Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine
Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine | Foto: Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine

Chef Rogelio Garcia Reimagines the Kitchen for Everyone

Por: Edward Rueda

25, May, 2022 en Business Concept

Chef Rogelio Garcia Reimagines the Kitchen for Everyone

Navigating his way through a cut-throat industry and into the Michelin Guide, Chef Rogelio Garcia banks on his humble beginnings, respect for craft, and a future that welcomes everyone to cuisine.

Interview by Timothy Diao

Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine
Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine

What was supposed to be the first day of a part-time job turned into a life-changing experience for Chef Rogelio Garcia. He was fifteen years old when he stepped into a Napa Valley restaurant to work as a dishwasher; however, the theatrics, the process, and the craft that goes into serving a plate of haute cuisine were more than enough to draw him into the world of food.

Like every self-made chef, Chef Rogelio began his career with determination and elbow grease. From washing dishes to learning the ropes (with the help of experience, mentors along the way, and a few cookbooks and YouTube videos), he slowly climbed the ranks to become a celebrated and Michelin Star-awarded chef.

From a spot at Cyrus to a Chef de Partie role at French Laundry to becoming Executive Chef at Angèle, The Commissary, Spruce, and now Luce at InterContinental SF Hotel, the Mexico-born and California-raised chef built a career that not only allowed him to flourish as a cook but also as a leader.

We spoke to Chef Rogelio about his earliest memories of food, working his way up in the kitchen, and the future he envisions for the culinary industry.

I don’t know if it comes off sentimental, but what does being a chef mean to you?

I feel like it changes quite often, and it really depends on what’s happening. When I started cooking, it was all about the cuisine; it was all about the food and creativity, right?

It’s something that allows you to become a true leader. I never thought that that was going to be the case. I think now people are looking up to you for guidance and problem-solving. People depend on you. If you have a successful restaurant, that’s how people are going to be able to feed their families. So they’re betting their livelihoods on you and the restaurant. It’s a lot of pressure, especially when you have a staff of twenty-five, thirty, or forty people that depend on you.

What do you love most about being a chef? What makes it fulfilling for you?

I think what makes it fulfilling are the connections. I’ve cooked all over the United States and made so many connections with the people I’ve cooked for, cooked next to, and people who have cooked for me. It’s just so rewarding.

And at the end of the day, it’s also almost artistic. You have ideas and you put them on a plate and you send them off to the world and you hope that they’re going to enjoy it.

Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine
Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine

Just like with other sorts of craft. Once you’re done with your process, it’s up to the people that receive it.

Yeah, exactly! It’s a true craft. And you can get backlash as well. If you’re not respectful to the cuisine or the past and the culture, right? If you push it too far, some people can find that disrespectful, or true historians of that cuisine can find it offensive.

What was your relationship with food growing up? What was your earliest memory of food?

I didn’t grow up with a big family. My mother was a single mother. She was trying to raise three kids. We didn’t have a lot of those moments that you see on TV where there’s a big spread, and everybody has their Christmas sweaters on, and there’s Christmas music.

So when we had our birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmases, she made a point to really make an impact in our lives as kids with the little bit that she had. She would do the best job to make us a feast.

Those were my early food memories. How those moments brought us together. How it didn’t matter if she had any money for rent, or she was going through stuff, or we didn’t have any shoes or whatever. We came to the table, and we forgot all of that. It was just about the food and our family.

Do you also cook with your kids now? I remember watching your season of Top Chef and you mentioned that the first dish you cooked on the show was something that you made with your kids.

I do, and I take it a step further and involve him in the kitchen. We’ve cooked and done multiple events together. I have so many pictures of them cooking for 800 people on this massive grill. They were hustling and bustling, on the register, turning the page, and grilling chicken.

I have all these memories of doing events with them when restaurants were closed during the pandemic. These guys were working fourteen to fifteen-hour days with me in the summer. And I was so proud to see them have that stamina, that hustle, and that drive. It was just amazing.

You also saw them enjoying the work that you were doing?

Yeah. It was important that I brought them into my world and that they know what making a dollar means. So when they ask for something they know what it takes to get a dollar.

And the value of work.


Did you know that you wanted to be a chef growing up?

No, no, I did not. I wanted to be an actor. I took acting and drama classes all throughout high school. I was very timid at the beginning. I was like, man, what did I get myself into? I had to go up on this stage, and my peers were amazing singers and dancers. But as I got used to being in front of a camera, I got more comfortable. I decided in the last quarter of my junior year in high school that I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to go to acting classes and get an agent. I wanted to see what that world looks like. I really wanted to do that. I thought that I could be an extra or something like that. But once I stepped into cooking I made the choice to stick to it.

And you started working in the kitchen as a dishwasher when you were in high school?

I got to Napa Valley—which has the most Michelin Star restaurants in a mile radius—and the food scene was amazing. And as soon as I stepped into the restaurant on my first day, I saw the rush of lunch hour service, the tickets being called, the beautiful plates they were putting out. It looked like art. It was just amazing how it was.

What was the transition like from dishwasher to line cook for you? How did it go about?

It was slow. I was doing burgers and stuff like that at first. I kind of left all these Bistro kind of fast-casual restaurants after a couple of years. I took it a step further when I joined the team at Cyrus Restaurant when I was in my early twenties. That’s where I learned so much more discipline. There was no room for error or mistakes. And I think that was what made me go further and continue to be a chef. And not just any chef, but try to be the best chef that I can be.

Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine
Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine

And you also didn’t have a formal culinary education, right?

I didn’t have any formal training. I would read cookbooks. I would get as many cookbooks as I could—a lot of French cookbooks. So I would get all those. And I remember I would run back home and watch YouTube videos of José Andrés, Anthony Bourdain and his travels, and all these Michelin Star chefs. I was like, wow, I can learn from these guys. That was my education. I had to find my way to break through this industry.

What were the challenges you faced growing your career in the kitchen, especially coming from a place where you didn’t have formal training?

It was tough. I’m not going to lie. Even just trying to get the respect of American chefs. I mean, I’m a minority, and there is a stigma that we’re hard workers, but we wouldn’t know how to manage kitchens, and so on. I wanted to know why a lot of Latinos were at the bottom levels— dishwashers or even in the fields and all these things—but we never made it to a management level. These guys were tremendous workers. But a big part of it was education. We were just given different cards in our life. It was just handed to us differently than anybody else. But I wanted to say, look, I’m not going to stay as a cook. I want to really break into management, break into being a chef, and see where else I can go.

And what does a great plate of food look like for you?

I can only speak for how I create or approach it; there has to be a story behind the food. There has to be a craft that goes into the ingredients. Whether it’d be amazing chocolate, king crabs from Norway, rice coming from Japan, or osetra Caviar that’s coming from Greece, there has to be a craft that goes into the ingredients. And there has to be somebody making it as a craft. It’s what they’re dedicated to. It’s their life journey.

And respectfully, we turn them into something at the restaurant. We have to elevate it with respect. There has to be some form of creativity and technique. It’s a bit like binding cultures together to make it something new.

But the vessel is also important. I work with different ceramicists all over the world, and they make custom plates for the restaurant. And then I think one of the biggest things is the delivery, just making sure that it’s done well every step of the way—from when the dish is ordered to when it gets to the customer. These are details that the waiters do perfectly, making sure the food is delivered the way that we want. That to me is a perfect plate. It’s all these things together.

How would you describe your cuisine, Chef?

I call it global influence. It’s really what’s great in the world, and we bring it into a tasting menu. I don’t want to sound like it’s just whatever we want. But it’s putting all these influences together. And it makes sense to me that way. It’s techniques from France, hints of Mexico, and hints of the countries that I have a strong connection with. All through my life, I’ve been able to work with ingredients from Italy, Mexico, France, Japan, and Peru. So we put it into the development, but respectfully, of course. And while using the Northern California ingredients.

It’s interesting that you brought that up, Chef. I’ve also noticed how chefs aren’t necessarily tied down to one cuisine but work with a curation of different interests and influences.

As a chef, you often get put in a box. If you were looking at me and would say, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican. You must make the best tacos.’ But I’ve dedicated my craft to multiple cuisines over multiple years. Developing a new cuisine or niche is a part of evolving. It’s taking the good from here, the good from there, and making it your own. You still have to be respectful of the heritage and the cultures you’re taking inspiration from. There has to be a way to navigate through the food industry. And I think this is mine.

And we live in a world where that’s kind of acceptable now. Especially how it’s very creative here in San Francisco. There are so many artists all over San Francisco, not just in cuisine but in so many other industries. It lends itself to the city and lends itself to creatives.

Is this something you’re applying with your work at Luce at InterContinental SF Hote? What was it like when you took on the Executive Chef role?

It was a little nerve-wracking because you’re trying to do something different. But at the end of the day, it’s really about what the guest wants. I mean, I can have so many ideas, but if you’re getting good feedback and you’re getting guests through the door, then the proof is in the numbers. This restaurant has a lot of history. It’s well respected worldwide. And just to be part of it is amazing.

And I can’t tell you enough how dedicated the team is to each other. They have been through a lot as well as everybody else. But everybody is extremely motivated to succeed—for themselves and for the restaurant.

It’s also been amazing to see the restaurant bounce back from the pandemic. When everybody was scared to dine at restaurants to now having a full hotel restaurant operating.

You’ve worked at Michelin Star-awarded restaurants and garnered your own when you were at Spruce. What was that journey like for you?

It’s pressure like no other. It’s an immense amount of pressure, but at the end of the day, it’s a responsibility. It’s a great reward to have, but at the end of the day, you’re responsible to maintain those standards at all times.

It also allows you to have an amazing team that’s dedicated. That’s why the hiring process is extensive and it’s critical. You want to surround yourself with an amazing team and you need to be able to trust them. When you have that, everything falls into place.

And I’m responsible for creating a great environment. I find that as a leader, I have to create it because if I don’t do that, they’re going to follow what I do. I care about them and their well-being. Not just in the restaurant but outside as well. I feel that it makes us closer as a team. A lot of these guys followed me from multiple restaurants or the last restaurant, and I brought them here because they’re humble and aggressive, and they want to want to be successful. I want to surround myself with people like that.

Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine
Chef Rogelio Garcia for Mesa & Bar Magazine

There’s been a lot of horror stories about how kitchens are high-pressure working environments. How do you think the industry has changed in that aspect?

I think this industry still has a long way to go. It’s not just the verbal treatment towards the staff but also the wages and even how business plans are made. Some of these things just don’t make sense anymore. The more we talk about it, the more things will get better. And for me, what I do is talk to other chefs and bounce back ideas. We talk about how things were and how things are now, and the good and bad in both.

And what kind of culinary industry do you want to leave behind for the generations of cooks and chefs that would follow you?

I think it would be the kind where everyone is respectful to each other and one that’s very creative.

And hopefully, I’m leaving behind a place where, if there’s going to be a young kid out there who wants to be a chef and wants to make this their life, and they dedicate their lives to it, they should be able to retire with a pension or something for their future like anybody else.

I also think we learned that this industry embraces anybody. You can be an aspiring nurse, going to school for that. And then your job to pay those bills can be at a restaurant, right? Or you can be a kid that’s trying to figure things out. You can be a waiter at a restaurant while you go to college. You can come in for a couple of years and get out of it. And I know so many people that came into the industry to make money and then graduate or find their careers. But the bottom line is that it’s an industry that embraces everybody, and I think at some point, the industry is going to find its way because there are a lot of people that love it.