Meet 16 Unsung Culinary Heroes Behind Your Favorite Restaurants

Behind-the-scenes all-stars from across the country
December 13, 2016
by Zagat Staff

What would a top-rated pasta restaurant be without perfectly rolled cavatelli? Or an award-winning Mexican joint without hundreds of freshly made tortillas? When it comes to culinary success, executive chefs and general managers usually get all the attention (and awards). But today we're turning the spotlight on the unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes that truly make restaurants a success: the meatball rollers, tortilla makers, porters, food runners and prep cooks. Read on to hear their stories.

Name: Cecilia Alvarez

Title: Pasta maker, Garrison in Washington, DC

Stats: According to chef-owner Rob Weland, Alvarez easily filled the role of staff superstar from the get-go. “She showed up with her rubber gloves the day we took over the restaurant space from a previous business…and she hasn’t stopped since,” he says. “Cecilia shows up early every morning, opens up the restaurant and single-handedly hand mixes and rolls out every scrap of pasta we serve at Garrison, including forming every single tortellini and ravioli by hand. By the time the rest of the staff shows up, there are hundreds of perfect circles of pasta lined up on our marble expediting station, and she is pinching them all into neat, tidy tortellinis with a cheery hello for everyone.” In addition, Weland notes that she has been invaluable with recruiting other hardworking team members with positive attitudes.

Secrets to success: Alvarez, who started working in restaurants when she arrived from El Salvador 12 years ago, says her drive stems from job satisfaction, pure and simple. “The secret is maybe love for the job. My boss and everybody here is nice,” she says. “I love to make the dough. I love everything!” she laughs.

Future plans: The pasta maven, who learned the craft working at Listrani’s in McLean, VA, is such an integral part of the fabric at Garrison that it’s no surprise her dream is to one day become the chef there.

Name: Zach Beauchesne​

Title: Production chef, Brider in Denver, CO

Stats: From washing dishes at a relative’s breakfast joint in small-town Maine as a teen to working his way up through the ranks at legendary Aspen resort The Little Nell, 29-year-old Zach Beauchesne had tried his hand at nearly every kitchen task there is before arriving at Brider, a fast-casual rotisserie and deli in Denver owned by acclaimed restaurateurs Steve Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton, a year ago. Except, that is, for much baking. And now that he’s responsible for making dozens upon dozens of bagels and English muffins from scratch every day, he says, “I think I’ve found what I was looking for.” Although he still does a little bit of everything as production chef — throwing pizzas, rolling porchetta, building stocks — it’s working with dough that gets him out of bed at 4 AM. “I didn’t even care for bagels until I started making them myself,” he laughs. “You start appreciating the shape, the aroma.”

Secrets to success: Sheer passion for and dedication to his craft. “One thing about bread is that it’s always changing,” he explains. “There’s usually a variable, and I like figuring out what it is,” so he spends the little free time he has “reading night and day” to further his education.

Future plans: “Wherever baking can take me, that’s where I want to be,” Beauchesne says. Naturally he dreams of one day running his own bakery, but “in the short term I want to give it my all at Brider and do as much as I possibly can there” in return for the support he's received from his coworkers. Spoken like a true team player. 

Name: Leticia Alcaraz Cabuto

Title: Prep station cook, Knife in Dallas, TX

Stats: Cabuto has worked for Highland Hotel for 10 years and was part of the opening team at Knife. In addition to her daily duties chopping vegetables, making the fresh pastas and cooking family meals for the staff, her biggest claim to fame is her tomato soup. Customers, coworkers and even chef John Tesar rave about the stuff, but she alone holds the secrets to the recipe. 

Secrets to success: Her bosses praise her for her reliability and positive attitude. She says the secret to a successful dish comes from "heart, effort and dedication," as well as trial and error until the recipe reaches perfection.

Future plans: In Highland Hotel and Knife alike, Cabuto has found a place where her contributions are appreciated and valued. She hopes to continue to improve and achieve greatness within the company. As for that soup, she says, "Hopefully one day it can be recognized at a higher level." TV producers and cookbook writers, take note.

Name: Edgar Coronado

Title: Prep cook, Le Diplomate in Washington, DC

Stats: As Le Diplomate's main french fry guy, Coronado is the reason why many a Washingtonian has to hit SoulCycle on the regular. In his three-plus years on the job, Coronado has been in charge of every step of making these perfect pommes frites — from receiving the 50-pound cases of potatoes through the entire prep process of “rinsing, punching, blanching and cooling the potatoes, and then storing and organizing them for service.” The fries end up on plates with some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, including the steak frites, the moules frites and the burger, which is regularly counted among the most beloved burgers in town. It’s estimated that over the years, Coronado has cooked 11,146 cases of potatoes, which adds up to 557,300 pounds of spuds.

Secrets to success: “Simple,” he says. “Success in your job always comes down to your willingness and drive to work hard. My greatest source of pride is my work ethic and how I have been able to contribute to Le Diplomate.” He says he loves working with this team of talented chefs, learning from them and counting them among his friends.

Future plans: For now, Coronado is content to stay at Le Diplomate working on his English and building a life in DC. “My goals are to continue on that path of growth moving forward,” he says.

Name: Juan Cusco

Title: Prep cook/meatball roller, The Meatball Shop in NYC

Stats: The wildly popular Italian mini-chain, founded by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow has grown from one small LES shop to six locations across NYC in six short years and the duo have even become national celebrities, starring on shows like CNBC's Consumed and FYI's Food Porn. But behind their massive success is this man: Juan Cusco, one of several prep cooks (including brother Wilson) who has been rolling meatballs for the restaurant since the very beginning. Still employed at the original Lower East Side location, Cusco rolls hundreds of meatballs a day, sometimes as many as 1,200, depending on catering needs. Having immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador seven years ago, Cusco began working here almost immediately upon arriving.

Secrets to success: "Follow the recipe," Cusco says half-jokingly. When asked if he needs the scoop to measure each ball Cusco admits: "I can tell by looking at it," [if it's the perfect size and shape]. Also, don't wet your hands before rolling, he advises.

Future plans: Cusco aspires to be a manager or chef and to improve his English. "Daniel has given me so many great opportunities here and I've learned so much, I want to keep getting better."

Name: Jose Hernandez

Title: Prep cook, Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC

Stats: Hernandez joined the kitchen team as a dishwasher in January 1984, working for a year before rising to the ranks of pasta maker. According to the folks at Old Ebbitt, the restaurant sells some 200 orders of pasta per day — cannelloni, ravioli, fettuccini, linguini and garganelli, which translates to more than 72,000 orders per year that Hernandez has made for diners.

Secrets to success: Hernandez is as humble as he is hard-working. “There is no secret, just hard work,” he says. He’s most proud of how consistent the product is, and he appreciates the sense of accomplishment he gets from feeding so many. “At the end of the day, I feel really good,” he says.

Future plans: Why mess with a good thing? Hernandez says he’s happy where he is, learning from chef Sal Ferro and building upon his pasta proficiency. “I started with just housemade fettuccini and cannelloni,” says. “Over the last few years, we’ve added new pasta on the menu like ravioli, pappardelle and garganelli. I hope to continue to learn more.”

Name: Martin Hernandez

Title: Porter extraordinaire, Uchi in Austin, TX

Stats: After working for Austin Countertops for eight years as a production manager, Martin was one of 35 people to apply for the porter position after he heard on the radio that Uchi was hiring. He was hired in 2008 and has been with Uchi ever since, arriving to the restaurant brimming with positive energy each day. "Martin always has a smile on his face and brightens everyone's day with his positive attitude," says chef de cuisine Michael Castillo. "He is extremely caring and considerate, always thinking of others and trying to lighten their load in any way he can."

In addition to setting up and cleaning the dining room every day, he takes care of putting away all incoming dry orders and has a rotating schedule for deep cleaning areas of the kitchen. When he finishes his tasks early, he always checks in with the kitchen to see what prep work he can take on before dinner service. "He doesn't consider limitations on his job description," says GM Jenn Morton. "Martin works another job at night, but he always puts the team first and stays late to help out when needed."​

Secrets to success: "My family keeps me motivated daily," says Martin. "I have four kids and want to pay for their college. I like working at Uchi because I feel comfortable with the people who work here and I'm happy to come to work everyday."

Future plans: "I want to keep working until I can retire," says Martin. "Then I'd like to move to Malaga, Spain and reunite with my mom's family there."

Name: Daisy Lopez

Title: Line cook, Compass Rose Bar and Kitchen; and prep cook, Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC

Stats: Owner Rose Previte says Lopez has been with her since the beginning and basically owns the khachapuri station (a traditional Georgian flatbread). “It has its own station because it's our most popular dish,” she says. Since opening in 2014, the restaurant has made well over 20,000 khachapuris, with Lopez cranking out the bulk of them. “We sell around 30 a night, and she works the station five days a week,” Previte says. Lopez, who also holds down a second job as a prep cook at Old Ebbitt Grill, says she’s proud of bringing delicious Georgian flatbreads filled with cheese, butter and an egg to the masses. “It's such a famous dish that everyone likes,” she says.

Secrets to success: “Strong arms,” she says. “Rolling the khachapuri takes strong arms. I already had them when I started but they have definitely gained strength here.” And, of course, there’s the essential work ethic likely shared by everyone on this list: “I'm not afraid to work very hard.”

Future plans: Lopez says she’d like to return to El Salvador and open a small cafe. “I would cook all my own food for people,” she says. Previte says Lopez makes an amazing sopa de pollo that will probably become a winter special at the restaurant. And who knows? Maybe she’ll introduce El Salvador to khachapuri.

Name: Amadeo Mora

Title: Food runner, Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House in Chicago, IL

Stats: Basically the circulatory system of the restaurant, the food runner is integral to ensuring an even flow between the back of the house and the front. It requires rigorous dexterity, efficiency and communication skills, to name just a few. And at a restaurant as fast-paced and consistently busy as Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House in Chicago's Gold Coast, it requires someone with plenty of stamina; 19 years worth of stamina, in some cases. Amadeo Mora has been a food runner at the restaurant since opening day, and it’s this experience and familiarity that helps him do his job effectively, especially since Hugo clocks anywhere between 200 and 300 covers on an average night. “I’ve worked with our line cooks for a very long time, so I know how they work, and we work together as a team,” Mora explains. “If I can keep the cooks happy, it has a domino effect that translates all the way to the customer.” 

Secrets to success: “My first of many secrets is to make sure you respect everyone,” he says. “Another secret of mine is to remain in assistant mode at all times. If someone needs help, I am there, and if I can’t personally help them, I’ll find someone who can.” The key to success for Mora is operating like a team, operating under the ethos that no one person is more or less valuable than another. And then there’s his last secret: “My last secret is to always stay optimistic, no matter the situation.”

Future plans: Even though he’s been with the company for a substantial period of time, Mora doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since he’s doing what he loves. “Only time will tell where I end up in the future, but whatever happens I’d love to stay within Gibsons Restaurant Group,” he says, adding that he’d like to become a manager or a trainer one day. “I love to see people’s excitement when they come into Hugo’s, and being a part of that excitement is very rewarding, it makes all the hard work really worth it.” 

Name: Henry Morgan

Title: Hummus spinner, Dizengoff in Philadelphia, PA

Stats: On busy days, Philly’s buzziest hummusiya goes through a whopping six gallons of the good stuff. Morgan’s day begins at 6 AM, blending batches of fresh tahini and then cooking overnight-soaked chickpeas for Dizengoff’s signature silky hummus. Over the course of the day, Morgan mixes up a batch an hour to ensure both freshness and consistency. Working in the restaurant’s open kitchen, Morgan has plenty of interaction with lunch-hour hummus fans and he’s not shy about doling out recommendations from the ever-evolving menu.  

Secrets to success: To ward off hummus making monotony, Morgan collaborates on seasonal toppers like coffee-spiced beef and beets with pistachios. “Obviously, one secret is keeping the menu fresh, changing things up as much as possible,” Morgan says. For a few special regulars, Morgan will create off-the-menu items using ingredients from next-door neighbor Abe Fisher’s supplies.  

Future plans: “I’ve been really having a lot of fun,” Morgan explains. “Everyone here is so passionate and really pushes us to keep things fresh, and are really supportive. I plan on sticking with them for a while.”

Name: Jody Morris

Title: Line cook, Bookstore Bar & Cafe in Seattle, WA

Stats: After spending most of his adult working life as a general contractor, Jody Morris decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a chef. After finishing up culinary school at South Seattle College, he landed at Downtown’s Bookstore Bar & Cafe, working alongside chef Eric Rivera. Jody quickly became known as a ‘culinary monster’ in the kitchen, breaking down 30-pound cases of hanger steaks in under an hour, starting a smoked food program (complete with salmon, trout, wild mushrooms and even cranberries) and taking on any task with gusto. “He is completely essential to the success of this kitchen and is the heartbeat of the team,” says Rivera.  

Secrets to success: Curiosity and the drive to learn. “The thing about Jody is that even if he doesn’t know how to do something, he will research that topic as much as possible then back into work and operate at a very high level in order to complete the new tasks, it’s great to watch,” says Rivera.

Future plans: Morris aspires to open a smokehouse in Seattle.

Name: Marta Ortega

Title: Mole maker, Hugo's in Houston, TX

Stats: For many diners, mole is either a love it or hate it proposition, but for Marta, it's a way of life. Growing up in Puebla, Mexico, her grandparents taught her the art of creating her signature sweet and earthy sauce of chocolate, chiles, spices and plantains. She makes a weekly 40-pound batch on Tuesdays (twice a week during the holidays) combining eight tablets of chocolate, two pounds each of chile pasilla, chile mulato and chile ancho peppers and 15 plantains along with star anise, cinnamon and other spices. She has worked for cousin Hugo Ortega for 26 years and in her present position since Hugo’s opened 14 years ago. Her favorite ways to enjoy mole are in traditional preparations of rice and beans at weddings or with tamales.

Secrets to success: Marta uses exact measurements and stays true to her grandparents’ recipe to ensure authenticity and consistency. When asked whether she ever changes the recipe or adds her own tweaks she laughs and replies, “It doesn’t work that way.” She adds that understanding how to use the ingredients is what allowed her to continue making the mole so well over the years. Another claim to fame? She has never burned the recipe, not even once, which is a pretty impressive record considering she began learning the trade at age 12.

Future plans: Marta is at home in the kitchen at Hugo's and plans to remain there until she retires. 

Name: Carlos Rios

Title: Support lead, Roofers Union in Washington, DC

Stats: According to general manager Dave Delaplaine, Rios exhibits an amazing amount of leadership and maturity for being just 20 years old — even when training and guiding employees who are much older than he is. His work ethic is both appreciated and infectious. “From assisting with the constant cleaning of beer lines to training all new support staff, unfazed by any language barriers, Carlos is an amazing example to young adults,” Delaplaine says. Plus, Rios — who has worked at Roofers Union for two years — can polish a full rack of 25 glasses in one minute and 10 seconds.

Secrets to success: “Just anticipating needs, basically, and staying on task and focused,” Rios says. “Knowing where things are placed throughout the restaurant, that’s helped out a lot too. When bartenders or servers need something quickly, I’m able to run off and bring it back for them as fast as possible.”

Future plans: Rios is taking time off from college to save up money to pay for school, but his dream is to study psychology. “I want to work with younger teens going into adulthood,” he says, “and help them understand how they have to act in society. That stepping stone is what I want to be.”

Name: Juan Ruiz

Title: Line cook, Mélisse in Santa Monica, CA

Stats: Ruiz started off as a dishwasher at Mélisse​ and quickly moved up the ranks to garde manger and then pastry. While he still can and does work any station — he’s happy helping with “a little bit of everything” around the kitchen — he’s fallen in love with pastry, attributing all of his skill to the mentorship of current chef de cuisine, Ken Takayama. Right now he’s focused on making desserts from recipe development to plating. According to chef and owner Josiah Citrin, Ruiz is the “fastest person in the city, arguably the world.” He solely puts out an enormous amount of dishes on the busiest nights, up to 160, with ease. “I’ve had several guest chefs from France, Japan and New York City come in who have all wanted to take Juan back with them,” he admits. Ruiz is happy where he is.

Secrets to success: To always keep going and persevere. "I learn from my mistakes instead of letting them bother me," says Ruiz. "I believe that mistakes make you better. If you pay attention to what you did wrong, you won’t make the same mistake again. Instead, you will keep growing and get better at what you do."

Future plans: Ruiz wants to travel more and maybe open his own place down the line. But right now, he plans on sticking around Mélisse for awhile. 

Name: Evelia Sanchez

Title: Head prep cook/pasta maker, Seven Lamps in Atlanta, GA

Stats: Chef Drew Van Leuvan's welcoming spot Seven Lamps is one of Buckhead's gems, turning out stellar New American dishes in a warm and convivial space. The food draws on a number of culinary traditions, but one of the highlights is its pasta dishes. Accounting for 10% of the kitchen's total output, they're all made by Evelia Sanchez, Seven Lamps' head prep cook and pasta maker. She's been working with Van Leuvan for nine years — they met in the kitchens of the Concentrics restaurant group's One Midtown Kitchen and Trois, and when Van Leuvan decided to strike out on his own, the team stayed together. "With him I have learned a lot," says Sanchez. "Especially the hard work and dedication that goes into pasta making and the ins and outs of managing a restaurant." The creativity at work in the Seven Lamps kitchen creates pleasure for both staff and guest alike: "I love to see how surprised and appreciative guests are when they eat at the restaurant," she adds. 

Secrets to success: What's kept Sanchez motivated to stick with Van Leuvan for almost a decade? "I believe it is important to show up happy to work," she says, "and put in all your efforts and passion with everything you do. With hard work comes success and a better life."

Future plans: "I want to live every day the best I can," says Sanchez, "whether it is in my work, or my personal life as a mother and partner. I want to be the best person each day at work and with my friends and family."

Name: Edgar Valdez

Title: Pizza maker, Cane Rosso in Dallas, TX

Stats: Owner Jay Jerrier saw talent in Valdez early on, which has kept him in front of the oven at the Deep Ellum location for several years. He makes a fair amount of pizzas on a regular day, but during charity events or anniversary parties where pizzas clock in at a mere $1 apiece, he's been known to crank out 700 pizzas in a single night. It requires tremendous skill to work with the Neapolitan-style dough and the 900-degree ovens that cook a pie in less than 90 seconds, but he always puts out a consistent product. Jerrier and his team trust Valdez so much that he spearheaded the training of the team in Houston, the local chain's first venture outside of North Texas. 

Secrets to success: Just working hard and always trying to make every pizza right. No shortcuts," he says. "We make hundreds of pizzas every night, so you have to stay focused on what you are doing and not get distracted."

Future plans: "I hope I can stay at Cane Rosso and move up into a larger role in the company," Valdez says. "We are always opening new restaurants, and I want to help train pizza makers at each new location."

unsung heroes