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A Love of Food Brings People Together at Bocadillo Market

Cover Image for A Love of Food Brings People Together at Bocadillo Market
By Sophie Brochu
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Categories:FeaturedInterviews

You can tell how much James Martin loves food by the way he waxes about ingredients: their origin, flavors, and the memories he associates with them. The chef and owner of Bocadillo Market combines his love of Spanish food with Southern inspiration. The result is an all-day market, café, and restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood where he offers something new, yet nostalgic. We sat down over Zoom to chat with chef James about his culinary influences, family, and the stellar New Year’s Eve dinner he’s cooking up.

You were inspired by culinary similarities in South Carolina and Spain. Can you talk a little bit about how these cuisines overlap?

I created Bocadillo Market because of my love for markets, good food, and traveling to South Carolina as a child. There’s such a huge food culture in the South. I’ve always had a love for rice, an ingredient that’s super important in both South Carolina and in Spanish culture. As I dive deeper into Spanish cooking, and the history of Spanish food, and just the whole Iberian Peninsula, it’s allowed me to see a bigger perspective of how the Moors, who came to the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa, had such an influence on ingredients that are still in Spain today. They brought citrus, dates, spinach, rice, almonds. And then the Spaniards brought citrus to Florida and peaches to the Carolinas, having influence on ingredients that are in America today. Everything in Spain and the South is based on food, and food is number one. Its history shapes stories of our past and future. Food is really important to our culture.

“There’s such a huge food culture in the South…Its history shapes stories of our past and future.”

You’re not from South Carolina?

I’m from DC. My dad’s from Charleston. My mom’s from Summerton, South Carolina. I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth to South Carolina, from the city to the farms, seeing how food smells and how it’s different from the bigger cities. It’s a totally different energy. Just a totally different culture, so it gave me a better perspective of how food brings people together.

And how did you end up in Chicago?

I worked at North Pond under Bruce Sherman. That was my first experience cooking in Chicago. Actually, my first time cooking professionally outside of DC. My wife and I decided we wanted a change of scenery so we sold our house in DC and made the move. Chicago is such a great food city, I consider it my professional home now.

Coffee by day, wine at night.

Let’s talk about Bocadillo. How does the vibe change from day-time market/café to night-time restaurant?

In the morning, we do a small café menu with pastries and coffee, and we have a market where we sell beautiful ingredients imported from Spain. Then at 10 a.m., we start our bocadillo program, which is the foundation of our concept. These Spanish sandwiches are pretty much the PB&J of Spain. They’re eaten at soccer tournaments, gas stations, and bars. Our concept was created around bocadillos to reflect a humble beginning. I wanted to create a concept that was accessible, but also different.

At night, we do a more formal dinner based around my interpretation of classic Spanish cuisine. We serve a squid ink paella, which is kind of the showstopper, along with our vegetarian artichoke dish. I’m also doing a Spanish lima bean stew. I grew up making this bean stew with my mom, and here, we make it with Spanish ingredients. In Northern Spain, they call it a fabada bean stew, almost like a French cassoulet. It’s a nice party dish for the wintertime. This dish represents who I am as a person and where I grew up, but also represents the culture that I’m cooking for.

What kind of impact did your mom have on the restaurant?

My mom passed in June of 2020. So on our menu, we have the “Ode to Mable” for her. She was my best friend, one of my biggest supporters, my mom and my dad. Before she passed, I showed her the business plan and the pitch deck. I showed her the whole concept. She was along for the ride over the phone. She always believed in me. Even though she never got a chance to taste what we’re doing here, she gets a chance to watch from heaven.

The Ode to Mable.

What is your wife Jessica’s role in the restaurant?

My wife has a lot of talents. She works full time, but helps a lot with the business. The website, some artwork in here, she helped design our business cards, the menu. She is like the other half of this business. She does whatever it takes. I think that’s really the biggest thing—building a legacy and building a business for our family so we can allow ourselves to grow beyond what our parents did for us and also just do something different for our culture as a whole.

“My mom always believed in me. Even though she never got a chance to taste what we’re doing here, she gets a chance to watch from heaven.”

Tell me about what you’re doing at the restaurant for New Year’s Eve.

We’re doing a dinner based on Ibérico pork, which is something that’s pretty much worshipped in Spain. We’re going to do a charcuterie board, and we’re going to do Ibérico jamón shoulder, dried, cured shoulder, and pork lomo, which is cured pork loin. We’re going to do a Manchego cheese, peppers, marinated olives, and then probably picos, which are Spanish crackers. You necessarily don’t want to add too much other flavor when you’re eating this ham because you have jamón serrano, which is normally aged 12 months. I have some beautiful Ibérico lomo and shoulder ready for this dinner. Then we’re going to do jamón serrano or Ibérico pork croquetas. Everything’s based on the Ibérico pork. Then we’re going to do the pulma, which is pretty much the filet mignon of Spain. For dessert, we’re going to do a tarta de Santiago, which is an almond cake, typically served during the holiday season in Spain.

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