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

So you got married out in L.A.?
The third time, I was [living] in L.A. when I met her—I mean, reconnected with her. It was a schoolmate, actually. I met her in kindergarten. We went to school all the way through sixth grade. Then I moved to the U.S. and we lost contact. Then we touched base again when I was in L.A. and traveled to El Salvador. Starting talking…and got married.

So they asked me to move to Miami and I decided to not make the move. I left the company and went and worked for Hyatt. The general manager that opened SLS went and worked for Hyatt. He was in the process of working with Chef Morimoto in taking over the food and beverage for the hotel. He felt that I already had that experience so that it would be a perfect fit for me. It was a beautiful hotel. Andaz in West Hollywood. I was like, sure, let’s do it. I was there for a year. It was a union property, which made it very difficult for the contract to get signed. They kept pushing and pushing and pushing. They delayed it so many times that at the end of the day, they managed to open the Andaz in Hawaii with Morimoto being the chef there and then he just completely didn’t want to do it because it was going to be difficult for him to do what he really wanted to do. At that point, I decided to move back to the East Coast. Went back to D.C. Did a little bit of consulting. I worked for Richard Sandoval. He wanted to open Toro Toro in D.C. and he wanted me to be the chef there. I also spoke with him about the opportunity to go to Qatar and Dubai. He had some restaurants over there. He was in the process of opening more and needed a culinary director or the opening chef. So I considered those things and I was like [laughs], Middle East—not a good thing for me. I’d rather stay here. I consulted. I worked a little bit for Great American Restaurants, the company that my mom worked for when I came to the states. Completely different style. I didn’t feel it was the right fit for me. So I decided to keep looking and I had the opportunity to work for Kimpton here. They interviewed me. I stayed at the Hotel Monaco. I think it has a lot of potential. That’s what we’re working on now.

Were you the opening chef here?
No. Guillermo Tellez was the opening chef. I think he was here for about a year. Then they were without a chef for a good eight months before I came on board. So it was a lot of work. But it was fun. It’s been two years and a few months.

But it’s not just the restaurant. You’re doing room service and more beyond that, right?
Yeah. We have 12,000 square feet of banquet space, so we do a lot of weddings. Banqueting and catering. Dining for the 263 rooms we have. We do Red Owl Tavern—the restaurant—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also have private dining spaces for the restaurant. We also have Status upstairs, the lounge. It’s more bar food. We do snacks.

How is your culinary background on display here?
For me when I came here, it was about understanding Red Owl. Red Owl was the priority. It’s a steakhouse, a tavern. We use secondary cuts. So my priority was to find good products. I wanted to make sure we worked with local farms. We get a lot of product from Lancaster and from Harley ranch in Texas.

Were they doing that before?
No. That’s something that I just basically started working with, with the meat vendors that I had. Okay, I want to know where I’m getting the product from. What farm? Is it local? If it’s coming from Arkansas or Oklahoma, it’s different. We want to promote local farms in the area. So I started working on the menu and developed the menu to a point in which we have what we have. I think that it’s been very successful. Working in banqueting and catering is different. That’s where I can kinda infuse some of the Latin American mix, some of the Mediterranean mix. Some of the backgrounds that I have. The Italian background. The American background.

I’ve had the short rib here before. What are some other things you’re referring to by secondary cuts?
Secondary cuts are the unknown cuts, basically. When we started, that’s what they wanted to do, but people were asking for regular cuts. So I did put a rib eye in there. Short rib is not something you can find anywhere. A steak house, mostly people go for a rib eye, a New York strip, or a beef tenderloin. Those are the basics, what the market is all about. Secondary cuts, we use the teres major, the hanger steak, and the skirt steak. The short ribs.

Do you focus only on beef?
No, we do different animals. We also do a pork shank, which has been really successful for us. We did a pork chop before that.

I recently had pork skirt steak for the first time after it came along with a slab of pork belly that I bought from Cappuccio’s. Incredible flavor. Super red like steak, yet with a distinct flavor. Now, I want to see if I can get a decent amount of it without buying the pork belly [it’s attached to].
It’s making it common. That’s the problem. You have to know a butcher that can actually do those cuts for you. It’s developing the relationships with those guys. That’s one of the things that I really work on. I work with Indian Ridge Provisions and Pat LaFrieda. I’m actually bringing in a couple other companies. They do more local product.

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