A plate of paella livens up the dinner table with its bold assortment of colors and flavors. For Danny Lledó, the dish represents much more than that. It represents family ties and childhood memories along Spain’s eastern coast. Most recently, it’s also played a major role in keeping one of his longtime dreams alive.
Lledó is the chef and owner of Xiquet, a restaurant specializing in Valencian cuisine. The concept was largely inspired by Lledó’s Valencian heritage on his father’s side. The Montgomery County native spent much of his life traveling to Spain. He even lived there for some time during his grade school years and in college. Xiquet, which means “kid” in the Valencian dialect, is named after Lledó’s childhood nickname.
“I went back to my passion,” Lledó says. “I grew up in the restaurant business and put myself through school by working in restaurants.”
Though his background is in finance, Lledó was no stranger to the culinary world when he decided to pursue it full-time. He grew up helping his father, who is also a chef, with prep duties and catering jobs. Even while working as a financial consultant, many of his clients were restaurants. That continued closeness and familiarity eventually convinced him to switch paths.
“By the end of the day, I [thought], ‘Why am I fighting this? I know this is what I need to be doing.’ It was like coming to a realization that this is what I was truly meant for.”
His goal to open a restaurant came about soon after he started consulting, Lledó says. Though Xiquet was his first solo restaurant venture, he’s been involved with other partnerships in the eight years prior to its opening. One of those being Slate Wine Bar, Xiquet’s “sister” bar located downstairs. Lledó’s previous experiences taught him a lot about the ins and outs of the restaurant business, but nothing could have prepared him for the effects of the looming pandemic.
Xiquet opened one week before Covid forced businesses to shut down across the country. While the virus outbreak had been affecting other parts of the world before then, Lledó said he was too focused on Xiquet’s upcoming opening to give it much thought.
“I had almost blinders on because all I wanted to do was open up the restaurant,” he says.
Once the restaurant closed for dine-in operations, Lledó and his team got to work preparing to-go meals. Tasked with transmitting the fine-dining experience through takeaway orders, Lledó says one of the main challenges at this stage was connecting with customers. To help overcome that barrier, he relied on newsletters, hand-written notes and word-of-mouth to maintain important relationships with the community.
“In a way, it was part of what I was going for in terms of the Xiquet experience,” he says.
In May of 2020, Lledó began hosting paella cooking classes. From teaching families, to larger office groups, this new endeavor ended up paying off in a major way by keeping Xiquet afloat.
“It became its own thing and that saved our business.”
Later in the year, the gradual reopening of businesses saw Xiquet’s doors open for dine-in once again. Slowly, people started returning to the Glover Park establishment. Lledó and his team were happy to welcome customers back in, and that took precedence during a time when capacity restrictions continued to limit normal business operations.
“That’s essentially what got us through and gave us a reason to continue.”
Fast-forward to today, when Xiquet’s doors are fully open, and reservations are booked a few weeks out in advance. The team has halted paella cooking classes and to-go orders so they can focus on the increased demand in the dining room. One other notable difference, as of earlier this year, is the restaurant’s first Michelin Star rating. Lledó says it is an accomplishment that validated the five years of work it took to make his dream restaurant a reality.
Lledó adds that the Michelin Star inspired him to continue focusing on and refining the Xiquet experience and sharing his story through it. A story deeply rooted in the region known as “the cradle of paella.”
“I wanted to tell the Valencian story and how that plays a part within Spanish cuisine,” he says.
Originating within a large agricultural and seafaring community, Valencian cuisine differentiates itself from that of other Spanish regions through its heavy focus on vegetables and seafood. Lledó’s memories of tasting family members’ paella dishes and eating the fish caught on his uncle’s boat can now live on through Xiquet.
“Those experiences make it very unique and very cherishable. It comes from a more honest and humble place to really understand what you’re representing.”
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