By Tatiana Villamil, March 10, 2016
Luca Cabras, 40, the Head Chef at Medi Wine Bar, 811 9th Avenue, said he started cleaning potatoes at the age of 15 at Cala Moresca, a hotel in a touristic village in Bocali, Italy. He moved to New York City at 24 and has been working in New York City kitchens ever since.
Medi is near he original soup stand for Seinfeld’s “The Soup Nazi” 116th episode of the NBC sitcom, and close to numerous Broadway theaters. It is located in the heart of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen where your Lobster Tagliolini pasta will be paired with a corresponding bottle of wine. With its brick walls and its candlelight rustic themed atmosphere, one can choose from having a small tapa of Mixed Olives to a whole Mediterranean Sea Bass.
Now, the men behind the preparation of these plates are not all necessarily from the Mediterranean, and many Hell’s Kitchen eateries lack the spicy touches of their cooks’ origins.
Chefs are crazy people, says Cabras, who has a tattoo of a spoon with a skull in its hollow part on his right arm. “You have to grow up in the kitchen in order to work 14 plus hours at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, serve 400 plates, and deal with five asshole waiters.” With a distinct Italian accent and a bitter chuckle he says making desserts is his favorite thing to do because “I am-eh a sweet guy!”
When he is cooking, his favorite music for soothing his craziness is classic rock, such as Led Zeppelin. However, his least favorite preference, he says, is putting up with patrons who want their steaks cooked at all different kinds of temperatures all at once. With an involuntary hand gesture, he brings all the fingertips of his right hand together and waves it up and down.“Are you fucking serious?” he says as he recalls those moments of modified orders that arrive in his kitchen from time to time.
The chef’s hands and forearms are overflowing with scars and burns that tell stories of his 25 years as a chef. His favorite dish is his mama’s lasagna; there is no other way to describe it than “Perfetta!” Over these 25 years Cabras has worked along the side of many Latinos, and even though “shit happens” he says “they almost like Italian people. They put their heart in their cooking. We love the food the same way.”
Mexican cooks in this Mediterranean fusion kitchen surround Cabras. They say they no longer put their spicy touch into the dishes because they have gotten into trouble with the restaurant’s owner.
Miguel Angel Hernandez Montiel, 35, the grill cook, has been working in kitchens for 17 years after finding the first job he could land as a dishwasher in his arrival in New York City. He says he didn’t actually choose the kitchen, rather it chose him because at 18 years of age, “I didn’t know how to do anything, mija … puras chaquetas.” His laughter grew as the redness of his cheeks became more prominent as well.
When it comes to his favorite food, he says that it is “la Mexicana” because if something is not spicy than it is not real food.
“Don’t mess with our families, we all have a limit” – that’s what Hernandez says recounting the time when one of the cooks got arrested for stabbing a waiter in the hand with a chef’s knife. He says the server was messing with his coworker’s family and calling him “illegal.” The cook couldn’t bare the insults anymore, lost his nerve and the accident occurred. In his 17 years of cooking, he had never experienced anything else like it.
While Hernandez likes to cook to Banda music, his fellow pantry cook likes Spanish rap instead. Sebastian Flores, 26, pantry cook, was born in Guerrero, south of Mexico. He learned to cook with a Chinese Chef, Chris Chu, who taught him how to make fried rice. He’s been in the kitchen for eight years now but still has a hard time getting the temperatures of the steaks right. Asked how he puts up with so many working hours a week, he smirks while bringing his index finger close to his nose, snorts and says, “Money becomes a vice, you just learn how to put up with it.”
In regards to his future, Flores says he wants “to be an excellent cook and never lack a job.” Before putting on his cook attire, he always makes sure to tuck in his hair in a braid for he has been growing it out for five years.
Modelo, the Mexican pilsner-style lager, always helps when it’s been a rough week. Flores laughs when recalling the time that all the cooks got drunk off of beer but still managed to bring out all the dishes intact. His boss at the time got so angry about the bacchanal that he started smashing plates without necessarily yelling Opa at the end.
Tatiana Villamil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org