Marco Ramirez, exec chef of The Palm, on life in a crazy-busy kitchen, the flood that almost drowned it, and how hard work and determination fulfilled his American dream
This is part one of my interview with Marco Ramirez, executive chef of The Palm. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Marco Ramirez, a self-described "child of a poor farmer family" in El Salvador, was shooed out of the kitchen by his mother, who insisted that men, at least in that household, had no business in there. It was a scolding that Ramirez ignored. "My mom used to kick me out of the kitchen and tell me that I belonged somewhere else -- it's a Latino thing; men don't cook -- but I was always in the kitchen anyway, asking questions and wanting to know more," remembers Ramirez.
His persistence paid off. For the past fifteen years, the 39-year-old chef has been behind the line of the Palm, the tony steakhouse in the Westin Hotel whose upscale clientele congregates at white-linen-topped tables to wheel and deal and surf and turf. Many of their caricatures grace the walls -- but Ramirez, who's easygoing and soft-spoken, shies away from the limelight, preferring the illumination of the kitchen to the spotlight of the show unfolding in the dining room. "The Palm has made me what I am today," says Ramirez. "It's a family-owned company that's been at it for over eighty years, and, like myself, those families came to America as immigrants looking to fulfill their dream. My dream is cooking, and I do it because I love it, not for the accolades."
Not that he hasn't earned them. Ramirez moved to Florida when he was fourteen, seeking a better life because he wanted to provide security for his family, most of whom remained in El Salvador. "I wanted to work hard, and had I not come to the States, I would have had to fight in the army -- and we needed money," says Ramirez. But finding a job wasn't easy. "I was this skinny little guy without a high-school education, so no one would give me a job," he remembers. "Instead, they told me to go to school." So he did, and when he graduated, he picked up his first kitchen gig, as a dishwasher in Miami Beach.
His brother had moved to Denver in the meantime, and Ramirez "chased him" here. He enrolled again in high school to learn English, working at night at the long-dead Mexicali Cafe (Osteria Marco is now in that space), where he scrubbed pots and pans -- but not for long. "I was always nosy in terms of what everyone else in the kitchen was doing, especially the chefs, and I kept thinking how cool it would be to cook rather than wash dishes," he says. He landed a job at the also long-dead Maxfield & Friends, first as a dish mutt, then as a line cook. After stints at several more defunct Denver restaurants, he joined the kitchen crew at Morton's of Chicago in LoDo, where he worked for eight years before spotting an "opening soon" sign for the Palm. "I walked in, met the chef and the GM and got hired as a prep cook," recalls Ramirez, who was promoted to pantry a month later, then the broiler station, a niche he held for eight years. In 2003, he was given the sous chef position, and in 2007, the role as executive chef.
"I love the atmosphere here, the relationships between the front and back of the house -- we even have picnics together -- and I want to keep the Palm tradition going," he says.
In the following interview, Ramirez talks about life in a crazy-busy kitchen, the flood that almost drowned it, and how hard work and determination fulfilled his American dream.