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Young Latino chefs at top restaurants aim big, still savor tastes from home

Young cooks at some of New York's top places are learning from the world's best as they strive to infuse today's cuisine with touches of home.
Image: Jose Diaz
José Díaz, executive sous-chef at Bluebird London, a British brasserie in New York City.Ricardo Montero / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

What's it like to work at one of the world's top restaurants? Some young Latino chefs are finding out by working alongside the food world's top creators, aiming at some point to have restaurants of their own with their own imprint — as well as culinary influences from home.

In New York City's world-renowned Daniel restaurant, Rosa María Molina sharpens her Japanese knife with the muscle memory of seasoned pro.

“You know a sharpening steel doesn't really sharpen a knife, it just straightens out the edge," said Molina, a chef de partie, or line cook, at the private dining station. "Did you know the edge of a knife is a little bit curved?”

Image: Rosa Maria Molina sharpening a knife
Rosa Mar?a Molina sharpens her Japanese knife back and forth with the muscle memory of the true professional chef she is.Ricardo Montero / NBC News

It's estimated that 3.2 million Latinos work in restaurants nationwide. Over 28 percent of people who worked in “food preparation and serving related occupations” in 2017 were Hispanic or Latino, making Latinos the largest minority in the industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A select number of them, like Molina and her Daniel colleagues Katalina Díaz, a pastry chef, and Daniel Guzmán, another line cook, work at expensive, cutting-edge restaurants where the competition to reinvent the fine-dining experience is fierce.

As these young Latino chefs advance in their careers, their hope is to show the culinary world that the foods of their home countries are as distinctive and worthy of top ratings as European dishes.

Nine of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants are in Latin America or make Latin American cuisine. Two are in Mexico and one Mexican restaurant is in New York. Others are Peruvian, Argentinian, Brazilian, Chilean and Colombian.

In New York City, four of 76 Michelin-starred restaurants are Mexican.

Image: Katalina Diaz
Katalina Diaz.Ricardo Montero / NBC News

Some of the most respected chefs in the world are Mexican, said José Díaz, executive sous-chef at Bluebird London, a British brasserie in New York City. Díaz thinks it’s only a matter of time before more New York City restaurants serving cuisines from other Latin American countries reach Michelin star status.

“In Mexican cuisine they’re using all these techniques they learned in Europe,” he said. “They found a way to express and to show people what they have in their country, in their city, in their village.”

At just 27, Díaz has cooked in several countries. He's worked in Spain, Italy and Scotland, but says he truly found his calling cooking in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Though he grew up in Spain, it's Venezuelan cuisine that reminds him of home.

Díaz and his mother left Venezuela when he was a toddler to live in Basque country in northern Spain. But even in the land of paella and azafrán (saffron), his mom made him Venezuelan food until he was 15, including his favorite dish, arepas, the cornmeal bread that is one of Venezuela's most popular foods.

Díaz said there are distinct differences between Latin American and European cuisines. “Latin American cuisine is more concentrated on flavor rather than technique,” he said, whereas the French are known for their techniques, which are taught at every culinary institute in the world.

Díaz spoke to NBC News as he was working on creating the restaurant’s summer menu. He picked out ingredients with a pair of chopsticks to make a scallop crudo, which in addition to scallops includes pickled radishes, lime, dill, caviar and dashi. He worked around the tight kitchen spaces lit by giant windows overlooking New York City's Columbus Circle.

Katalina Diaz making sakanti.
Katalina Diaz making sakanti.Ricardo Montero / NBC News

For Díaz, the right meal can transport people through time and space. Food is as much about flavor as it is about memory. For Molina it’s Salvadoran pupusas; for Díaz it’s the Venezuelan arepas; and for Sebastián Vélez — a line cook at Acme, a New American bistro in New York's Noho neighborhood — it’s scrambled eggs. They remind him of his grandparents' farm in the Dominican Republic, where every summer he helped care for the livestock and pick eggs.

Image: Sebastian Velez
Sebastian VelezRicardo Montero

His grandmother would make him scrambled eggs with oil and salt, nothing else. Veléz, 22, smiles when he remembers that dish.

Vélez thinks of himself as a Brooklynite, but his father is Puerto Rican and his mother Dominican. After his parents divorced when he was 9, he would travel weekly between their homes. While the sancocho (a Caribbean vegetable stew) and mangú (a Dominican staple of mashed plantains) were plentiful at his mom’s, it was really his father who helped Vélez discover his passion for cooking.

His dad ran a little bakery in his own apartment, and one day he stepped up to help him keep up with his whoopie pie orders, leading him into the culinary world.

Molina's case was different — her father had a tougher time understanding his daughter’s calling.

It took her dad some convincing to be on board with the whole "chef thing," Molina recalled.

After spending time in culinary school, she flew home to celebrate her father’s birthday. She cooked him a potato gratin with filet mignon, topped with a blue cheese sauce, and pear salad with walnuts and blueberry sauce. That meal was all it took for her father to understand that his daughter’s cooking was more than just a hobby.

Back at the Acme kitchen, Vélez was sweating profusely as he furiously and repeatedly whipped butter onto the half chicken on his pan. The temperature in the kitchen was over 95 degrees but he was fully concentrated on the chicken kiev he was making. He plated the dish, garnished it with parsley gnocchi, pickled ramps and herbs. He then cut the chicken in half, revealing the escargot butter hidden inside.

Vélez has seen the staggering numbers of Latinos making all kinds of food in New York kitchens. “Chefs should know how to speak Spanish,” he said, laughing.

Image: Dan Guzman
Dan Guzman.Ricardo Montero / NBC News

Velez thinks Latino chefs will continue to rise up the ranks and in turn change kitchens as well as cuisines.

Molina dreams of returning to her homeland, El Salvador, and opening a small intimate restaurant. Vélez dreams of opening up a food truck whether he can cook his own recipes.

Díaz hopes to one day open up his own Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City. Until then, he’s working toward earning Bluebird London its first Michelin star.

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