Here is executive chef Olivo from The Daisy, New York, and his culinary stories about the importance of "starting from the bottom" in the kitchen as the secret to make delicious food and for understanding leadership.
How did you become a cook?
I’d never cooked nothing in my life ‘till eight years ago. When I came to the USA, I had to make money so I turned into a dishwasher, cleaning guy, cleaning bathrooms…and then I was learning from one chef who wanted me to become a cook because he saw that I had some skills.
I learn fast and he was trying to push me to things like “you gotta start using knives, you can learn this and that…”. I started doing that, first as a salad guy or prep guy, and in meantime, I was watching all the people that knew how to do something I didn’t know how to do and I would learn from them. I never wanted to become a chef.
As I said before, I wanted to make money at first, and then the owner of this restaurant was the one pushing me to be a chef. He said I got the skills to handle people in the kitchen, everything was coming out good— he even said: “when you are not here, our staff is not working in the same way”! One day he got rid of a guy, I came to work and he said: “you are the chef from now”. I said: “what?”— I was surprised. I started from the bottom and he was helping me. And here we are.
Do you think the experience of doing salads and prep helped you in your career?
I think it’s very important when you know how to do everything from the bottom to the top. Most of the people who become chef homeschooled don’t even know how to use a dishwasher.
Sometimes, when my dishwasher gets sick or something like this, I’ll take over on that. I don’t mind that. He didn’t show up? Ok, I’m gonna be a dishwasher. If you don’t know nothing from the bottom, how are you gonna teach somebody? To me, that’s the base of leadership.
Is there any type of cuisine you are inspired by?
Not really. In my country, I was a system engineer, as well as a teacher for seven years. I just came here and just started, and only when I became a cook something grew up in me and I was more and more passionate about creating something new with food.
Where are you from?
From the Dominican Republic— DR like some American people say…we have the most beautiful beaches in the world.
“If you don’t know nothing from the bottom, how are you gonna teach somebody? To me, that’s the base of leadership”
Do you cook a lot of Dominican food?
I know how to cook it but I’ve never worked in Dominican restaurants. They were all French or Italian restaurants and were all doing Mediterranean cuisine.
What are your favorite dishes to make?
For me, it’s pasta. Especially handmade pasta. Not like simple pasta with sauce, no— real handmade pasta, you know what I mean? From the bottom, from the flour, because then you can create whatever type of pasta you want, it’s good for your body.
Let’s touch base with what’s been going on in the world. How did you adapt to the new scenario for restaurants in 2020?
In the beginning, we were in shock like everyone. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody knew what was gonna happen. Nothing. We just stayed at home for two months, doing nothing, trying to figure out what was going to happen. I think it was the end of May when the owner called me one day and said: “what are we gonna do?”.
We are not making burgers, for example, and our menu did not allow us to do delivery; you gotta see our dishes, the decoration, so it wouldn’t be the same with delivery, right? To enjoy our food, you gotta come here. We tried pushing that as much as possible and right now we are doing great, also because our seating space outside increased. People still want to enjoy their time out, especially after all these months of staying home.
Is there anything you’re looking forward to, with these new challenges that came out?
Personally, I’d like to open my own business— nothing to do with food though, I’m thinking of another business. But you know, we don’t know what’s gonna happen. The first thing we have to see is how our business is gonna be at the end of the year. We have to live day by day and see what happens.
Who is a chef that inspired you during your culinary career?
His name was Justin. He was a colleague of mine, always calling out everyone close to him being like: “What are you doing? Nothing!”. He was a very nervous guy, but very smart and with a lot of skills in the kitchen, and he was the one that told me “you gotta cook”. He inspired me every day— he was texting me every time I’d make a mistake.
He used to yell at everyone but never yelled at me. I don’t know why. Everybody was like: “what did you do with this guy?”. I was just coming to work on time, never missed one day, and I would do whatever he wanted me to do. And then, I’m looking at what people do and always trying to make something better. It’s not a competition, I do it for myself.