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

What came next?
I was there for a year and they moved me to Georgetown Seafood Grill where they gave me the executive chef position. That is a really small place. A 50-seat restaurant. I was supposed to be working with the corporate chef to get the place organized and really do the recipes right and train the staff. But he was bouncing all over the place so I basically did everything on my own. It was a learning experience for me.

How much of a seafood background did you have at that point?
I didn’t have any. None whatsoever. To be honest, the beauty of this business is, you’re always learning. There’s always something new. Working in Paolo’s, it was an Italian concept. I knew everything—what I was taught about Italian food, but I was still green. Same thing when I started working in that seafood restaurant. It was a completely different thing for me. It was like, ok, great. What do I need to do? I started buying books, trying to figure out what kind of…talking to my seafood vendors—what kind of fish you have. And my thing was, I want something different. I want something new. I wanna be challenged. What else do you have?

Despite not having worked in a seafood restaurant, you were still comfortable with it?
Of course. I wanted to learn more. We’re making crabcakes in house. They’re really good, but how can we make them better. I’ve always had that.

How did you make them better?
That was the thing. They were putting a little bit too much breadcrumbs so we got it to a point where we were just putting enough to hold it together. Instead of pan searing, we were putting them in the broiler. So, you wouldn’t touch them. The only thing, you’d put them on the sizzling platter in the broiler. They came out, they went to the plate. By the time you grabbed them with the fork, you saw the lumps of meat, nice and fluffy and flavorful.

What were some of the fish at the time that were new and different that you started serving?
For me, I remember playing around with wolfish, tilefish, different types of snappers depending on the season. Monkfish. I remember working with a Hawaiian company. They had a lot of different options. So I was always, what do you have? What’s different? What can you send me that I can put as a special for the weekend? Those type of things.

How long were you in that position?
A couple of years. Then they wanted to move the restaurant to downtime D.C. They offered me the chef position. I never opened a restaurant before. I felt, you know what, I’ll go as a second in command. Sure enough, I got the experience of opening a place, but I was a sous chef. After that, I was part of the opening for all of the restaurants in the company.

What was the experience you picked up in helping to open your first place?
For me, it was more being afraid of what kind of the challenge and not knowing what it was going to be like. After the first time, I was like, I can do this. It was a matter of being organized and making sure you had your staff, your schedules. I do all that anyway, so I was like, it’s nothing different.

How long did you stay there?
I was there for about a year. Then they moved me to Paolo’s in Towson, Maryland [now closed]. That company, I worked with them for a total of 11 years. The last project I had with them, I went to—the owner is Lebanese, so I spent a couple months in Lebanon. Beirout. I went through some of the restaurants that he had over there.

How many is that?
Back then, he had about twelve restaurants and four hotels. I went and visited four of his restaurants. He was opening an American steakhouse. I helped with the opening of that. I helped with a couple changes that he wanted to do at another restaurant. Then I spent most of my time at the traditional Lebanese restaurants. The idea was to come back with ideas for the Lebanese restaurant that he wanted to open in D.C. So, I came back, I opened one in Detroit, one in Vegas, one in D.C. Leyla Lebanese restaurant.
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