Humberto Guallpa remembers a press event at which he was standing among some big-name New York City celebrity chefs. Journalists began asking everyone present questions — everyone, that is, except for Guallpa, who was ignored until he was asked, “Who are you with? Who’s your chef?” Guallpa was then an executive chef, and he’d cooked with some of the most prolific toques in the city — people like Mario Batali, Marcus Samuelsson, and Rocco DiSpirito. But because he’s Ecuadorian, that journalist had assumed Guallpa was there in a supporting role.
Guallpa insists he doesn’t mind, that moments like that are a sign that he and other Latin American chefs need to step up, own restaurants, and show New York City what they can do. Guallpa has worked hard to get where he is, and he’s mindful of holding on to his roots: Fifteen years ago, he was a dishwasher who spoke no English; he’d just spent two nights walking in the desert from Mexico into the States because his mother, who already lived here, insisted he come find a job instead of continuing to ask for money. He worked construction first, and tried other odd jobs, until he landed the dishwashing gig, in a restaurant that was doing more than 1,500 covers a night. He was curious about what was happening in the kitchen, he says, so he’d ask the prep guys if they needed help when he had spare moments. One day, a cook working the salad station quit, and the chef asked if Guallpa wanted to give it a shot. “I learned the hard way to do all the stuff,” he says. “The chef liked me, and he threw a lot of things at me.”
And Guallpa loved the kitchen. While at that job, he met DiSpirito, who would soon depart to open Union Pacific. Guallpa didn’t immediately follow, and when that large restaurant closed for renovations, he went back to construction, which he hated. One day, his former manager spotted him in the street, and insisted Guallpa get in touch with DiSpirito immediately. The manager put Guallpa in a cab to Union Pacific, and when he arrived, DiSpirito put him on the line.
After a year and a half at that restaurant, Guallpa began a journey that took him to Aquavit, American Place, and Tocqueville. He began to get to know big players in the industry, and he was insatiable in his desire for knowledge, so he trailed at places like Alinea and Per Se. He landed his first executive-chef role at Vandaag when opening chef Phillip Kirschen-Clark left the kitchen. After a subsequent stint in the Hamptons and a brief period at Play at the Museum of Sex, he teamed up with owner Marco Britti to open Calle Dao (38 West 39th Street, 212-221-9002), a Cuban-Chinese restaurant that debuted in Midtown in August.
Tell me a little about your Ecuadorian childhood. You have roots in farming, no?
I was born on the farm. My grandma and grandpa own a farm, and as long as I can remember, they’ve had cows, lambs, chickens, ducks, every vegetable imaginable — we never bought vegetables. We just bought salt and sugar because we couldn’t make those. My grandma bought big pieces of chocolate, and she’d make hot chocolate. That’s how I grew up. Maybe that’s why I love the farmers’ market and other farms and food. But I was the worst cook back home. I couldn’t even cook rice for my brothers. I’d always over- or undercook it, or it would be too salty. To this moment, my grandmother’s like, “How could you change from that to what you’re doing now?” She’s proud. One day, I want to make that whole country proud.
And you’d like to bring those roots here?
I would like to see more Ecuadorian restaurants — culture-wise, South America is still on its way up. It’s not here yet. There’s some Peruvian, but not other countries. Hopefully one day, I’ll do an Ecuadorian restaurant. I have French training, so it will be French-Ecuadorian. I’d also like to see Argentinean, Brazilian, Chilean. You don’t see those restaurants often. You see Chilean wines, and some Brazilian restaurants in Astoria, but what about the rest of the city?
How do you make that happen?
Latin cooks need to stop being scared. If you love what you do, you can pull it off. Come out. It’s not about being Latin — it’s about showing what you want to do and how you do it. I’d love to see more young cooks come out and say, “I have food to show.” I understand why they’re scared — I’ve been through that, too. But I would like to see more of them.
Right now, you’re reviving the Cuban-Chinese restaurant that has a long history here. How did you tackle writing this menu?
When I met Marco, he explained his vision, and the concept was Asian-Cuban, Chino-Latino. He had some other name for it, but it was not even close to where I wanted to go. I said, OK, if we work together, and we can put it together like this, then we can go from there. He was open to that. I explained that I wanted to do fusion — I didn’t want to do authentic versions of either cuisine, because I’m not Asian and I’m not Cuban. So instead, I will marry two cultures together. That way no one can say this is not right because this is not authentic. I did a lot of research through a lot of friends. I have a big group of Asian friends and a big group of Latin friends. Latin, I’m part of it, so I can bring those flavors in. We have plantains. We grow the nicest yucca in the world. So that’s easy for me — Latin I have in my blood. Asian, I needed help.
Can you tell me a bit about the history of this type of restaurant?
Fifteen years ago, there was a huge Cuban-Chinese trend, and it died out a bit. There are still a few restaurants uptown, and once, there was an Asia de Cuba. Marco was in Cuba, and he saw the history of Asians in Cuba. So he said, I want to do this. It was a huge challenge for me, but I love challenges.
What’s been your biggest challenge since opening?
We are in the middle of the business district, so there are more offices. We have Asian restaurants around us because we are close to Koreatown. It’s tough to be in the middle of the Asian community and be something that’s unique. Lunch is good, but dinner’s a little bit harder. But we’re moving up every day.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Always be sincere — I learned this business by being a dishwasher, and I always want to be at that level. I don’t want to say, I’m a big star. No. I’m a cook, I’m a chef. I want to be always that way. I learned from the big guys. Mario [Batali] is so big, but still, when I see him and talk to him, it’s like cooking with him again back at Babbo. It feels so good to be that way. Don’t be someone that you’re not. I’m same person as when I started.
How has the industry evolved over the last 10 or 15 years?
Ten years ago, people were doing really good food, complex food, with cool techniques. Now, everyone wants to be famous, so they show off a little bit here and there, but there’s not consistency.
So you see a dip in talent?
I see that in certain ways. There are two different types of people in New York City: People who come in and work because they have family to support, and then people who come in and love cooking. I take it as it comes — I’ll teach both types. But some people don’t want to learn.
Have any advice for someone getting into the industry?
Put your hard work and heart into it, and put your head down and keep working. You have to have a lot of passion — it will come out if you don’t put your heart and passion into it. It’s hard work. It’s 15 hours per day on your feet while the office is just eight hours.
How do you stay motivated?
I feel like I’m married to food. That’s what motivates me. I do something different every day. I want to create something. I want to build something new. I’m happy when the customers are happy — I want to see smiles when I walk out of the kitchen.
Anything you see as a pressing industry issue?
Prices are really going crazy for produce. I want to do farm-to-table, but it’s tough. They can’t afford to produce ingredients in a way that I can buy them. Back 10 or 15 years ago, it was easier — we used to go buy all the produce from the market, it was affordable, and we would make our dishes. But prices have doubled. It’s complicated. We’re fighting against the economy.
What are your goals?
For now, to have my own restaurant. I want to have an Ecuadorian restaurant. And not just one. I look up to Mario [Batali] or Daniel [Boulud]. I want to be like them someday and have five, six, seven restaurants — that’s my goal and I won’t stop until I get there.