What was the inspiration behind El Ta’koy?

My inspiration for El Ta’koy started when I was tasked to open a restaurant in the small island of Kauai in Hawaii. My goal was to represent the flavors of the island as well accommodate everything that a 5-star resort would need from breakfast, dinner, and pool to outdoor adventures. After visiting local restaurants, farms, farmers markets and food truck events around the island of Kauai, I found out that the food wasn’t only influenced by the Polynesian voyagers, they also have influences from Europe and America with missionaries and whalers who introduced their own food. Just one example is new England whalers, who introduced the salted fish which eventually transformed in to lomilomi salmon. In 1850 and 1930 immigrants’ workers brought cuisines from China, Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Portugal. For me, being involved in this type of cuisine before in my own personal life, with Asia De Cuba restaurants and soon my own ZANJA restaurant, a Chino Latino concept opening in Miami this year, it was a natural progression to come up with this exciting concept, a casual and chic Hawaiian-inspired street food and Tiki bar.

What is one of your favorite food memories?

I think one of my favorite memories is when I roasted a whole pig in my backyard in Cuba with close family and friends. We cut a 55-gallon oil barrel and made a homemade BBQ smoker – I remember it took us all day, but it was worth it!

What challenges have you faced during your time in hospitality?

Immigrating to the US from Cuba at 27 years old was my biggest challenge, I didn’t know anyone, and I wasn’t able to speak a word of English. My parents had originally immigrated from France and Spain, we spoke Spanish at home, so I spent the first few years cooking without being able to communicate at all. I soon left Miami and moved to Atlanta and then on to NYC where I finally managed to work under great leaders who taught me everything I know and how to speak fluently. The most notable of which was Raymond Saja, who also took me to New York to be the Chef at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée back in 1999 – I see this as my big break!

What been your proudest moment over the past year?

Not having a job for nearly a year gave me time to work on myself; something I find impossible to do when working full time in hospitality. I took steps to improve my personal life and do things I enjoy. I feel very proud of the creation of El Ta’Koy, the creativity that I experienced when having some free time lead to the ideation of this new restaurant which was inspired from over 30 years cooking experience and travels. I spent a lot of time cooking, refining, and crafting recipes in my own kitchen!

Thoughts about the future of the restaurant industry?

People need to eat 3 times a day, that will never change. During the lockdown, many people were forced to cook at home because restaurants were closed and soon realized how hard it is to cook a great meal. If anything, I feel it has made people appreciate our craft even more. I’m optimistic for the future. If we keep making good food in a fun atmosphere, I believe that people will always come and support us!

What tips do you have for someone looking to start their own restaurant/business?

You need to be sure you know what you are doing and what you want to accomplish in your restaurant. Just because every Sunday you cook at home for your friends, and they say you are a great cook, it does not mean that you are a great Chef or could be a good restaurant operator. My first advice is, before you get into the industry though, surround yourself with professional people that know hospitality well. I am lucky to have partnered with Simon and the team at TGP International, who I’ve worked with for a number of years so I was confident we would be able to create something brilliant. Only go out to market with the best, you want to make sure your customers will love it and keep coming back time and time again!

What are your future plans?

My plan is to continue to make the very best food, with the best trained chefs in every El Ta’koy. We opened in New York and Miami earlier this year and have openings in London and Riyadh planned within the next 6 months. My vision is to expand it into a global brand.