A Conversation with Chef Adolfo Garcia
By Leslie Almeida
Click aqui para español- >Una conversación con el Chef Adolfo García
Therapist. Referee. Ringmaster. There isn’t enough space on a nametag for all the titles a restaurateur holds. When your job is to put out both literal and figurative flames while juggling a variety of tasks at several properties across the city, you likely have some great advice to share. I sat down with Adolfo Garcia, James Beard Award-nominated chef and restaurateur, to talk business and glean a few words of wisdom.
The son of Panamanian immigrants, Chef Adolfo grew up in the Greater New Orleans area. At the age of 12, his family moved to Panama for 4 years, but returned when Adolfo was in high school. His career in the hospitality industry started early but did not stem from a place of nostalgia.
“It really wasn’t that romantic. I was 16 when we returned to Louisiana from Panama, and I needed a job. I wanted a car, to be able to do stuff, so I took a job at Pancho’s washing dishes.”
He moved through the ranks of busboy, then server, and went on to wait tables at La Riviera, an upscale restaurant in Metairie that influenced how locals thought of Italian food, and how local chefs would prepare it. It was the chef and owner of La Riviera, Goffredo Fraccaro, that piqued Garcia’s culinary curiosity.
After high school, Garcia attended UNO and UT-Austin with plans of majoring in Political Science and becoming a lawyer. As law school loomed ahead, he realized his passion was in food, and asked Fraccaro for help.
“Chef Goffredo was my mentor. He wrote my letter of recommendation to attend CIA (Culinary Institute of America). He was all, ‘You’re gonna go to school to be a chef? You don’t need to do that,’ and I said, ‘I’m gonna do it, and I need a letter.’ He said, 'Alright, I’ll write you a letter.’ Throughout my career, I touched base with him. He was an important figure in my life, especially from a culinary standpoint.”
Upon graduating from CIA in Upstate New York, Chef Adolfo started from the bottom once again, working his way through the ranks of high-profile NYC restaurants. His humble beginning is a stark contrast of the empire he has built today.
While the current count of restaurants Chef Adolfo co-owns stands at three, at one point in his career, that number was doubled. His first venture, Criollo, opened in 1997. After its closing, Rio Mar was opened in 2000, followed by La Boca in 2006. Prior to selling his share in Rio Mar in 2012, he opened High Hat and Ancora, both on Freret Street, in 2011.
Today, Chef enjoys more of an operations role and can often be seen at La Boca, but not behind an apron.
“It’s the evolution of a business person. When you first open, you’re in there on your hands and knees, fixing the plumbing, changing a lightbulb, answering the phone. Over time, your role becomes one more of overseer and advisor.” He goes on to compare owning a restaurant to raising a child.
"In the formative years, you try to influence as much as you can to put it on the right track. At some point you go, ‘You’ve grown up, now you’ve got to do your thing.’ You talk in their ear to coach them, but for the most part, they’re on their own.”
Whether it be 6 or 3 restaurants, Chef Adolfo says he wouldn’t be able to do it without his business partners. He owns La Boca with Nick Bazan, who was also his partner at Rio Mar, opened High Hat with industry veteran Chip Apperson, and operates Ancora along with general manager Bryn Thompson and chef Adrian Chelette.
“I don’t really thrive on micromanaging,” Chef Adolfo snickers. “I’m more of a person that wants to see people do their job, doing it how they feel. You can’t stifle them and be there all the time telling them what to do. Because then, what are they? They’re just a part of a machine. That’s not conducive to growth, and to the long-term health of the business or the partnership.”
To Chef Adolfo, his business partners and staff are more than just co-workers. He is known for putting the right people in the right places, then giving them equity and a position where they can create their own dreams. He stresses the importance of having a mentor and being a mentee, and credits Apperson as a role model and positive influence.
“Mentorship is important; I try to teach that, and I try to live it. Chip was my boss in New York. When I worked with him, he was the guy I looked up to. The way he ran his operation, the way he treated his people, the way he thought. I tell my employees to find someone they admire, emulate them, do the good things they do, and then pass it on.”
Wrapping up with Chef Adolfo, I asked him what was in store for his restaurant empire. Would there be more openings in the future? He shook his head and grinned as he replied. “I love the restaurant business and I love to cook, but for me it’s about the hospitality. If I do anything, I’m going to buy another building and figure out something there. But I think I’m done."
I guess we will have to wait and see about that one, Chef.