The Barcelona-Born Business Magnate Behind Houston’s Groundbreaking Spanish Restaurants Tells All

Inside the Head of Ignacio Torras

BY // 11.29.19

Barcelona-born business magnate Ignacio Torras, a former commodities trader, founded Houston-based Tricon Energy in 1996, but those who follow Houston’s noteworthy restaurants know Torras best for his groundbreaking Spanish eateries: BCN Taste & Tradition, a chic fine-dining establishment in a discrete Montrose bungalow, with enviable art, and MAD in River Oaks District.

In the summer of 2008, Torras and his family rented a home in Fonteta, Spain, where he met the house chef, Luis Roger, and became inspired by his exceptional cooking skills and management. Together they hatched the idea of creating two very distinct Houston restaurants that would pay homage to the country of their birth.

The establishments are named for the airport city codes that inspired their menus, Barcelona and Madrid. Their latest venture, MAD, was more than two years in the making, with millions spent on research and development, the sensational interior design by Lázaro Rosa-Violán, and an impressive Spanish art collection, including pottery by Picasso.

The result has had the city — not to mention, the national media — chattering. Curious about the man who made it his mission to change this country’s hackneyed idea of Spanish food, I sat down with Torras to gain a bit more insight into what makes him tick.

Describe MAD and how it differs from your approach at BCN Taste & Tradition:

MAD is our creative interpretation of two Spanish essentials: tapas and paella. Madrid has a worldwide reputation for great nightlife, and MAD was built to house a very vibrant modern decor, which reflects it.

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Tapas and paellas serve as Spain’s culinary emissaries in every corner of the planet. While that’s what Spain is best known for, at BCN Taste & Tradition, we stray away from that concept and focus on traditional cooking. We concentrate on ingredients and their seasonality, and use recipes passed down from generation to generation.

Chic lighting inside MAD (Photo by Julie Soefer)
Chic lighting inside MAD (Photo by Julie Soefer)

We strive to keep the classic, homemade feeling intact. BCN’s decoration is a reflection of that, too — it’s cozy and homey.

Biggest misconception about Spanish fare?

That we are only about tapas and paella… and that our tapas are simply a piece of bread with something atop. While those montaditos [a filled roll of bread] are damn delicious, the fact is tapas at MAD — and all over the Spain — can be so creative and original.

Beyond tapas and paella, the traditional cooking of Spain is our biggest hidden secret — our “mortal weapon” that no tourist, visitor, and emigrant (like me) can stop thinking about once away from our country.

What drew you to Picasso’s pottery?

When it comes to art, I’m not a collector and definitely not a connoisseur. However, I’m a decorator (and an investor). My mother had a terrific eye for decoration, and we were raised with the concept that art — good art — has to have a purpose, the ability to uplift its surroundings and make the space more beautiful and meaningful. It’s crucial that it blends and brings sense to the whole concept.

Picasso ceramics encompass those goals. The shapes are stunning. The colors are tasteful and the representations are very Mediterranean. It’s a solid investment.

Artists’ work that you collect?

In the restaurants, we have only works by Spanish artists: Picasso, Miró, Dalí, and Chillida. I’m not sure those works are appreciated by the visitors, but are a terrific blend of both restaurants and create a holistic concept of Spain. At home, while we have some Juan Gris and Tàpies, my main collection is Latin American art; my wife is from Mexico, and I spent a large part of my youth in Brazil, so Latin American roots are very vivid for us.

Aside from art, what else do you collect?

Injuries! I play a lot of sports — soccer, paddle tennis, running, and skiing.

Your idea of happiness?

Ending the day knowing that I’ve made my family and colleagues proud, while living to the values and legacy of my parents.

Aside from life’s necessities, the one thing you can’t go through a day without?

My nightly chat with my wife, sharing the day’s events.

If you could keep only three possessions?

My family portrait, my father’s letters, and my reading glasses.

Your final meal: Where and what?

At BCN with a group of friends/ Luis would prepare a special menu of:

– Free-range sunny-side-up eggs with potatoes and cured Spanish Ibérico ham.
– Espardenyes (sea cucumber) Fideuà, a seafood dish similar to paella but with noodles instead of rice.
– Calamari with caramelized onion, squid ink, and Navarra beans sautéed in olive oil.
– Fresh hake (from Spain) with roasted red bell pepper, eggplant, and chanterelle mushrooms.
– Mixed tropical fruit soup.
– Coffee and Santiago (Spanish almond) cake.

If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who it would be?

I’m assuming you’re referring to someone I haven’t dined with before — otherwise, it would definitely be my wife, kids, and parents. If I need to choose someone completely inaccessible, while I really hope to meet him one day (but no rush), I would have to say Jesus.

A skill you would like to acquire?

Singing. I took intensive lessons for a year. Let’s just say my family is happy I’m done with that idea. That being said, I’d like to learn how to play an instrument — ideally, piano or guitar. I find it extremely relaxing, great “thinking” therapy, and it can be done at any time

It’s a great way to express your creative nature at minimal cost. It’s a nice ambiance booster, too. I have never been to a boring dinner or party where a guitar was present.

Foie gras cornetto (Photo by Julie Soefer)
Foie gras cornetto (Photo by Julie Soefer)

The single decision that changed the course of your life?

Marrying my wife, Isabel, and raising a family with her. It was an honor meeting my father-in-law, Gabino. He taught me the unconditional love for my country, Spain, as well as for the country one resides in. In his case, it was Mexico. In my case, it was the USA. Marrying Isabel and moving to the United States enabled us to put down roots here and make our American dream come true.

Favorite travel destinations?

Barcelona, my hometown: I love to smoke a cigar and stroll up and down Passeig de Gràcia after a meal at Ca L’Isidre.

London: I love to stay at The Connaught hotel and go for a 5 am run along Hyde Park. It’s a fantastic 10K run full of history, beauty, and London’s charm.

Istanbul: Breakfast at the Bosphorus Four Seasons hotel is the best. It has the most shocking view in the world (at least for a commodity trader!). It’s both a modern and classical city showcasing the nature of the mountains and the sea, with modern bridges, chaotic construction and the steady flow of bulk carriers navigating in and out of the Black Sea. I can spend hours there.

Restaurants (other than your own)?

Spain: Ca L’Isidre. Mexico: El Charco de las Ranas. Brazil: Filé do Moraes. New York: Peter Luger Steakhouse and Le Bernardin.

What’s left on your bucket list?

See all my kids succeed in life. Meet the Pope. Qualify for the Boston Marathon.

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