10 Secret Weapons Behind NYC's Top Restaurants

Meet the unsung heroes who drive the city's food scene
March 16, 2015
by Kelly Dobkin

In the NYC restaurant world, when an eatery gets a good review or a high rating, it's typically the executive chefs, owners and managers that get all the glory. But the real backbone of every restaurant is never any of these boldfaced names; it's the quiet, skillful, passionate folks who toil behind the scenes without high title or recognition, making sure that all the key elements of the restaurant are in place each night. Today, 10 of these unsung heroes will finally get their due. We scoured NYC's kitchens looking for them — everyone from a dedicated Mile End dishwasher to Michael White's low-key pasta master. Read on to hear their untold stories and learn their secrets to success. 

Photos by Liz Clayman

Name: Fei Feng Qui

Title: Expeditor, Hakkasan

Stats: One of the most important roles in the restaurant world is one that you may have never heard of: expeditor. This person operates the pass, the nerve center of the kitchen, where all plates are picked up from the chefs and taken to the table by the service staff. At a restaurant like Hakkasan that does 350-450 covers per night, serving 100 orders of dim sum to 150 tables, this role is especially key. But Fei Qui's competence in keeping the orders straight is only one component of her job: she also speaks four languages (English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Fujianese) and translates between the servers and over 60 back-of-house kitchen staff, most of whom don't speak any English.

Secrets to success: "Yelling," she jokes. Fei's quick wits and strong language skills keep the entire staff in line. Qui has worked at restaurants all over the U.S. after moving here from Fujian, China, 11 years ago. Qui's family also works in restaurants in NYC's Chinatown.

Future plans: "Get married, have kids, don’t work." She laughs. "I want to take care of my family and have my own children and teach them. My parents didn't have time to tell me what to do; they had to work."

Name: Lars Viola

Title: Oyster shucker, Lobster Place and Cull & Pistol

Stats: After moving to NYC to pursue a career in music, Long Island native Lars Viola fell into oyster shucking as a good way to "keep the lights on." He got his first gig at 14 working in a clam bar in Long Island. Now, as one of the top shuckers at Chelsea Market's seafood shop The Lobster Place and its adjacent eatery Cull & Pistol, Lars is putting his skills to the test. The seafood market and restaurant as a unit go through 14,000 oysters in a day. At one shift at Cull & Pistol, Lars might shuck anywhere between 1,000-2,000 oysters on a busy day.

Secrets to success: "Technique. I shuck in-hand and the definite secret to it is having a sharp knife," says Viola. "Other than that, being persistent and making sure that you can do the work properly and concisely. It's a monotonous job, you have to make sure you're still delivering that same quality every time."

Future plans: "I've thought a lot about starting my own oyster catering company on the weekends. I shuck at events and parties and that’s always a really good time and a fun gig."

Name: Elizabeth Mercado

Title: Head of pasta program for Altamarea Group (Marea, Ai Fiori)

Stats: Elizabeth is one of the fastest and most skillful pasta makers in the game. Just ask chef Michael White, no pasta slouch himself, who hired her 15 years ago at his former SoHo restaurant Fiamma and came to depend on Mercado to train all new recruits on the art of making perfect pasta. Mercado is responsible for making between 30-40 kilos per day in up to 20 different shapes and sometimes up to 50-60 kilos during the busiest weeks. "She’s the Michael Jordan of pasta," says White of Mercado. "She's really the backbone of what we do. We as chefs have to pause and look into the kitchen and into ourselves to make sure that we take care of the best and the brightest. Chefs are only as good as their people."

Secrets to success: For Mercado, the most important strategy is to have passion for your work.“It’s a privilege to work for Michael," she tells us. "I have learned many things here." Chef White supported Mercado through her struggle with cancer, now in remission for the last six years. "He was with me the whole time," says Mercado, who kept working through all of it.

Future plans: Elizabeth has been making pasta for 20 years in NYC, after moving here from Monterrey, Mexico. She hopes to continue learning with chef White's support and, eventually, retire.

Name: Elsa Martinez

Title: Garde manger, Union Square Cafe

Stats: Elsa Martinez, known in the kitchen affectionately as "mama," has worked at NYC icon Union Square Cafe since 1987, first on pastries and pasta and then moving up to command the garde manger station (where salads and cold dishes are prepared). Martinez is the guardian of the kitchen here: all the top chefs that rose through the ranks here had to go through Elsa's station first, everyone from Dan Kluger (ABC Kitchen) to Ben Pollinger (Oceana). "Many of the chefs come from culinary school, but most of them don’t know how to hold a knife," she tells us. USC does around 300 covers a day and Martinez is there six days a week.

Secrets to success: "Keep your head down and work, and pay attention," says Martinez, who learned how to cook from her mother in the Dominican Republic some 40+ years ago. Martinez often gives the nod to the executive chef as to whether a new recruit should move up the ranks or not.

Future plans: Martinez hopes to retire in three years. But she admits, she will probably still come into the restaurant even after retiring. "Everyone loves her here," says current executive chef Carmen Quagliata. "People come back here to visit and they all want to see Elsa."

Name: Fernando Diaz-Perez

Title: Dishwasher, Mile End Bond Street

Stats: "When Fernando takes a day off [which is almost never], this place practically falls apart," says Mile End co-owner Joel Tietolman of his longtime dishwasher. "The restaurant doesn't run without him." Not only is Fernando washing dishes, he's also making pita, managing all deliveries and jumping in on the line when things get crazy in the kitchen. The popular Bond Street location of the neo-Jewish deli churns out up to 50 deliveries a day and 150 covers per day in the restaurant.

Secrets to success: "Concentration," says Diaz-Perez. "But this job is practically routine at this point." Oh, and Fernando is also the best-dressed employee at Mile End when not in uniform. "He dresses like a pimp," says Tietolman.

Future plans: Staying right where he is at Mile End.

Name: Jenny Jones

Title: Purchasing manager, Gramercy Tavern and the soon-to-open Untitled

Stats: Jenny is in charge of purchasing all of the gorgeous produce you've been eating at Danny Meyer's farm-to-table NYC restaurant as well as the pickling program and educating all staff on the products they're serving each day. She purchases from well over 40 different farms, as the restaurant goes through over 1,000 lbs of produce a week during most of the year, and that number grows dramatically during the summer. For most of the year GT sources about 95% of its food locally, but in the winter has to source a little bit farther out. Jenny's career first began in the Peace Corps in Swaziland after graduating from University of North Carolina. After returning, she went to culinary school in New England and then moved to NYC to pursue a career in the kitchen, working for two years at Del Posto. But after injuring both her feet, working on the line all day was less realistic, but Jones deems it a natural progression anyway. "Produce and working with the farmers was the reason for getting into the field for the first place," she admits.

Secrets to success: "Being extremely flexible," Jones tells us. "Because something always gets derailed. Prior cooking experience is huge; it’s hard to know what’s really good if you don’t have a developed palate. Also if you’re not willing to go to the market and taste, there's no point."

Future plans: Jenny will take over purchasing for the upcoming Danny Meyer restaurant, Untitled, on the High Line, slated to open in May. "We don’t have access to the space yet, but right now I'm doing double duty starting to set up some of the processes there." In terms of life goals, Jones is very happy where she is but hopes to one day move to the country.

Name: Alfredo Espinosa

Title: Prep cook/fish butcher at The Cecil

Stats: Alfredo has worked with James Beard-nominated chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson for the last 10 years, following him from Jane Restaurant to his new Harlem eateries The Cecil and Minton's. Original from Morelos, Mexico, Espinoza is a masterful prep cook who can filet a fish blindfolded. In addition, Alfredo is the staff translator, in charge of training and equipment repair and can work every station in the kitchen, including the wok. Essentially he's the restaurant's indispensable jack-of-all-trades. "He could be a sous-chef or line cook, but he doesn’t want the responsibility," says Johnson. "He wants to be the guy that no one really knows that's making sure the product is consistent. He's the backbone of the restaurant​." The Cecil does between 350-500 covers on weekends and 150-200 during the week.

Secrets to success: Staying organized, says Espinoza, who also keeps the restaurant's vendors happy.

Future plans: Happy right where he is.

Name: Hector Castro

Title: Porter, Pearl & Ash

Stats: Hector has worked at the acclaimed Bowery hot spot since its opening as a porter whose job ranges from dishwashing, fixing equipment and receiving produce and beer orders. When he takes a day off, the whole restaurant feels it. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Castro used to be a sheep farmer before moving to the U.S. in 1988. There is a wide range of various produce that the restaurant orders on a daily basis to make its global, seasonal cuisine, and all of these orders pass through Castro's hands. 

Secrets to success: "Do everything right and keep your bosses happy," says Castro. He also takes great pride in his work, washing all dishes by hand, despite the presence of a dishwashing machine. 

Future plans: He hopes to retire in three years and move back home to the Dominican Republic.

Name: Laura Calabrese

Title: Line cook/beet roaster extraordinaire at Narcissa

Stats: By far one of the most popular dishes at John Fraser's vegetable-forward Bowery eatery is the rotisserie beets, and behind this signature item is 26-year-old Laura Calabrese. A year out of culinary school, she has worked various kitchen stations including garde manger (cold dishes), hot apps (her current station) and fry station, but beets are one of the most important jobs in the entire restaurant. Narcissa does around 300 covers a night on weekends and 200 on weeknights, and there's at least 40 orders of beets per night. Each beet is cooked on a spit for five hours. 

Secrets to success: "I think a key thing is cleanliness and organization, says Calabrese. "That really is going to make or break a busy night. Focus is huge too. Stay engaged in what you’re doing and taste your food."

Future plans: Hopes to move up to sous-chef and maybe even own her own restaurant one day. She's learned a lot from chef Fraser whom she says "has this very strong, deep understanding of food. He’s very passionate about details."

Name: Monica Hernandez

Title: Tortilla and huarache maker, Pampano

Stats: 24-year-old secret weapon Monica Hernandez is "small but fast" says executive chef Lucero Martinez, who oversees Hernandez's tortilla and huarache making at Richard Sandoval's Midtown Mexican spot. Hernandez, an NYC native, churns out 200 tortillas and 80 huaraches per day for both the restaurant and its quick-service kiosk. "Without Hernandez's speedy tortilla making, the restaurant would grind to a halt," says chef Martinez.

Secrets to success: "Practice and organization," says Hernandez.

Future plans: Hernandez hopes to continue to work in the restaurant and learn more.