New York Inspiration: Interview with Saúl Montiel

New York Inspiration: Interview with Saúl Montiel

As Detroit Restaurant Week winds down (and Royal Oak’s Restaurant Week starts up), I reached out to a successful and inspiring New York restaurateur to offer insight to our readers about running a restaurant, and to offer his advice to would-be restaurateurs in Michigan. Saúl’s story is a lovely mix of determination and passion that creates an enriching dining experience. Saúl’s love for his restaurant and running a small business inspires you to follow your passions.

To give you a little background, Saúl Adan Hernandez Montiel came to the United States from Atotonilco el Grande, a small town outside of the city of Pachuca in central Mexico. To help with his family’s finances, he moved to the United States in search for the “American Dream.” He initially lived in California where he worked as a painter, a gardener, and a construction worker, and then a cousin in New York City invited him to move to New York to be a dishwasher for a little more money and free food.  He made the move and then immersed himself in the restaurant business. After the move, he eventually became the executive chef at Greenwich Village-based Gusto Ristorante e Bar Americano  and part owner of the East Harlem-based Lexington Social.

Along the way, he had the good fortune to work for Chef Jodi Williams (now a television personality on the Food Network). Williams served as Saúl’s mentor, and at just nineteen years of age, Saúl worked directly under Williams as a sous chef. It was Williams who brought Saúl to work as the sous chef of Gusto. At Gusto, Saúl also worked as sous chef to celebrity chefs Amanda Freitag and Anne Burrell. While at Gusto, Saúl has been featured on several television programs, including Telemundo’s “Al Rojo Vivo” and Univision’s “Despierta America.” He has been featured on the front page of El Diario and has been recognized for his contributions to the Latino community in New York City. And he is under 30! How did you get into the restaurant business?

My mother and grandmother owned restaurants in Mexico. I cleaned dishes and would choose the fresh produce at the local markets. I found it fun and exciting. When I was fifteen, I moved to the U.S. filled with the hope of achieving the great “American Dream” (and I really wanted to see an NBA game at Madison Square Garden). I eventually moved to New York City to work with a cousin at a restaurant in SoHo.

I wanted to learn everything about the restaurant business, so even though it was hard work and I wouldn’t get paid for the extra time, I started showing up to work earlier to learn about the business . . . to earn experience and learn how to become a cook . . . 2 hours earlier, 1 hour earlier … to help co-workers, who were happy doing less work for the same amount of money, and I was happy learning how to do things. I was not getting paid for it, but I knew in the future it would help me be a success. What part of your restaurant are you most proud?

Saúl: I am proud of the staff—the people that I that I work with. To be successful in any business you need the right people. The people that you know can do the work and follow-through if you are there or not there. How would you describe a good meal?

Saúl: It has to be delicious . . . that’s the main thing, you have to like it. To me the chef needs to allow the ingredients to speak for themselves –the chef has to hold back from doing too much. A good meal can be the perfect tomato with the perfect cheese from a local farm.  I like going to local farms  to help the community — help jobs and get delicious food, that’s a win/win. What restaurants inspire you?

Saúl: There a lot of restaurants that I love and get inspired by: El Paso, Babbo Restorante, and Maria’s, these are my favorite restaurants because of how they treat people and their cuisine. I love going there to have an experience and to get inspired to do things better, to make things better, down to the hostess to bartender to the dishwasher, not demand that things are perfect but right. What was the biggest difficulty with starting a restaurant?

Saúl: Not the job – the cooking, but the difficult part was the business end. When you open a restaurant you know how to cook, but you do not know accounting or taxes. I had no experience with these other departments for the business – so I learned the hard way. I was so excited to open a restaurant that my passion hurried it – I did not open it to be rich, but I wanted to do it because it made me happy, so I did research on the cooking side but did not know about the other departments you have to take care of.  I now look at it as running a soccer team: I could be the greatest coach but every coach needs a good team, manager, hostess, dishwashers. I can be a good coach but if I don’t have consistency with the food and the service, I’m nothing. How should someone feel when they leave a restaurant?

Saúl: They should feel like they didn‘t just go to have dinner, rather it was a really good experience: it was nice meeting the server, meeting Saúl, James, and Christina. At Gusto you go to eat for dinner, and we get to know the customers, so they feel that they are at their house . . . the staff gets to know them. I don’t want to be a fine dining restaurant where no one knows the customer – you are going to be taken care of and you are going to have good meal. I believe that a local business need to make the community bigger . . . it’s about friends and family. I love meeting people in the restaurants. Life is all about meeting people and passing it on, so getting to know your customers is key. What advice do you have for someone in Detroit starting a restaurant?

Saúl: In any business you have to love it in order to be successful – if you don’t have the passion, it’s not going to work. And you have to open it for the people that live in the area, that work there. Sometimes a chef will try to reach too high and try to get 5 stars and forget the local people, so my advice is don’t shoot too high, it might bite you in the ass. You should create a restaurant where it is casual and the local community can afford to eat there twice or three times a week.

If you have Passion and Love, the rest is manageable – if you don’t have that, no one gives that to you…. And be nice to people.