An Interview with Chefs Danny Alas and Justin Rodriguez
By Leslie Almeida
Click aqui para español->Paloma Café
Imagine that you are back in high school and your teacher says everyone must pair up with a classmate for a project. You turn your head toward your BFF and they turn their head toward you. You exchange a nod or maybe a raised eyebrow. Nothing needs to be said because you both just know you will be working together on this. And everything is going to be alright. Now snap out of it, because it’s 2018 and you have to get to the office and work on that presentation with The Guy That Makes Noises When He Eats. Ugh. Wouldn’t it be great if we could work with our best friend again? Danny Alas and Justin Rodriguez, the chefs at Paloma Cafe, have managed to do just that. The duo met while at culinary school in Miami, went on to work together at critically-acclaimed Scarpella, and then made the move to New Orleans to join the team at Compère Lapin. Eventually, they would open Paloma Cafe, an eatery in the Bywater heavily influenced by their Latin-Caribbean upbringings. For Chef Danny, part of the appeal is having a support system in an environment where things can get pretty hectic. “Working with Justin, I know my best friend’s got my back.” “She knows I’m not gonna bullshit her,” Chef Justin adds with a laugh. “If something isn’t right, I’ll tell her, ‘we’ve got to throw the whole thing away.”
One would think that sharing the duties of running a professional kitchen would present some major challenges, but the camaraderie extends to the logistical side of running a restaurant. “We’re generally on the same page,” says Danny. “It’s like we’re telepathically sharing these ideas and then work them out until we have the finished product.” “As in all other aspects of running a business, it’s all about balance,” adds Justin. While Chef Danny and Chef Justin -- Venezuelan and Dominican, respectively -- tend to see eye to eye on most matters, there is one thing that divides them: tripe. With a grin, Danny admits, “I eat it. I like to get nasty like that.” Justin, however, is not on board. “No, it’s a texture issue for me. My family grew up eating it, but I do not love it.” Fortunately, there is plenty to love about Paloma Cafe, perhaps one of the most adaptable spots in the New Orleans area. Previous tenants -- first Booty’s Street Food and later Cafe Henri -- struggled with the complexities of a changing neighborhood. Paloma, attuned to the community’s needs, serves breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner, dependent upon the day of the week. Additionally, the Revelator Coffee Company-owned cafe welcomes the laptop crowd, offering a space where they can work or study with a caffeinated beverage and housemade pastry. Regardless of the time of day, each menu reflects the influence of the chefs’ heritage and culture. Breakfast includes heartier offerings such as a plate of eggs, potatoes and choice of chorizo or avocado, and lighter fare such as the vegan-friendly avocado toast with cumin roasted chickpeas. The lunch and dinner menus deliver on amped up homestyle favorites; think yuca frita, marinated chicken thighs, platanitos, and braised short ribs. Diners can now get their favorites one additional night a week; dinner service was recently extended to Tuesdays. In a restaurant named Paloma -- a Latin derivative meaning “peaceful” -- the pair strive toward a positive work environment for their team, especially during a time where there is little to no room for the contrary. “We have a chill space here,” says Danny. “We try to be mindful of our team. We never have to go out of our way to hire, because the staff is generally friends of friends.” Friendship seems to be a recurring theme with Chef Danny and Chef Justin at the helm of Paloma Cafe. How could it not when two friends navigate analogous professional paths across multiple state lines? “We are both far from our families,” says Danny, “but we have each other.” Paloma Cafe is located at 800 Louisa Street in the Bywater. For more info, visit palomanola.com or follow them on Instagram at @paloma_nola.
- NOLA Eats is Leslie J. Almeida, food and dining writer and native New Orleanian. As the host of dozens of curated culinary experiences, she aims to highlight the people behind the city’s most interesting dining destinations. Since 2003, her past work includes contributions to Forbes, Food Network, CNN and Gambit. Tell Leslie where you’re eating and drinking -- she’s @nola.eats on Instagram and Facebook.