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The Secret Weapons Behind the Country's Top Restaurants

Meet the unsung heroes of the food and drink scene
March 18, 2015
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by Zagat Staff

When it comes to the success of a restaurant or bar, executive chefs and general managers usually get all the attention. But as even they will tell you, it's the people who quietly keep things running from day to day who truly deserve the glory. Today, we're turning the spotlight onto the crack team of butchers, barbacks and maitre d's who help the country's top restaurants thrive.

New York City

Name: Elizabeth Mercado

Title: Head of pasta program for Altamarea Group (MareaAi 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.

Marea: 240 Central Park S.; 212-582-5100
Ai Fiori: 400 Fifth Ave.; 212-613-8660

Chicago

Name: Luis Pedroza

Title: Head shucker at Shaw’s Crab House

Stats: This oyster expert has taken the title of Chicago’s fastest oyster shucker for several years at Frontier’s annual Mother Shucker competition. His record stands at 23 oysters in one minute. His favorite oyster is the Raspberry Point, and his favorite way to enjoy oysters is with a little lemon and a dash of Tabasco.

Secrets to success: "Be patient with shucking. Don't rush. Be careful not to cut the meat, just detach from the shell."

Future plans: Pedroza has been working at Shaw’s for over 14 years, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up to head shucker. He plans to continue shucking and has trained over 20 employees at Shaw's and other Lettuce Entertain You restaurants to do the same.

21 E. Hubbard St.; 312-527-2722

Philadelphia

Name: Drew Chermack 

Title: Server at Pub & Kitchen

Stats: During his 50-55 hours a week at this laid-back Rittenhouse favorite, Chermack not only works the floor, but also is the one who arrives early to shovel the sidewalks, helps load in liquor deliveries and jumps on the dish line to help get it caught up. He’s been a cook as well as a barback, with time spent at The Diving Horse and Fitler Dining Room as well as P&K.

Secrets to success: “I like hard work, so I never say no to anything that’s put in front of me. In the kitchen you get to immerse yourself in the work, but I also enjoy the face-to-face of front-of-the-house jobs.”

Future plans: “I’ve been in the food biz since I started cooking at Sly Fox in Phoenixville when I was 15 or 16, and I definitely plan to make a career in this industry. Right now my only definite plan is to spend next summer at The Diving Horse again.”

1946 Lombard St.; 215-545-0350

San Diego

Name: Alex Rios

Title: Oyster shucker at Ironside Fish & Oyster

Stats: As part of the opening team for Ironside Fish & Oyster, Rios quickly worked his way up from dishwasher to oyster shucker. Not bad for a person who applied to help pay off college student loans and never had an oyster in his life prior to this current gig. Now you can find Rios dividing his day between receiving product (one hour), cleaning and odd jobs (one hour), setting up the raw bar (two and a half hours) and shucking oysters (three and a half hours).

Secrets to success: For Rios, it means working hard, asking questions and taking executive chef's Jason McLeod's words to heart: "If you're too big for small jobs, then you're too small for big jobs." In addition, Rios is always open to new challenges and it's because of that he's excelled in the kitchen. 

Future Plans: "I intend on taking over as executive chef as Consortium Holdings one day whenever Jason [McLeod] retires. In terms of my near future, I plan on continuing to learn as much as I can in the kitchen and just to keep improving and to be better than I was the day before."

1654 India St.; 619-269-3033

Houston

Name: Isaias Praxedes

​Title: Head barback at Anvil Bar and Refuge

Stats: Praxedes — who works 50 to 55 hours per week — cranks out as much 20 liters of juice per night and picks and sorts up 30 lbs of mint per week. A jack-of-all-trades, he also doubles as Anvil's IT guy, plumber, ice-machine tech and food runner. As if that’s not enough, he cleans, helps out with general construction and has the foresight to replace essentials (liquor, juices, syrups, etc.) before they run out.

Secrets to success: "I think Izzy's value can be summed up in this example. The man brings his leaf blower from home every Saturday. He cleans the grounds of Anvil before he ever clocks in. He loves this bar as much, if not more, than anyone else who works here. He’s the heart and soul, ” says general manager Terry Williams.

Future plans: Retire with his wife, two kids and dogs.

1424 Westheimer Rd.; 713-523-1622

Miami

Name: Zachary Zinkand

​Title: Raw-bar manager​ at Captain Jim's Seafood Market Restaurant

Stats: After working 9 AM-4 PM Monday-Friday as a cook, Zachary goes into Captain Jim's Tuesday-Sunday from 5 PM-close, cleaning fish for the market and kitchen, as well as keeping the raw bar and fish market fully stocked and iced at all times. 

Secrets to success: "The passion I have for fishing. I am a longtime fisherman who breathes the ocean. To work for a seafood market and restaurant allows me to be around what I love the most. When someone walks into Captain Jim's and asks a question, I have the knowledge and skills to give them exactly what they want."

Future plans: "Go into commercial fishing, become a captain, run my own commercial fishing boat and own my own fishing business."

12950 W. Dixie Highway; 305-892-2812

Washington, DC

Name: Ofny Vasquez

Title: Barback at Bar PX

Stats: The native of Guatemala works nearly 40 hours a week — even though the bar is only open Wednesdays through Saturdays. And while pioneer mixologist Todd Thrasher is the one with the name recognition, many regulars insist that only Vasquez shakes and stirs their cocktails. 

Secrets to success: Vasquez humbly says, "I show up and do what I'm supposed to do 100%." But coworkers paint him as a caring, polite, dedicated and incredibly hard-working team member who can do every job at the bar. We hear Thrasher won't hire anyone without Vasquez's stamp of approval. 

Future plans: He dreams of opening his own small bar, a place similar to PX — no TVs, focusing on classic cocktails made with outstanding ingredients — where he can continue to impress and take care of his customers.

728 King St.; 703-299-8385

Denver

Name: Delfina Serrano

Title: “Kitchen Mama” at TAG

Stats: Serrano (just like the chile) started on dish duty at TAG on the day it opened in 2009, and she's the longest-tenured employee, never having missed a single day of work save for her vacation time. Completely self-taught, Serrano makes all the potstickers and fresh pastas; she breaks down all the fish and meats; and she makes the gnocchi, the stocks and the sushi rice. "She's the backbone of TAG and TAG Restaurant Group. You name it, she does it," says exec chef and owner Troy Guard.

Secrets to success: Serrano was named the TAG "Rock Star Employee of 2014," beating out 250 other staff members in the TAG Restaurant Group, an empire of seven food temples. She's the mother of two and three months pregnant, "and she’s still the hardest working employee we have," says Guard, adding that while she has a motherly approach, "everyone knows she’s a badass." In addition, Serrano is responsible for getting the prep crews in line at every new restaurant that Guard opens.

Future plans: Continue to work her way up the ladder.

1441 Larimer St.; 303-996-9985

Seattle

Name: Josh Nebe

Title: Sausage specialist at Radiator Whiskey

Stats: Creates specials, including a Northern Thai creation that was a big hit. He prefers to make small batches like 50 hot dogs at a time, to help maintain the quality. His Manhattan-style lamb chowder hits the menu this week, and look for the return of those fab franks next week.  

Secrets to success: "Books. I love reading; it's part of the reason I became a cook. My father has always given me books. He's probably the greatest home cook I know and he pushes me very hard. I also inherited my mother's cookbook collection, and every week I bring in a new cookbook to work, saying it's my favorite cookbook ever. I get kidded about that."

Future plans: "I really want to open up a restaurant bringing German food to this city, take something traditional recipes and turning them into something that's loved by Americans. There's so many cool things you can do with German cooking."

94 Pike St.; 206-467-4268

Austin

Name: Julia Poplawsky

Title: Head butcher at Dai Due (both the supper club and butcher shop)

Stats: With her team, she goes through a whole cow, two pigs, two whole venison, 70 chickens and 20 rabbits each week.

Secrets to success: While working at 4505 Meats in San Francisco, Poplawsky read about Jesse Griffiths and asked to stage with him. From there, she decided to move back to her native Texas to help Griffiths on his big brick-and-mortar adventure.

Future plans: Poplawsky wants to do more outreach and education in the butchery and food world.

2406 Manor Rd.; 512-524-0688

Los Angeles

Name: Azarias Jiminez

​Title: Bread baker at Republique

Stats: Jiminez was originally a dishwasher at the restaurant and started baking bread after Margarita Manzke taught him everything he needed to know. He makes about 300 to 400 loaves a bread a day, including baguettes, demi-baguettes, pain lavin, fruit breads, burger buns and ciabatta. "Few restaurants give away free bread anymore, and our bread has become one of things that people say is their favorite," says Walter Manzke. (Seriously, if you haven't had the baguette with French butter, you're missing out.) "It's definitely one of the most important things we prepare in the restaurant, and we couldn't do it without Azarias."

Secrets to success: Learn fast, be fast.

Future plans: Not only does he bake bread daily, he's a DJ and hopes to become an international DJ.

624 S. La Brea Ave.; 310-362-6115

Atlanta

Name: Bob Bost

Title: Host at ONE. Midtown Kitchen

Stats: With his "booming voice and uncanny ability to remember diners’ names," according to the restaurant, Bost has been the host since the first day the restaurant opened its doors in 2002​. ​

Secrets to success: "Listen more, talk less. Smile, smile, smile, even when you don't want to," says Bost. "Greet guests as if they were old friends — hopefully over the years that's what they will become.  Always have an alternate 'can-do plan' so that you can give everyone an option instead of saying 'no.' Every day at ONE. is different, and when our guests part the curtains, I must set the tone for a fantastic meal."

Future plans: Bost is a Screen Actors Guild member, and his true passion is acting and entertainment. "But until I am tapped for an incredible role," he says, "I will continue giving some of my best performances in the hospitality industry."

559 Dutch Valley Rd.; 404-892-4111

Boston

Name: Louis Risoli 

Title: Maitre d' and cheese expert at L'Espalier

Stats: Risoli is a true institution in Boston fine dining. He has been at the Back Bay gem for 32 years, longer than even its current chef-owner, Frank McClelland. During that time, he guesses he's helped coordinate "a thousand-plus" marriage proposals. And as one of the city's few true fromagers, he serves about 22 pounds of five-year aged Gouda, a guest favorite, weekly. 

Secrets to success: In an age where white-tablecloth restaurants are a dying breed, Risoli is a graceful reminder of Boston dining's elegant history. "I love providing our guests with an experience that is great while it is happening and that will be memorable for a lifetime," says Risoli. "This requires a big-picture consistency, but also attention to every detail and room for fun surprises."

Future plans: Staying abreast of the best "local and extraordinary" cheese varieties, and helping special-occasion-style dining to live on, we hope, for many more years to come. 

774 Boylston St.; 617-262-3023

Dallas

Name: Rolando Garcia

Title: Senior kitchen manager at Pecan Lodge

Stats: Garcia helps oversee the mass quantities of smoked meat at this Dallas BBQ hot spot. “We do around 3,500 pounds of brisket a week, we cook 289 racks of ribs in a week, and we go through 300 pork butts on a normal weekend.” Garcia also checks in on the Deep Ellum barbecue joint’s smokers to ensure they’re maintaining a consistent temperature.

Secrets to success: “My secret to success is having lots of dedication and hard work," he tells us. "Also you have to love what you do no matter and always give 100% of 100%.”

Future plans: Garcia hopes to one day open his own healthy breakfast restaurant

2702 Main St.; 214-748-8900

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