A Chef’s Journey: From El Salvador To Philadelphia With Jorge Chicas of Red Owl Tavern

I could break this interview up into two parts. The first half would be comprised of the success Chef Jorge Chicas has achieved in kitchens on both sides of the U.S. The other half would be his life growing up in San Miguel, El Salvador and what he experienced of the civil war there ahead of coming here illegally and getting his U.S. citizenship. A life, however, is a seamless whole. 

Brion J. Shreffler: When did you start cooking? 
Jorge Chicas: Started cooking when I came to the states. My mom and my dad were in the restaurant business. My mom was a prep cook and she worked for Great American Restaurants in Virginia. My dad was basically jumping around from place to place in different restaurants. When I came to the states I was thirteen. We had a civil war going on in El Salvador, so they didn’t want me growing up over there. I had gotten drafted there a couple times already. We decided to make the move to the states. My parents went first, separately. They managed to get me out. Once we came here, I didn’t really want to live here. I wanted to stay in El Salvador. My father automatically put me in school with my sister and brother. I was not too happy about it. So one day he basically came up to me and said, well you know if you don’t wanna go to school, you’re gonna work. I’m gonna get you a job. [Laughs] Sure enough, I got into the restaurant business as a dishwasher.

How old were you?
Thirteen. Washing dishes at an Italian restaurant. Geppetto Restaurant [now closed] in Bethesda, Maryland. Beautiful Italian restaurant. I was a dishwasher for about three months and then I started making pizzas. Then I was cooking pizzas, and then I was making salads. I really enjoyed learning the new and different things, the different responsibilities that you had within the kitchen. The kitchen manager told me that I should consider going into culinary school. I didn’t really pay that much attention to it. I was working. I was going to school at the same time. My paychecks, my dad was basically taking them. He was like, you know you have to pay for your housing, we need to pay rent, we need to get food for the house. I’m like, ah, fine. And he would give me like forty bucks a week [laughs]. My allowance. I stayed in that restaurant for about a year. Then I went on to work for Marriot. I was [at fourteen] a host, a busser, a server, a prep cook, cook, the a.m. cook—we used to do breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had a buffet as well. I would set up the buffet. I did everything.

Chef Jorge Chicas. courtesy of Red Owl Tavern. Kylie Flett.

Chef Jorge Chicas. Courtesy of Red Owl Tavern. Kylie Flett.

What time would you go into work?
I was going to school in the morning and then I would go into work at three/three-thirty in the afternoon and then work till midnight. Weekends I worked day and night. Usually eight o’clock in the morning till probably eight/nine o’clock at night. I was the first one out, working a double on the weekends. Now that I started working, I thought about how beneficial it was for me to be in school. So I decided to stay in school, but work. I left the house at the age of fourteen. Got into an argument with my dad because of the money situation [laughs]. I’m like, no, I’ll do fine on my own. With another server, we managed to get an apartment. I had a couple roommates.

How old were your roommates?
Those guys were 18 and 21. They didn’t know better. They didn’t know how old I was. I told them, can I get a room? I’ll pay you rent. Done [laughs]. I stayed there for another year. Then I moved to…I started working for Capital Restaurant Concepts. They opened a Paolo’s restaurant in Rockville, Maryland. That’s the first restaurant that I’ve ever worked where I’ve actually had chefs. They had a chef. Five sous chefs. A pastry chef.

You were fifteen by then?
Yeah, that was 1988. I was wowed by it. Everything was made in house. I got more inspired by working with people who actually knew what they were doing and doing everything from scratch.

What was something you started doing from scratch for the first time?
Pizza. Making the dough from scratch. We had a wood fire oven. That was a completely different, very unique experience that was unheard of back then—at least in my world. And then to be able to work with those guys…I stayed there for a long time. I was there for about three years. They kept offering me the sous chef position. I kept declining it because my goal was to basically get my high school diploma. Once I got my high school diploma, they offered me the job again and I took it. So I was the sous chef.

Did you go to culinary school?
No. While I was working as a sous chef at Paolo’s in Rockeville, Maryland, I started taking classes at La Academie in Gaithersburg, Maryland for one year. After that, I took a weeklong continuing education class at the C.I.A. in New York.
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