Daniel Ramirez, exec chef of Gaetano's, on chicken, checks and culinary schools
This is part one of my interview with Daniel Ramirez, exec chef of Gaetano's; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Daniel Ramirez was just shy of twenty when he left Acapulco for Los Angeles to pursue a career in architecture. He had a blueprint for his future: Design tall buildings and manage big projects. But in order to get there, he'd need to finish college -- and that required tuition money, which he didn't have. "I'd spent a few years going to university in Mexico, but my dad ran into some financial problems, so I had to quit, and my sister was living in Los Angeles, so I thought I'd move out to L.A., get a job to make some money to finish school and have a great career in architecture," recalls Ramirez.
In order to tuck away dollars, he took a gig at an Italian restaurant, working alongside his brother-in-law; then, having secured a ten-year visa to work in the States, he got a job at another Italian restaurant. He started as a busser, and three weeks later, he was smearing red sauce on pizzas. He never went back to college. Blame it on the pizza: "I remember watching the guys on the line making pizzas, and I was so interested in what they were doing," explains Ramirez, who's now the exec chef at Gaetano's. "I asked the guys if I could start making pizzas -- I so wanted to learn how -- and once a guy got fired, I was hired to work the pizza station."
And that, he says, changed his life. "I started falling madly in love with food, with the art of creating and cooking, and I was working for a great company that gave me a lot of opportunities, so I was there for almost four years, opening Italian restaurants for them in both California, Hawaii and Las Vegas," he remembers. "I knew by this point that I had a major passion for Italian food, and I wanted to go to the country where it all started."
So he did what any chef who wanted to stage in Italy would do: He sweet-talked the owners into sending him there to polish his craft. "I spent an amazing six months in Rome cooking for an Italian chef, a wonderful Italian chef who made me what I am today," says Ramirez.
Once his stage was over, he returned to L.A. for a year, then headed to Las Vegas, where he snatched up a gig in the kitchen of Il Fornaio. "I was ambitious, and I wanted to work for a bigger company that offered a lot of growth," he says. He quickly climbed the culinary hierarchy, starting as a junior sous chef, moving up to senior sous and then opening an Il Fornaio in Denver in 2000. In all, he spent six years with the company, eventually departing because of "discord between the chefs and corporate."
He landed -- for a mere two months -- at the Cheesecake Factory, and while it offered a decent salary and benefits, he confesses, not surprisingly, that "there was no opportunity to be creative. They don't have a chef -- they have kitchen managers -- and I left because I didn't like that kind of system, and I couldn't do the food that I wanted to do. I couldn't create, and I wanted to get back to Italian food."