is a class on cooking Empanada Gallega.
Why La Centralita Is Special
While the food might be what lures you, the La Centralita experience is what will bring you back. Garcés says that many of the people who sign up for classes end up becoming regulars. She estimates that over half of their regular guests are over the age of 55, and the appeal isn’t just learning about new flavors, textures, and food combinations, but the social aspect as well. She credits their guests with being excellent conversationalists, as well as having a natural thirst for new experiences.
“In life it’s really important to try new things — to take a new ingredient and incorporate it into your cooking; it can help you to feel more excited about what you’re doing.”
The only downside about finally discovering La Centralita is realizing that due to the intimate setting events fill up quickly. Their website includes all the relevant information, but Garcés says the best way to hear about upcoming events first is to subscribe to their newsletter.