The smell that emanates from a car’s exhaust pipe might make some people cough, or wrinkle their noses in disgust. But to Emmanuel Benitez, owner and head chef of the Glen Cove restaurant Vivo Osteria, that smell was inspiration.
The exhaust fumes in Colombia — from which Benitez’s parents emigrated before he was born, and where his in-laws still live — are different, he said. “It’s not really a harsh smell” like it is in the U.S., he said. “It kind of brings me to something smoky.”
For Benitez, who goes by Manny, the smoky exhaust was the starting point for a new flavor profile, maybe for a barbecue sauce, he mused, adding that he wasn’t sure yet. “I’ll keep evolving it from there,” he said. “What components can I bring into this? It all starts with one little thing and just grows.”
The 27-year-old’s relationship with smell, as he describes it, is almost spiritual. Several years ago, before he went to culinary school, he was working for a catering company, peeling potatoes. The chef asked him to get an ingredient from the walk-in refrigerator. The pungent odor of blue cheese dominated the unit, enlivened by the fragrances of fresh herbs and spices stored there. “It woke me up from a dormant mentality that I had when it came to food,” Benitez recounted. He stayed in the fridge for what he estimates was a few minutes, breathing in the aromatic symphony, until his supervisor opened the door and yelled at him for taking too long.
“It gave me the passion,” he said.
Benitez talked a lot about his sense of smell, particularly the way simply catching a whiff of a distinct odor can immerse him in a memory: a combination of spices, a perfume, Colombian car exhaust. All have the power to drag him, by the nose, back in time. He called this phenomenon smell memory.
When Benitez opened Vivo Osteria a year ago this week, he planned to focus on Italian cuisine, he said, because of the area’s large Italian population. But he wasn’t connecting on a spiritual level with the menu he was preparing each night. “I [was making] handmade pasta because an Italian guy taught me how to make pasta,” he said, “but I don’t resonate with pasta. There’s no smell memory.”
Those memories, he said, give him an intuitive sense of the food he’s preparing. “I like to wing it and see what comes out,” Benitez said. “There’s some type of beauty to it, when you put yourself in a vulnerable position to let creativity take its course.”
At first he was just following recipes, with no improvisation involved. But after five months of preparing food that didn’t inspire him, Benitez and his wife, Tattiana, an accountant who keeps the restaurant’s books, decided it was time to make a change. He started to prepare dishes that were closer to his Latin American roots, experimenting with chilies, limes and cilantro, among other ingredients, creating fresh takes on traditional Colombian fare like shrimp ceviche and yucca fries, and fusing Latin, Italian and American cuisine into multicultural concoctions like polenta crusted calamari with mango and passion fruit salsa.
Frequent patron Karen O’Mara Swett said that her favorite way to enjoy the fruits of Benitez’s labor is at a tasting event, which features samples of about a dozen culinary ideas that he’s whipped up. She tried duck for the first time at one such event, and said that each sample was more special than the last.
“He develops dishes you’d be hard- pressed to find in a more routine restaurant,” O’Mara Swett said. “He puts a tremendous amount of love and attention into his creations.” And, she added, “He comes out and interacts with the customers.”
Benitez said that instead of describing a dish to a customer in terms of its ingredients, he likes to tell the entree’s story, and weave an emotional narrative about how its flavors interact.
The atmosphere of Vivo Osteria also blends the cultures that inspire its cuisine. A large mural on the wall, painted by one of Benitez’s friends, tells a story of the mixing of cultures, using a collage technique to juxtapose images of both Italian and Latin-American ingredients.
Benitez said that the North Shore’s growing Latin American population represents a largely untapped market. Culturally, he said, Latinos’ relationship with food is about sustenance, not flavor or experience. He described bandeja paisa — a traditional Colombian dish of rice, beans, a fried egg, a cut of steak, some crispy pork belly, a sweet plantain and half an avocado — as “necessity on a plate.”
But, he added, “You don’t need to eat to keep you moving anymore. You eat for pleasure, you eat for passion. I want to evoke that in Latin culture.”
Ever the innovator, Benitez said that since he had been covering for his bartender, who had been out sick for about a week, he had started thinking about mixology. He began to wonder whether he could make his own bitters, but with a Colombian flair. “We’re pickling stuff in the back just to see what pops up,” he said. “I do it all the time: put stuff in a jar, or cook something and push it and see what it does.” He keeps a detailed journal documenting these experiments.
Asked about his plans for the restaurant’s second year, Benitez brought up an idea he had been bouncing around that he hesitantly described as “wacky.”
He wants to create a tasting menu that’s paired with music. He’s thinking specifically — very specifically — about jazz with salsa influences from 1950s Spanish Harlem. He wants to create a conversation between the food and the music. He’ll use a starchy ingredient, he said, that evokes the rhythm of music, since both starch and rhythm “piece it all together.” Trombones are “that uplift, that vinegar touch.” Bells are the vegetables, because you need them to complete a song, but they’re more like ensemble instruments than soloists.