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How A New Jersey Chef, From Colombia, Found His Cooking Style and Is Now Ready To Make His Mark In The Food Industry
By- Tom Kubrak
With each bite it took him back to that day, that time that he spent with his family. That time with his family and friends. It was something that he could go back and visualize those moments. Including what each member of his family were saying, where they were, what each person was wearing and how the room was decorated.
The memories just continued to flood his mind as he took another bite out of the burger he had just made. Virtually the same burger that his mother had made for him and his brothers when they were growing up in Colombia. A burger that included a “perfect” layer of mayonnaise and a homemade cabbage slaw amongst a few things.
“This burger was unbelievable. The things she would put in there, the juiciness and the perfectly crispy bun. it was simple.”
Ingredients that some people take for granted but at the end of the day it was a “simple” but masterful creation.
It’s these memories that remind us where we came from. The people that helped build us into who we are. The good memories we have and even some of the bad ones that may remind us what we don’t want to do or don’t want to become. It’s those little moments that help remind us where we once were and where we want to go that keeps us moving in our desired direction.
“Food memories to me is huge like there is nothing that connects you to your past more than food.”
Everyone has their favorite dish or a dish that they had somewhere in their lives, that holds a grip on them like a mother with a grasp on their child's hand crossing a busy street.
It’s these memories that are sometimes hard to revisit and are left stored away just eating up at you because you haven’t addressed what was said or done. Once these memories are realized you can see the good things that happened that will remind you why you’re doing it.
“Those moments when we actually sat down at the table and ate as a family.”
These memories that are imbedded into our heads and remind us when we’re down and out for the count when a hardship arises in our lives. Your able to revisit them to help keep you moving forward towards your dreams and goals.
Sometimes all it starts with is a homemade burger, with a delicate spread, cabbage slaw and a crispy sesame seed bun. It’s those simple memories, simple moments, simple meals, and simple things that were said that made the greatest impact on this man who is known as…
Many of those moments with that burger originated when he was growing up in his home country of Colombia. Growing up as the son of a prosperous Restaurant/Club owner in town, you would think he was around a lot of upper class people in his country. That was true in some circumstances but he chose to hang out with a different crowd. He drifted the other way, per se, when he was growing up and decided to hang out with the struggling/homeless people on the streets surrounding him. When he was seven years old there was a large population of homeless in Colombia.
“I was friends with them. Once a week I would you know feed them and then they would bath at the house and then we would give them clothes and little by little they would stockpile clothes and shoes.”
It was who he related to. Being a little young he of course didn’t own a home yet so these kids had to come through the chief of the household… his mother.
“My mom was like what are you doing? And I was like, you teach me how to help people out and here you go.”
It was those moments that reminded him in his professional career today that if you give you may or may not receive anything. Don’t expect anything in return is one of his philosophies. Since leaving Colombia, he doesn’t know what’s going on with his old friends but is reminded and motivated by that time in his life to do the best he can for people.
It was experiences like that that helped Ronaldo realize what he wanted to do with his life. These moments that shaped the future for the young man who was taking the lessons as they came and slowly morphing into who he wanted to be.
For Ronaldo though, it all started in the kitchen whenever his parents would let him help out with meals. The other time was spent...
“Just doing like random crap stuff. Go feed the pigs, go feed the chickens in the coop, go clean the pig pen and go pick mangoes off the mango tree.”
It kept him occupied. When he got time in the kitchen at home and in the restaurant he embraced it all. He fell in love with the process of cooking.
“Without me knowing they were imbedded in me because I would taste stuff. My mom would say, what do you think about this and I would say good and my mom would be like no it needs this and I would be like okay I get it.”
It was cherished time in the kitchen at home and at the restaurant that took his mind off of what was going on all around him. Although, there were many good times, things weren’t the best in Colombia when Ronaldo was growing up. He wasn’t just growing up in the restaurant business but he was growing up in the middle of one of the longest and violent wars of this era where over 200,000 people have died to this day as the war continues to rage on. The Colombian Conflict or Cartel Wars. Which started in the 60’s and has had its highs and lows.
“I saw the first person get killed at about 5.”
The mindset of his family started to change on where to raise their family. With a near death experience riding in a car with his mother and younger brother they caught got caught in a crossfire simply running errands. Thankfully after some minor injuries they made it out of the chaotic situation with their lives. But this was the final straw and they needed to find a way out.
It was a high point in the conflict and it was time to find a new place before something worse happened. They finally came to the conclusion that it was time. Time to make the change.
“So we left Colombia in the middle of the Cartel Wars.”
Having an in with the US Embassy made leaving the country a little easier then it was for others. All in all when they arrived to their new home in America they knew it wasn’t going to be easy and prepared themselves for a new struggle in their new home
At 10 years old this chapter began in his life that started in the Southern Florida city of Miami
Coming To America
“We came to the United States literally with nothing.”
An attic here and a living room there. Being homeless for three years they were living with person to person. It didn’t bother them though. They had been through a lot though and the Linares’ kept pushing forward.
“We were never raised like look at what you have. Be grateful for what you have.”
It was Miami first. There wasn’t much time to adjust to life in Miami though. It was only about a year until they packed up the little stuff they had and headed to New Jersey, to start the next chapter of their journey in America.
Ronaldo and his family were finally able to settle into their new life in America when they arrived in Rockaway a few years after leaving Colombia. Arriving in Rockaway he was in his Middle school years and headed off to school. He also headed off to work with his father who was working some restaurant jobs around New Jersey.
So although still a teenager it was time to work, earn and help the family.
One of those first experiences in the restaurant business in America was in Jersey City. He worked with his father in a pizzeria. Coming to work in a rough area of Jersey City was where Ronaldo had an unforgettable experience. An experience that has helped him going forward in his career. Helping out his decision making and standing his ground when confronted with difficult situations and decisions.
At 12 years old a new task was placed upon the young man on one fateful day. Manning the grill making the cheesesteaks he had a good view of the pizzeria on that day. Not being in the best area of Jersey City, they became confronted with a difficult task. A difficult decision arose for Ronaldo as he approached his father with the issue that was escalating throughout their time there. It finally hit the moment where it was time to do something about it.
“The problem we had there was a lot of the gangsters walk in there and they steal soda and stuff. So they walk in there one day and I see them stealing and I go to my dad and say dad...”
From there, instincts began to kick in for the both of them as they weren’t willing to let something like this slide and have them lose money for the store that was now bringing in the majority of the money for the family. More importantly they were saving their integrity and what they stood for.
“Like that’s my mentality. Like I have a product. I walk by my dad by the door and I’m over here and I have this knife behind my arm. I was raised in Colombia.”
His father, blocked the door and gave the “gangsters” a verbal beatdown that rivaled the enthusiasm and gusto by Fidel Castro during his reign of Cuba through the Bay of Pigs Conflict. Thus, prompting the gangsters to give up the soda that they stole.
As a matter of fact, instead of retaliation, the gangsters apologized, put the soda back, ended up coming back, and ordered a ton of food. They made the most money yet there that day.
Although it was a scary memory that had Ronaldo preparing to meet his maker, it was another moment that reminded him to stand up, fight for what you believe in and a reward may or may not come. In this case, the reward did come.
Since it was a rough area the gangsters also began to protect the Linares’ as they went to their “ugly yellow beige Dotsun” at the end of each night.
Somerville and… Taxes?
After a night/day at the pizzeria it was back to Rockaway for school.
During this time in his Middle School years his father finally broke off from working for other people and ventured off on his own and opened up a restaurant in Somerville New Jersey where Ronaldo began to work at during the weekends after his week at school.
Soon after that his father opened up his restaurant with the help of his sons and wife. From there even more learning experiences and challenges began. Experiences that gave him opportunities to meet people, treat them well and make a little extra money for himself.
“I was always like that and when we moved here to the United States and opened the restaurant up I was like people tip you for giving you service. So I was like I have to give them the best service ever.”
It wasn’t always about just serving the tables though. He picked up a hobby to make himself some extra cash when he got inspired by someone making a copper wire figure. He also did other intricate tasks for the business that needed to be done right or the business could be in trouble or worse shut down.
“So I would figure out how to do the taxes for the restaurant, like payroll, do an application, a 1099 all that.”
Around 11 years old he was starting to learn the craft of running a business. A task that many learn later on in life or, of course, don’t ever learn. Although, growing up in an environment where he could learn this at an early age he fell in love with the process of running a business.
When you start a business, sometimes you have all the money you need to make a good spot and bring in the profits that you want. With other business’ that’s not the case. Sometimes you open the doors with little to no cash left to spare.
In this case starting Martino’s was a difficult process and in the beginning stages of the business they had to make some sacrifices to make the business work because they were running on whatever the restaurant made that day. They were running on very minimal amounts of cash.
One of those sacrifices… spending the night at the restaurant. These were challenging times for Ronaldo and his family but using his past experiences he was resilient and didn’t complain while going through it. Being from Colombia all he needed to do was sleep, but there were some things that didn’t make it quite so easy to get that much desired sleep.
“The worst part we would hear like steps upstairs. Like ghosts and stuff. It was crazy, so we then wake up in the morning walk over to this hose that was hanging down and we would take a shower.”
So he was able to push through those moments knowing that if he got through the struggles in Colombia and all the challenges coming to America he could get through this.
Then, over some time, Martino’s began to prosper and they started upgrading their living situation. From a one bedroom they went to two. Things were starting to look a lot better for Ronaldo and his family. From the two bedroom they moved up to three and then from the three bedroom apartment they got a house.
From where they were a few years back, it was an exciting time for the Linares family. While all of that was going on though an unseen thing was happening. It was happening to Ronaldo and it was the hardest battle yet in his life. It was a battle with himself and going back to school after working at the restaurant during the weekend was part of the problem.
Coming back home from the restaurant on Sunday nights he started to have to prepare himself for what he was going to encounter at school.
Behind closed doors a different story was happening. The darkest time in his life was happening and no one knew but him what was exactly going on. One that would take him all the way to the edge of his life.
Battling Through Depression
Ohhhh, the middle school years. Times when we were meeting new people, trying to find the right people to hang out with and trying to find the people that we were going to stick with through the rest of our time going through school.
Although, he had those rough experiences, sometimes it’s the little things that break people. Adjusting to life in America wasn't easy and when it came down to it, Ronaldo was still in Middle school. A developmental age. Being from Colombia he was walking around a school with many kids that he just wasn’t able to relate to. Amongst that and other things it took him to a dark stage in his life.
For some, middle school and high school was easy, but for others it was a trying time.
For Ronaldo, it was a time that had him on an edge that he actually built himself.
With not many people to turn to, with his family being busy, gone, or just not interested, he started doing something to himself.
“I created this person in my own head that would justify me doing bad stuff so I would do bad things. I would take needles like sewing needles. I would stick it in my arm and I would dig them all the way down until it hit the bone to see how it felt and I would do it by myself and dig three four five of them.”
It was difficult to get away from these thoughts. He continued to go to school and he continued work at the restaurant during the weekends but those thoughts just wouldn’t escape his mind. Because of that, and other reasons, he also picked up some bad habits that added to his troubles.
“I wasn’t being accepted by people. I was being bullied in a way by people who were making fun of me for the way I look. I got chubby. Burger King, Little Caesars pizza, American fast food. You know... that’s what happens.”
The beast inside of him just kept growing and the thoughts began to escalate to more than just needles and bringing on pain. He wanted more. More…
“I started thinking about killing myself.”
Between 12-14 were some of the roughest years for young Ronaldo. Just about to enter into high school, naturally, anxiety was running high for a young kid who’s mother and father weren’t always around and who’s brothers were off doing their own thing. Although they might have been around sometimes he didn’t think he could turn to anyone for guidance in those crucial years of development.
The thoughts began to take him over and the “demon” inside just wouldn’t let go. As things continued to escalate he hung himself.
“I wasn’t going to say I was doing it to commit suicide. It was more for the pain I guess.”
He got through that time and then decided to do it again. It didn’t stop there though.
There was a third time.
The third time he wasn’t so lucky. “I was done.” Without his brother who walked in on the whole ordeal. Ronaldo probably wouldn’t be here today. When his brother pulled him down though he was in another place mentally as he got angry at his brother for pulling him down. It was a long time ago and looking back it’s tough to figure out exactly what was going through his mind during those years.
Not being able to fit in and not having someone to talk to amongst a few things all played a huge role in these actions. By not finding a way to fit in with the people in Rockaway, he just couldn’t cope. It’s a time in a teenagers life where, fitting in at the forefront of their minds.
It wasn’t an uncommon occurrence for kids, who were Ronaldo's age at the time, to have an experience like this.
According to a study by Newport Academy, “An estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. This number represents 12.8 percent of the US population in that age group.”
After this experience, somehow Ronaldo battled through. He was extremely determined to find his place. He already had some goals but just was still struggling to find his place. One step he made was when he started to embrace his role of not necessarily fitting into every crowd, as he once did in Colombia, when he hung out with the homeless kids. He started to work harder and visualize his goals. It wasn’t a quick process, by any means, but he stayed committed.
Somehow-someway, Ronaldo fought through this time in his life and found purpose. Standing tall through those times though, he learned resilience and fortitude. At a younger age than most he developed a strong foundation from the tough lessons he learned in the streets of Colombia, the restaurant business, and those times when he was hurting himself to the point of almost killing himself.
He had to find purpose though. Where was this purpose? What was the next step that he needed to take to change his life?
Determined to change, after leaving school, he took on a challenge to get himself where he wanted to be and to serve his country.
The Marines and Progression
“I’m going to cause change.”
It was this he said to himself when he realized that he wanted to become a Marine and defend his country.
“So from that decision, I said you know what, I’m going to be change. I want to be a Marine. I want to help this country.”
Ronaldo knew what he wanted to do with his life since his early teen days but the first steps that he had to take to make that vision a reality was unclear until many years later.
Just a deep inner desire to be the best version of himself that he could be arose out of that time. The military gave him the platform and the training to become the person he deeply desired.
Maybe, you know what you want to do with your life, and maybe you can see yourself where you want to be. It’s those steps and progression that sometimes is harder to see and initiate into your life to make that vision of yourself a reality. The Marines, one of the first phases of the journey in developing Ronaldo into he is now, was a challenging time. It was also memorable time. He learned many things including how to be a man. Although he enjoyed his time in the Marines it wasn’t the career he wanted. So he left after his first contract ended. It was a stepping stone to the next phase in his journey.
Once he finishing up with the Marines, it was time to start figuring out his role in his first love and goal. Cooking.
It took some time to figure out his place and his style of cooking. Between the age of 22-28 he enrolled into culinary school, got some training there, and then he came back to apply his newly learned skills.
“I knew I needed to do that. I came and I was trying to find myself within the restaurant. What role did I play?”
It still wasn’t easy though. Going to school helped but the battle raged on within himself. Still searching where his place was. At times he didn’t take it as serious as he could have. Going back to work at the family restaurant, distractions arose that halted his progress at times.
“Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night I would be out dancing, meeting girls and just having a good time.”
Having made a lot of changes already in his life and just challenging himself constantly, he had to challenge himself again and make a sacrifice. That being, if he wanted to get the most out of his cooking and his time at the restaurant he was going to have to make a sacrifice
Dancing is one of his passions. It’s another love of his but in order to become his best self he had to make the sacrifice and stop the dancing to maximize and truly find his foundation in his chosen career path.
The Development of His Cooking Style
A lot of trial and error it started to happen. He started to find the dishes that he wanted to make and he started to make the dishes that he wanted to make for his restaurant that he was now the head chef over. Consistently showing up to work and cooking he began develop the menu that he wanted to showcase on the tables of his restaurant that he was now running with his brother.
Many things were mixed into developing this style of cooking. His younger years in Colombia, working with his dad in Jersey City, his family restaurant, Culinary School, and now being the head chef his style of cooking and place in the restaurant was set in stone.
“I like simplicity I don’t like highly complicated food.”
Ronaldo’s focus is using modern techniques with ancestral flavors to connect us with our pasts. One of those techniques is just some “old rustic style cooking.” He starts by slow cooking the dishes, putting the right seasoning on it and then letting the oven do it’s thing.
All of this...
...to connect the people he serves to their pasts.
“For me it’s the flavor and the end result. It’s not necessarily what type of food it is. Every time you bite into it it’s something else.”
Whether that’s tasting another flavor that was in it, recognizing the texture or finding the balance with all of the spices, it all plays a vital role in creating the best of all the dishes he creates.
His style of cooking and place in the industry took a long time to find. At the end of the day though...it was well worth the wait. Now knowing his style of cooking he’s now able to experiment with and master his dishes.
Another big part of finding his style included just showing up. He was hungry to find it and showed up everyday to develop it was that was just showing up. Other reasons included listening to the teachers in culinary school, his mother and father growing up, tasting the many dishes that his family made, and most importantly listening to himself. Listening to himself in those tough times and understanding what he needed to do next. Finding out truly what he wanted and how to get it.
Good things started to happen in his career and he started to gain momentum. There was something else going on that was holding him back from reaching his full potential though. He started to realize what he could do to reach his true capabilities but… there was a roadblock. A roadblock that began with love and stole his heart to the point of making him do things that he never thought he would do. All in the name of love.
It was a relationship with a girl that he truly loved.
Out of all of these things that began to happen in his life. The good and the bad. This appeared like it was one of the most trying and difficult. There were a handful of moments that stood out in definitely shaping Ronaldo into who he is now.
A decision had to be made. A decision that would decide his future and where he would be going. It was difficult, tiresome, strenuous, and overbearing. Especially, emotionally draining. Just the thought of it was hard, but it needed to be done.
“I would say that girl. Ending the relationship with that girl when I was 27 or 28. I was going away from what I love for her. I was giving up.”
It’s easy to run away from these moments in our lives because the power holding us back from confronting the situation is so great that it keeps us from making the decision that needs to be made.
Although it was a tough decision to make and the biggest decisions he made thus far in his life he just did it. Not knowing what was to come next, but he trusted that it was the right decision and good things were on the horizon.
After that the dominoes began to fall, as they say, and a weight was lifted from his shoulders allowing him to fully envelope himself into his life and career.
Once that sacrifice was made, another new chapter started to open up in his life.
Among a few, a year after ending the relationship, he met his wife and over the last few years he started a family.
Going back through his development and progression through his childhood, middle school year and 20’s it’s the moments, the people, and the contributions they made for him to shape him into the person he is now.
A good way to remember these people and these moments for Ronaldo is to just make one of those burgers just like his mom used to make. Or at least try to.
“I can’t find that exact burger but even if I make it, it’s not that. When I’m biting into it, I remember those times.”
So ask yourself, ‘What’s your food memory?’
“You have to be very selfless in order to grow.” - Ronaldo Linares
Photos by- Erik Renninger
Story by- Tom Kubrak