In restaurant kitchen hierarchy, no one is lower on the totem pole than dishwasher and no one higher than executive chef. In between are many positions, depending on the size and formality of the restaurant, including, for example, prep cook, line cook, and sous chef. I recently sat down with three executive chefs from the area who have ascended every notch of that totem pole.
In some ways they are typical of many of their counterparts in the restaurant industry in the U.S. in that they each came here from Latin America as youngsters and, without having English at their command, needed to earn money any way they could to support themselves and help out their families. But their stories and their successes are uniquely theirs.
For about the last eight years, Juan Mercado, 35, has been executive chef at One53, the popular American/European bistro in Rocky Hill. He came to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, when he was 14, after spending the last two years there on his own. “I grew up in Oaxaca living with my grandparents,” he says. “When I was 12 my grandmother became sick, and since the rest of my family was already here, it was easier on everybody to have her come to the U.S. for them to take care of her.” Young Juan was left to his own devices. “That was the first cooking I did. For two years I made myself beans and tortillas. Only instead of round, the tortillas came out square!” he says, laughing.
“After two years, my grandmother got together some money and she brought me here. Man, was that a big change! I hadn’t believed in homesickness until I came here. I didn’t like it! I didn’t speak one bit of English.”
His family had settled in New Hope, but when his older brother moved to Lambertville, he took Juan with him. “I was 14 and a-half, maybe 15 and going to Lambertville High when I started working with my brother at a Lambertville restaurant,” he says. “But I was getting my ass kicked as a dishwasher — it was a lot of pots and pans.” Mercado asked his brother if learning English would mean he could leave dishwashing behind. “From then on I became determined to get better at English.” While that was happening, he took a dishwashing job at Cape May’s venerable Lobster House.
“That was one of the hardest jobs. They had 21 dishwashers on Friday and Saturday nights. But I saw the cooks and thought, ‘I want to be there instead of here.’ So I started planning. I would go over to the line and just watch these guys and offer to help them out — for example, to cut things for them. And I told them, ‘Anything you want me to do, I’ll do it.’ I would come in an hour-and-a-half early to work for free, just for the chance to work with the cooks. I would make friends with them because if you become enemies or if they just don’t like you, they won’t show you anything.”
At 17, Mercado came back to Lambertville to work at Poet’s Cafe. “I started as a dishwasher there, too, but I was constantly watching. One Saturday night one of the guys walked out, and I told the owner, Tina, ‘I can do some of that, just give me a chance.’ So I jump in — I was back and forth between that and doing dishes. We did 110 covers that night! Just Tina and myself. It was nice and I thought to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
But, Mercado says, kitchen jobs don’t last forever, so he found himself bouncing between jobs, including at the erstwhile Yellow Brick Toad in Lambertville and the Sergeantsville Inn. At the latter, Mercado rose to sous chef, working for four years for Joe Clyde, then the chef-owner. “I was 18. It was a lot of work, but (Clyde) really showed me the ropes. He wasn’t an easy guy to work for, but it was great for me.”
Mercado says that after he left there, his “life started to go downhill” and the only work he could find was at a pizzeria up in Budd Lake in Morris County. “I was driving 200 miles every day just to earn a paycheck! I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t find a job around here.”
Mercado’s career began to turn around in 2000, when he got a phone call from a cousin who owns a Mexican restaurant in Flemington, telling him about a job at a new restaurant in Princeton: Les Copains on Witherspoon Street (since closed).
It was there he met Scott Anderson, who is now executive chef and co-owner of Elements and Mistral in Princeton, and who would prove to be pivotal to Mercado’s rise. While at Les Copains, Anderson recommended Mercado for a job at the newly established Lawrenceville Inn, under its first chef. When that chef didn’t work out, Anderson also moved over to the Inn.
“I wound up working for Scott for eight years in total. The training I got from him was great; it was a great association,” Mercado says. “Plus he taught me the importance of honesty.”
Eventually, Anderson challenged Mercado to develop a new dish for the menu. “For most cooks, at least for me, if a chef gives you a chance to do one of the dishes on his menu, that’s a big deal. When he offered that to me, I was all over the place. I went home and did my research. I tried to predict all the good and bad things he could have to say about the dish,” Mercado recalls. Anderson loved the result.
The two men went on to work together for the next few years at the Lawrenceville Inn. When Anderson left, Mercado took his place. “That was my first open kitchen, too. I learned so many skills from Scott and those guys — I can’t thank Scott enough for that.”
When the Lawrenceville Inn closed suddenly, Mercado again found himself out of work. He planned to take a few days off — he had never taken an actual vacation. But before he could, Scott Anderson called, informing Mercado that he had already lined up a job interview for him. That was with the chef at One53, which then as now is co-owned by Joe McLaughlin and Caron Wendell (who also own Lucy’s Kitchen & Market on Route 206).
But shortly after Mercado started, the head chef departed. “We were in such a period of oh-my-god!” Wendell recalls. “I mean, it was a year into the restaurant, and our head chef went kablooey on us. Elements hadn’t opened yet, Scott was looking for work [after the Lawrenceville Inn] and because Joe and I had been friends with Scott for a really long time we wanted him to take the job.”
Although Anderson did work in the kitchen for a while, to help them out, he told the pair that Juan Mercado was the guy to head it up permanently. “Juan was so quiet, kept his head down, and worked so hard in those first few months that I don’t really remember him from those days,” Wendell says. “All of a sudden it was like, OK: Scott is definite about him and we trust Scott, so Juan’s going to be our guy.” Mercado stepped into the executive chef spot. “That was eight, eight-and-a-half years ago, and I’m still here!” he says. “This is the first kitchen I have truly run by myself.”
Mercado also credits Anderson with helping to gather his kitchen team of about 11. “But it’s a really small kitchen, so the most we can have working at one time is eight or nine, which we do on Friday and Saturday nights, when we’re really busy. And,” he adds with a laugh, “everybody has to be no bigger than my size or we can’t all fit.” Most of his team — including sous chef Rafael Garcia — have been with him for at least six or seven years. (Mercado requested that any photographs taken for this story include the team members.)
“They make my job easy. And because they know what they are doing, I don’t have to explain or yell. There are many ways to ask and tell people how to do things, and screaming is not my way.” He adds sheepishly, “Of course, if something gets really screwed up…”
In fact, bringing along workers like himself is the most rewarding part of his job, Mercado says. “I want to keep training guys. I have a couple who were so green they didn’t even know how to hold a knife. Now they’re pretty good.”
He watches his dishwashers in particular, “to see how ‘hungry’ or driven they are or how well they’re moving. And then I say to myself, ‘This is my guy!’ We already have four guys who started out as dishwashers here. They’re really solid.” He admits that it takes patience, at the end of a long and busy night in the kitchen, to take people aside to explain to them what they did wrong and right, but he is committed to it.
Foremost among the dishes that Mercado considers his signature are seared day boat scallops with lardons, avocado, peaches, and piquillo pepper-smoked tomato puree. “It’s a nice light dish,” he says. “I like to cook with seafood because it’s delicate, and it’s not as easy as most people think. You can mess it up really easy. And the scallops are nice right now.”
Another is the char-grilled double-cut pork chop. “You know, I don’t do anything to them, it’s just good quality meat,” says Mercado. To which Caron Wendell adds, “Yes, but Juan figured out how to roast the chops perfectly, and now there are people who come here just for them.” The chops come with a choice of anchovy herb butter, chipotle lime butter, or chimichurri, or blackened.
One53’s general manager, Michaela Gravelle, also rose up through the ranks, albeit the front-of-the-house ranks. “I started at the Lawrenceville Inn as a back waiter when I was 15,” she says. The back waiter (or, to use an older term, busboy), clears plates between courses, fills water glasses, replenishes bread baskets, and assists those above him or her, which can include front waiters, captain, head waiter, wine steward, and dining room manager.
“That was my first restaurant job, and it’s where I caught the bug,” she confesses, “and I couldn’t leave it after that. Since then I’ve done every job in the front-of-house of a restaurant. I never wanted to work in the kitchen — it’s too much.” Gravelle is also One53’s wine manager. “I acquired my wine knowledge through tasting and learning and taking some wine classes. The first place I ever worked that had a liquor license happened to be when I had just turned 21,” says Gravelle, who is 29.
In a sort of fairytale ending, Michaela Gravelle and Juan Mercado were just married this month. The pair has worked together at One53 for almost five years, but first met 14 years ago at the Lawrenceville Inn. Says Caron Wendell: “Usually you don’t hire boyfriend and girlfriend in this business, to work in the same space. But Michaela does a great job. And we try hard not to tell her things to pass along to Juan.”
Juan Mercado’s advice to a young person like himself trying to get a toehold in the restaurant business is an appropriate reflection of his own work ethic. “Focus, ask the right questions, and never say you’re tired — even when you are. Don’t come in late; do ask questions. There are no wrong questions.” But, he adds, “Sometimes you’ve also just got to get lucky.” While waiting for that luck? “Just keep your head down and work.”
One53, 153 Washington Street, Rocky Hill. Sunday and Monday,5 to 9 p.m.; Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; lunch on Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. 609-921-0153 or www.one53nj.com.
Nassau Street Seafood
That same advice was echoed by the two other head chefs I spoke with: Jose Lopez of Nassau Street Seafood Company and Edgar Urias of Blue Point Grill. Both are part of the JM Restaurant Group, which also owns Witherspoon Grill, all in Princeton. Lopez, 49, came to Princeton from Guatemala in 1983, when he was 17. Speaking no English, he bounced around from dishwashing job to dishwashing job at local eateries (including the old Carousel Diner), before landing at Nassau Street Seafood, the retail fish and seafood market, a year later.
Over the ensuing years he covered every possible duty there, he says. “For me, going to work is a little bit like going to college: I learn something every day,” he says. “I started here just like everybody else — like the students we have from Princeton High School. I started at the bottom and worked all the way up.”
Over those years, Nassau Street Seafood, has greatly expanded its prepared food section and its off-premise catering services. Even today, Lopez says, “Although my position here is chef, I keep an eye on everything else.” He typically arrives at the seafood market around 10 a.m. and stays until closing, around 7 p.m.
Lopez grew up with his mother, a single mom, who supported herself and her son as a garment worker, and it was from her that young Jose learned to cook. Lopez still has family in Guatemala and goes back to visit once or twice a year, while his mother divides her time equally between the two countries.
Lopez felt at home in Princeton from the start. “It was a very quiet town, and wonderful to me. I loved it so much I’m still here!” he says. Lopez recently moved from Princeton to Skillman but is planning to move back. “Because when you really know the place, you like it.”
Like Juan Mercado of One53, Lopez learned to speak English in action. “I learned a lot of what I know today of English by reading newspapers and then looking up the words in dictionaries,” he says. “But mostly, I picked up English when I started working with customers.”
In fact, Lopez’s people skills have earned him a large and loyal following among Nassau Street Seafood customers — something that has not gone unnoticed by owner Jack Morrison. “Looking back I’m sure that Jose’s skills were the first measure of promise,” Morrison says. “Then his passion for food and, most importantly, a passion for people. These to me are the key ingredients to hospitality and as important as salt and pepper.”
Lopez himself says, “To me, having good communication with customers is part of the daily business. They feel like family, like we’re friends, and they see that we are a friendly store. That’s why they come back.”
People skills notwithstanding, Lopez says his favorite part of his job is in the prep kitchen. “I like to come here in the mornings, get everything ready, and see what products we have and what projects for later that afternoon,” he says. “I like to play with food in the kitchen and try to come up with something.” At home he enjoys grilling swordfish. “And I like mussels and clams a lot,” says Lopez, who is separated and has two children. “So, if I want to do pasta it’s often with clams and mussels.”
Lopez — who along with store manager Colin Rooney oversee a staff of seven to ten people on a daily basis — estimates he works between 45 and 50 hours a week and likes keeping busy. “When it’s slow, that makes the day feel like it will never end. When business is steady, it keeps your mind occupied, and you just keep going and before you know it, it’s time to go home.”
Asked what advice he’d offer to anyone trying to come up through the ranks as he did, he reflects on his own path. “I tried other jobs, but I feel like I’m good at what I do and I feel comfortable doing it.” First and foremost, though, he advises, “For all my friends and family from the community, my advice is to learn the language. That opens many, many doors for you. And then, second would be find the job you think you’re good at. If you like it, you’re going to do your best.”
Nassau Street Seafood, 256 Nassau Street, Princeton. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. 609-921-0620 or nassaustreetseafood.com.
Blue Point Grill
Like his colleague at Nassau Street Seafood, executive chef Edgar Urias of Blue Point Grill also enjoys the hustle and bustle of his job. “I love the pressure of working in a kitchen — that’s my passion,” he says. “The best days are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday because they’re so crazy busy.”
Urias, 36, began his association with Jack Morrison’s group 15 years ago. He is originally from Guatemala City, where his family, including his parents and siblings, still live. “I go back two times a year, in recent years especially to spend Christmas and New Year’s with family,” says the soft-spoken Urias.
He lives in Princeton with his wife of 16 years, also from Guatemala, and their daughter and two sons. He walks to work every day. “My wife is a really good cook and it is from her that I discovered my love of cooking. Every day after work we would make barbecue, and that’s when I realized how much I like to cook.”
He was 14 when he came to the U.S. and the Princeton area. “I started working at the Alchemist & Barrister as a dishwasher and then was promoted to the salad station,” he recalls. After that he held similar jobs at Teresa’s, Winberies, Triumph, Nassau Inn, and Main Street. “I worked many places and from dishwashing and the salad station I began doing prep work. That’s when I started loving the kitchen and cooking. And that’s why I came to Blue Point Grill,” he says.
Urias was promoted to sous chef in 2005 and executive chef in 2008. These days he oversees a kitchen staff of seven: “Four on the line, one salad/raw bar, and two dishwashers,” he tallies. He is known by his nickname, “Pollo” (“chicken”) to everyone in the organization. He explains: “When I was little my aunt gave me that name because when they gave me rice, I picked it up grain by grain. ‘Oh, you’re pollito’ she said — a little chicken. Now, everybody calls me Edgar Pollo — nobody knows my actual name!”
He says he picked up his management skills “just by coming in everyday to work” and, during his time as sous chef, watching the chef closely. He is most proud of his signature dish at Blue Point Grill: an appetizer of jalapeno and lime grilled shrimp. “I came up with that recipe eight years ago,” he says. “We took it off one time and people started complaining, asking, like, ‘What’s going on? We came for the jalapeno lime shrimp!’ So we put it back on the menu and have never taken it off again.”
When he arrived in the U.S. Urias did not speak English. “I learned just by talking with friends, watching them closely,” he says, adding with a smile, “At first I laughed when they laughed — pretending to understand what they were laughing about, but not understanding anything. So I would go home and watch TV and listen to music in English, as well as try to read. And little by little I learned.” Urias’ advice to someone like himself, young and new to the industry? “It’s OK to start at the bottom, because that’s how you learn all the skills, and that’s how you get advanced in the kitchen.”
For the last several years, Edgar Urias and Jose Lopez have teamed up to present a series of highly popular cooking classes through the Princeton Adult School each fall and spring. This fall their five-night session is “Nuevo Latino: Fusion cuisine that’s built on the zesty tropical tastes of the New World.” (As of press time, there were four seats open. Visit www.princetonadultschool.org for information.)
It promises that students will learn to prepare “fresh salsas, soups, salads, chicken, carne, fish, and desserts that are complex in their spice yet simple in their preparation.” The two men enjoy working side by side, as well as interacting with students. Lopez sums up the experience this way: “It’s great working with the Princeton community. There are a lot of opportunities here.”
That can also be expanded to include the broader experience of Lopez, Urias, Juan Mercado, and the many others like them toiling in the area’s hospitality industry.
Blue Point Grill, 258 Nassau Street, Princeton. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 4 to 9 p.m. 609-921-1211 or bluepointgrill.com.