Dressed in a light brown chef’s apron, a white T-shirt, black pants and black and brown boots, Juan David Zuleta darted through the kitchen of Cinghiale with a surgeon’s precision.
“Lunch is served,” he repeatedly shouted amid the hiss of steam, clanking of metal utensils colliding with pots and the endless chatter that typically fills a busy kitchen.
One by one, employees of the Italian restaurant and wine bar in tony Harbor East began to fill its kitchen. The spread that awaited them was formidable. There were cast iron skillets filled with deep caramel-brown pools of cornbread. A tray of 30 whole crispy skin chicken beckoned them. A hulking pot of beans — seasoned with various vegetables — steamed with each swirl of the ladle. Sliced fresh avocados sat next to a lush mixed greens salad peppered with citrus and cucumbers.
A look of pride spread across the face of the native Colombian, his colorfully-tattooed forearms now folded across his chest. Family meal was served. Family meal, also known as staff meal, is a time when the entire restaurant staff eats together prior to dinner service. It’s an opportunity for Zuleta to not only honor his Colombian heritage, but also give some of the Latino staff a reminder of home.
“Most of the people are Mexican. They want Latin flavor — even if it is not from their country,” he said. “They are away from home, but with this food, they feel close to it. Many of them aren’t able to go home for a long time. It’s a memory. I’m bringing a taste of home. No matter where you are, home will always be with you.”
But it’s not just the Latino staff that reap the spoils from Zuleta’s nod to Latin culture. Non-Latino employees look forward to Zuleta’s endless offerings from his native country.
“The food is always really good,” said general manager Andrew Bernstein, who explained that the longtime tradition of family meal became popularized by Chef Thomas Keller in 1999 when he included a section dedicated to the staff meal in his cookbook, “The French Laundry Cookbook.” The tradition was highlighted this summer by the critically acclaimed restaurant drama, “The Bear.”
“Chef likes to make things that are comforting to him,” Bernstein said. “They (our Latino chefs) cook things they like to eat and make. It’s an important tradition. It creates a strong bond between staff.”
Many restaurant insiders say the best Latin food in Baltimore isn’t featured on menus — or even necessarily in Latin restaurants. During family meals where kitchen workers traditionally prepare a meal for the entire staff to eat before dinner service, restaurant employees say they are fed some of the best, authentic Latin dishes in town. Cooked with the same care and attention to detail that chefs apply to the normal restaurant menu, these elaborate family meals have the added zing of familial authenticity and the love that comes with it.
While there are Americanized favorites such as tacos and fajitas, there are also more genuine, homey dishes rarely seen outside of the workers’ hometowns and countries.
What makes these meals even more impressive is that they are often made by chefs who are also prepping for the day’s restaurant offerings, which creates quite a balancing act, according to Zuleta.
“All I need is more time,” Zuleta lamented earlier in the day recently when he was turning his attention from crisping the chicken skin to making cornbread.
Listen to Zuleta and other staff in the kitchen at Cinghiale
Industry experts estimate that Latinos account for anywhere from half to three-fourths of workers in Baltimore’s restaurant industry.
The tradition of family meal mirrors the extended family dinner traditions found throughout Latin America, according to María Pílar Rodríguez, executive director for the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Familia is very important to us. Going to Abuela’s and cooking that great meal is a bonding experience. We look forward to getting together,” she said. “I try to promote that when my children, grandchildren come over. I try to cook.”
She describes restaurant work as a “gateway” industry that provides numerous opportunities to new immigrants from Latin countries, whether that be ascending the ranks or transitioning into another industry.
“Being regarded as a great chef is highly thought of. If you are good, you can climb and be recognized,” she said.
The fact that Latin cuisine has such an assortment of spices and techniques also helps Latin immigrants work in a myriad of kitchens.
“For them to be able to put the flavor together, it is an easy transition,” she explained.
Here is what family meals look like at a few Baltimore restaurants:
Duck Duck Goose
Ashish Alfred, 36, couldn’t imagine operating any of his four restaurants without Latino chefs and workers. He estimates that 70% of his staff at Duck Duck Goose, a French bistro in Fells Point, are Latino.
“Immigrants feed this country. This dream I have of being a restaurateur is built on the backs of people who came here to make a better life,” he said, referencing his own mother, who used to clean hotel rooms for $50 a week when he was growing up.
Alfred believes it is important to feed the staff — especially those who may be working multiple jobs.
“It’s important for them to be well-fed. It’s important to be sharp of mind. There’s nothing dumber than a hungry cook,” Alfred said. “In Baltimore City, maybe they are working two jobs and they didn’t eat before. It would be horrible to serve foie gras and you haven’t eaten for 12 hours.”
Alfred insists that all employees eat family meal together at the large marble table in the front dining room of the restaurant.
And eat they do, according to Alfred, who rattles off a series of mouthwatering Latin dishes his staff has consumed over the years. The list includes sopa de res, a rice soup filled with sauteed and chopped vegetables — often the trim from what’s being used for mirepoix and completed with chicken carcasses so there are tender pieces of meat throughout; chaufa, which is a fried rice mostly made from the scraps from the beef tartare served during dinner service; and lomo saltado, marinated steak that is flash fried, which Alfred calls “a real treat.”
The Capital Grille
For husband and wife Omar Molina Rojas and Belem Rodriguez Habana, the family meal at The Capital Grille is an extension of what they cook at home.
“There’s a lot more (equipment) here. And at home we have more ingredients. But it doesn’t matter. It tastes the same,” said Rojas, 42, a native of Mexico who has been working at the upscale steakhouse across from the Inner Harbor for the past two years.
Rojas said the couple regularly cooks meals inspired by family recipes — in particular dishes his mother cooked.
“I make sure the flavor is good,” said Rojas, who works as a broiler.
Habana, who is the lead prep cook for the restaurant, said that her favorite part of cooking Latin dishes for co-workers is to see their reactions.
“One told me, ‘The food you make reminds me of my mom,’” she recalled. “It made me feel good.”
The overwhelming majority of workers — about 70% — at The Capital Grille are Latino, according to managing partner Jim Kinney. He echoed Alfred in saying that he couldn’t imagine operating without them. He looks forward to family meals where he said he gets to eat authentic Latin cooking.
“It’s phenomenal. It’s the simple things,” Kinney said, launching into memorable tales of the special black beans one employee makes and the “fall off the bone” carnitas made by another.
Kinney particularly loves when his chefs get inventive during family meal and cook comfort dishes, like the time one made stir-fried beef using chiles. He also loves when his chefs use chicken thighs to make hearty soups in the colder months.
“You are literally reaching into the pot and spooning out a whole piece of chicken where the meat is falling off the bone. It’s pretty awesome,” he said. “A lot of this stuff is peasant food — it’s what people had on hand. They learned to cook based on what was at their disposal.”
Kevin Smith, 35, a bartender who has worked at the restaurant for four years, puts up their family meal against any other meal in Baltimore.
“They always do a great job, and you can tell that their influence is on it,” Smith said. “It’s always authentic. It’s like they make it at home. They know what they are doing.”
Alma Cocina Latina
The Venezuelan restaurant Alma Cocina Latina, known for its artful plating, craft cocktails and abundant tropical decor, also remains fiercely authentic to its South American roots. Its owner, Irena Stein, goes as far as waiting months to hire chefs directly recruited from Venezuela on special work visas.
At the restaurant’s family meal, the staff gets treated to dishes not often found on the regular menu, according to Stein’s husband, Mark Demshak, who is also a co-owner.
“These are regional, home-cooking meals,” Demshak explained.
Demshak is quick to single out head chef David Zamudio’s arroz con pollo as a favorite family meal offering.
“I don’t know what’s in it. But it’s David’s grandmother’s recipe,” Demshak said. “It’s incredible. When we did serve it here, people went nuts. We did serve it for Restaurant Week a while ago. It’s comfort food. But what he did with it, for the restaurant, he turned it up a notch. He made it a bit more complex without being complicated.”
One of the cooks also makes an “incredible” drink concoction of watermelon and mint, according to Demshak.
“It’s just amazing. When there is some left at the end of the night, they’ll add rum to it and it will be their end-of-the-night shift drink,” he added.
Perennial James Beard Award nominee Cindy Wolf at Charleston said the key to her kitchen’s cooking are its Latino workers, who make up about 80% of her staff.
“I love them so much and they have worked for me so long. It’s what makes me (want to) go to work every day,” she said, referring to one long-term sous-chef as being like a son. “They are the hardest workers, and they are great people. They are great problem solvers. There is not one complaint. They take everything in stride. There is great ingenuity. They’re great people who love what they do and are a joy to work with.”
Working with her Latino staff members has been not only been pleasurable but educational for Wolf, who was a 2022 semifinalist in the “Outstanding Chef” category for the James Beard Award — considered one of the most coveted recognitions in the food world. She is a 14-time nominee for the awards.
“The food that my guys make is absolutely delicious,” she said. “It has expanded my palette. It has exposed me to different spices and flavors.”
A braised pork dish made by a Latino employee during family meal became such a favorite for Wolf that she requested the dish be made for her birthday one year. Two decades ago, she was also inspired to add a rabbit tamale to her menu because of the Latin influence in her kitchen. She currently serves a salsa verde with venison on her menu. She attributes that to the foods she ate during family meal.
“I am so thankful for these guys. Why not incorporate it (their cooking) into my dishes?” Wolf said.
‘It’s getting better now’
For many Latino restaurant workers in Baltimore, the Trump administration was a dark time. The administration’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration, including toward people who’d been in the United States for decades, struck fear among many working in the industry, according to a number of restaurant insiders.
“It was absolutely disgusting,” Alfred said. “What the fuck are people going to do? You’re going to cook your own food and cut your own grass. It makes me that angry.”
He added, “I have had front-row seats to people being very scared of ‘immigrations’ from the time I was a young boy. People were scared.”
Demshak recalled the tension that existed during that period. He referenced “A Day Without Immigrants,” a 2017 protest and boycott that sought to show the important role played by immigrants and to protest President Donald Trump’s border wall plans and his threat to deport those in the country without authorization. A slew of Baltimore restaurants, including Alma Cocina Latina and Charleston, closed that day in support of the protest.
“If they would have raided us, we would have lost three quarters of the kitchen,” Demshak said. “They (anti-immigration supporters) don’t realize that the country runs on immigrants.”
As a result of mass deportations and anti-immigration rhetoric, Wolf was disheartened to see her beloved staff paralyzed with fear during Trump’s reign.
“There was relief when (Democrat Joe) Biden became president. There was some relief and hope. Hope came back,” she said.
Maiya Lonesome, the executive pastry chef for Foreman Wolf restaurants, said she noticed a difference in the behavior of her Latino co-workers during the Trump years.
“They were withdrawn,” said Lonesome, who is Black. “It’s getting better now.”
Despite the change in administration, fear still exists.
Many of the Latino workers interviewed — regardless of their immigration status — declined to discuss their experience during the Trump administration.
Back at Cinghiale
On a recent summer day, the staff of 30 selected from a hearty buffet of offerings — about an hour before doors opened for the evening. The next day was the start of Baltimore Restaurant Week and workers were expecting a busier-than-normal crowd. Zuleta knew this and prepared a spread that would put them in a pleasant mood and set the tone for the week to come.
“I want to show them that I care,” he said. “I want them to show me that they love it. I love working here.”
“We try and keep things interesting,” said sous-chef Tim Lupton, who added that he likes when Zuleta has cooked Latin meals. “It would get boring if you did the same thing.”
Lupton called Latino workers the “lifeblood” of the restaurant industry. Lupton, who is white, said that speaking Spanish is essentially a requirement in kitchens because of the large number of Latin workers.
“This entire kitchen is Spanish-speaking,” he said, adding that he even incorporates Latin flavors when he’s tasked with making the family meal.
Nate Hellstern, a bartender at Cinghiale, said family meal is one of his favorite aspects of work.
“You get a lot of love out of the meal,” said Hellstern, who is white, recounting the time Zuleta transformed a short rib into the “delicious” filling for street-style tacos. “The Latin meals are definitely what you don’t get elsewhere. The flavors are all there. That’s usually one of my favorite meals.”
Lonesome, the executive pastry chef, said she will stick around work on occasion so that she can eat the family meal.
“I’ll do paperwork or find some excuse to stay behind,” she said with a laugh. “It’s great. I would expect nothing less.”
Lonesome said that the family meal is Zuleta’s opportunity to truly showcase his culinary talents.
“I feel like he is the most comfortable” sharing his culture, she said.
Baltimore Banner Digital Editor Jamyla Krempel contributed audio production to this story.