Ricardo Cardona heads up the kitchen of the newly opened Gabbana, a modern Dominican restaurant in Corona, Queens. The chef is a veteran of New York kitchens, having worked his way up from frying falafel in the East Village to the Ritz-Carlton, and finally developing his own modern Caribbean/Latin American cuisine. Cardona is currently the executive chef of six restaurants, including Sofrito, 809, Mamajuana, Hudson River Café, and Manolito’s.
We caught up with him to talk about how he came up through the kitchen, his culinary research in the Dominican Republic, and Gabbana restaurant — and in the process found out that he’s about to open his first place where he will be the chef/owner.
Check back here tomorrow to read Cardona on the subject of fusion, and why he’d rather be a restaurant chef than a TV chef.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Alphabet City. I came when I was young, about 14, from El Salvador. We lived on Seventh Street between B and C. Back 1980, 1981, it was not nice like it is now.
What’s the dish you remember most from your childhood?
My favorite of all is very Salvadorian: pupusas. Everybody grows up eating that, it’s very typical. And then short ribs soup, sopa de res, it’s also very typical in Salvadorian culture. That’s my childhood memory. My mother made it.
And then coming up at 15, still not finished growing up, I entered the Village and it was Mediterranean people, all different cultures — Puerto Rican, Israeli … I ended up working in a restaurant where they taught me falafel. I started working there when I was 15. That was Café Orlin.
How did you work your way up from there?
Well, I worked there in the Village for four to five years, and then when I was 18 my life changed. I got married and had a son. I started working at the Ritz-Carlton. I had a new career perspective. I was the only one without any formal education. I was the only one who did not go through the CIA. … I was lucky because I was there, and I could learn everything that you would learn at a school. At that time it was managed by Dutch and French people. And it was a very, very different experience than the Lower East Side.
That must have been difficult.
Very, very, very. There was still the language barrier, the procedures, cooking skills, temperatures, and technique, and you know it’s not easy at all. I had CIA textbooks from the other cooks, so I had to study the books on the subway to make sure that I would know what I was doing.
At that time, was there any prejudice against you in a European-centric kitchen?
Yes. At the Ritz, there was one instance; one of the sous chefs called me a spic. But I didn’t really know what it meant. But one of our union representatives was from Puerto Rico, so that guy got suspended. When he came back, he made my life miserable.
Were you worried that there would be repercussions for speaking out?
Yes. And eventually he made my life so miserable that I had to leave.
After that, I was working in a lot of French and Italian restaurants … until 1999, when I decided to do Latino food. I started working at a place called Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, and that’s when I started working with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. … And we were cooking for the Yankees and the Knicks. Jennifer Lopez used to come. Back in 2000, 2001, all the Latinos came. It was the place to be. … I got into the Latino field, and since then I haven’t been able to get out! [Laughs.]
And I’m so excited because I’m working on my own place, the first place that’s my own.
You’re about to open the first place that you own yourself?
Yes, it’s my whole life savings!
What’s it called and where is it?
La Vida Café. It will be in Riverdale in the Bronx. Everyone was always asking me, “When are you going to open your own place?” Finally! Everyone’s going to be shocked, because it’s nothing fancy. It’s a simple, gourmet Latin American place with low prices.
I’ll have a section of arepas, because my girlfriend is from Venezuela, so the arepas are for her. Her mom is going to give me the secrets of making the best arepas. See, even though I am a chef, I will still take advice from people, especially from ladies that have the touch of their place. No matter how long you go to school, if you’re making it your whole life, you have this special touch.
Will you focus on Salvadorian food too?
Actually, it’s not going to be Salvadorian. I’m going to put all the best Latin food. We’ll do one Salvadorian dish, but we’re going to do most of Latin America. For the past few years, I’ve specialized in Caribbean food, so I’m going to take the best of everything, at a low price. My idea with my girlfriend is to franchise it and take it downtown and to Union Square. So you’ve recently opened Gabbana, a modern Dominican place, and you went to the Dominican Republic beforehand — what did you learn there?
What happened is that I’m also the chef of Mamajuana, a Dominican restaurant in New York and Miami, and they wanted to put one in the Dominican Republic, which I had to open because I’m the creator of the concept.
So I did some research on my own while I was there. I really know how Dominicans eat, and it’s totally different from what Dominicans eat here in New York. When they come here, they are nostalgic, but in the Dominican Republic, there are new restaurants, new chefs, and it’s amazing: the way they cook, what they eat. They eat foie gras, ham from Spain, caviar. There’s a lot of European influence in the Dominican Republic, so they don’t just eat green plantains and yucca. They have fusion with European influence.
I did research, and one of the most typical dishes is called quipe. The original one is kibbe, from the Middle East. But the difference is that they put Dominican flavor: Dominican sofrito, Dominican oregano. So it’s a new version.
Wow, how did kibbe make it to the Caribbean?
I think, in the Caribbean, they have influences from the Middle East. The Spaniards came and brought a lot of different ingredients and things — rice, horses — and there’s a lot of Middle Eastern influence in Spain …
And over there, it’s also about class. The rich people have more. There is a restaurant called Fellini; the chef is Italian and he does a lot of Italian technique with Dominican flavor. It’s amazing, amazing, amazing. So it’s the influence of Europeans and also how rich people eat: foods from all countries.