You come from a cooking family.
So all my grandparents are originally from Cuba and have known each other since childhood. It’s a crazy story. My mother’s father, he was a little older. He was friends with my father’s mother’s family. He was maybe 12 and he was there when my grandma was born when she was born – you know you were going to be born in the house. He literally knew my grandma since she was born. So the families are very close; They all knew each other from Cuba.
Why did you come to the United States?
My father’s father came [first]. Cuba went through all of these things in the late 1950s. And he said, ‘Okay, we have to get out of here. It’s a mess.” So he did a dry run. He came to Montreal first, got on a bus and came down to New York.
she [settled in] Reading, Pa. There were a lot of Cubans there then. That’s how immigration works.
My mother’s side came from Cuba, same situation. They eventually settled in Brooklyn, Park Slope. And, you know, back then, Park Slope wasn’t the real “Park Slope” it is today. My grandfather owned a brownstone right next to the park that’s now worth about $7 or $8 million. Back then it was just a quiet part of Brooklyn. But then there was a lot of violence. It was essentially like West Side Story, with Italians and Puerto Ricans fighting over territory.
So they moved to Reading. Obviously not the smartest real estate move, but they wound up back with their friends in the end. My grandfather was in restaurants; in New York he worked at the Waldorf. He was a hustler. He had a little chicken restaurant, a Cuban restaurant, he did catering. When the kids were old enough, my father, my uncle, my maternal uncle, they all pitched in.
Reading is a medium sized city. There was a place I worked at called Stokesay, this old castle, and my grandfather was a chef there in the 1970’s. My father worked there and did banquets. My uncle gave banquets. All my family worked there and I washed dishes there 20 or 30 years later.
Everyone fell by default in restaurants. Everyone did. We had a German restaurant called Glockenspiel that was quite well known. My grandfather was the cook, my grandmother worked there, my mother set the tables, my father was in the kitchen. It was family owned in the late 1970s. The place burned down; it had a fire. Everyone says, “Ah, remember when we all worked at the Glock?” Now everyone’s 60 years old and still talking about this place. Imagine having that connection with people from 40 or 50 years ago?
where did you start
My father eventually moved to South Florida. He also ended up opening his own shop, which I started. He had a place called Brickell Grill. I went there when I was 14 – even younger when I was 12. I made deliveries and learned how to cook. I would make coffee and so on. I was a little kid making $100 a day, it was like making $1,000 a day if I collected all those tips.
He eventually moved back to Pennsylvania. Judy’s On Cherry, which still exists, got me started in fine dining and nicer restaurants. It got me interested in getting out of Reading. I wanted to learn to cook. I wanted to learn how to make all the sauces. [The owner’s] Her name is Judy Henry and she has been in Reading forever. She has worked with my whole family. She knows everyone. She bought the downtown building for nothing, renovated it and built this great restaurant inside.
[While I was the CIA], Judy would say, “Hey, we’re understaffed. Can you work this weekend?” And I’m like, “Okay, I’m in class until 3 p.m. on Friday.” It’s a three-hour drive. I would finish class, go straight to my car and just drive straight to Reading. She would pay for my gas, which was super nice. I would run upstairs and go straight to the line. Friday night at 6:15: “I’m here!”
What’s the most important lesson your dad taught you about cooking?
When it comes to cooking, my father was always very well prepared. I saw him doing events and catering stuff. He would have everything ticked off and prepared. That’s number one. But more importantly, what he really taught me was a work ethic of working hard. As a small child you don’t realize it. But, man, my dad worked two jobs like I see a lot of my boys do.
I was young, probably 6 or 7, and was playing video games late one night. And I’ve stayed up and I’m playing these video games, and it’s probably 1 a.m. or something. My father comes home and has been working from 8am to midnight. He had just worked a double. I usually sleep. It’s not clear to me. It’s kind of interesting because when you’re a little kid you don’t realize how hard they work. But really, he worked 80 hours a week and so on. That work ethic was really important and obviously rubbed off on me. I’ve spent many weeks not even knowing: I just wake up and go to work and then pass out when I get home and I don’t even know what time it is. Luckily not too many of them lately.
What drew you to Boston?
I worked with the Olives Group, Todd English, in Union Square [in New York]. And you know, New York is very expensive. Especially at that time I paid all my money for the rent. I burned all my savings that I had.
I left New York and went back to Pennsylvania. I chose three locations: Boston, Chicago or Seattle. I looked at the restaurants and the accommodations and so on. Chicago was cheap, but it’s in the middle of the country; There is no ocean and I wanted to be near the ocean. Seattle seemed cool, other side of the country. But at the time my brother was finishing high school and going to Berklee. So my mom said, “Hey, just move to Boston with your brother; They have a job there with the Olives Group. And you can overlook him because you’re a little bit older, you’re smarter, you’ve lived on your own.” So I moved to Boston in 2006 or 2007 and I started at Olives in Charlestown back then.
What is the future of the Boston restaurant industry hopefully emerging from COVID? What’s next?
The future of the restaurant industry is something that restaurant owners are reluctant to predict right now. We’ve been through so much, up and down. What I do know is that anyone who is smart braces themselves for impact. Everyone is all worried about recession and whatnot. It is difficult. You can’t really live like that. Hopefully it works, and the gastronomy really has little to say about it.
I have two fairly new restaurants and if I had opened them in 2017 or 2018 those restaurants would be lucrative and successful. But the game has changed in terms of cost. Labor costs are significantly higher: 20 to 30 percent higher. Cost of goods is at least 20 to 30 percent higher. I’m sure you’ve heard that from everyone else. A box of avocados is $106, right? That’s $2.25 per avocado. What should you serve this with? Should avocado toast be $20? How do you put that on the menu while keeping a straight face? Lobster is a good example. Lobster was over $70 a pound wholesale fresh meat this year — which means it should be around $95 for our serving size. We charged over $60. People bought it, but I’m still not making the right margin.
So what’s the solution?
We’ve raised the prices a bit and we’re hesitant to continue doing so. We’ve started adding a 3 percent operating fee to soften that blow a bit, but 3 percent isn’t 20 percent. Overall, the future is somewhat cloudy. We don’t really know. I’m always a glass half full, ambitious and look on the bright side, but you have to be realistic. I’m looking at two restaurants that are pretty busy, Atlántico and Grand Tour. The food is good. The staff is incredible. People like it, the vibe is great and we hardly get by. This is a difficult thing. The cost to play is so much higher now. If you don’t just totally kill it, you’re going to really fight. That’s going to stop people from doing it now, right? A small operator? “Hey, I’m going to make the jump, I want to get my first place. I’m going to do that.” And I’m like, “Don’t do it. What do you do? Get out!”
Would you recommend opening a restaurant in the suburbs instead?
Avocados cost the same in Newton, Wellesley or Framingham as they do in Boston.
And then the labor market will be the same or more expensive than the suburbs for people to work there. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a solution. You see a bit of that in alcohol licensing costs. I could open a restaurant in Lexington for $300 a year for a liquor license or whatever it costs compared to the city. It’s over $400,000. But that is only part of the operating costs.
Everyone knew it was already a tough industry to make money in, and people were making it through as early as 2019. Now the numbers look even worse. I think it will put off little things that make the industry cool.
Where do you like to go when you’re not working?
Number one is Grill 23. The upstairs bar at Grill 23 is my standard. Your hospitality is amazing. The food is great. The wine program is crazy. My friend’s Charlestown apartment that I really like is Dovetail in the Navy Yard. They also do lunch. Lunch on Monday is an impossible thing to find. If I have Monday off and want to go out with my wife it’s a great place.
And I eat a lot in East Boston because I live in Eastie. We drive to Rincon Limeno. I get my ceviche and tostones. The service is good, close by, cheap, you can park. It’s easy. We know what we’re going to get. I started going to Prezza in the North End with friends, which is kind of a sleeper hit. Been forever, food is great, service is great. I just stop by the bar and always have a good time.
What’s your favorite snack?
I eat a lot of Clif bars. I ride my bike all the time so they are easy. Put them in your jersey. It’s not really a great snack. It’s not like, “Oh, that sounds amazing!” But it’s a peanut butter banana Clif bar.
The interview has been edited and shortened.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.