Chef Ronaldo Linares has blazed a culinary trail that burns hot enough to flambé anything within a 30 mile radius. He honed his knife skills growing up in his family’s kitchen, then as Sergeant and Food Services Specialist in the Marines and as a high honors graduate from ICE (Institute for Culinary Education) in New York City.
We recently sat down with Chef Ronaldo to talk about “Old Cuba” as a paradise, what it’s like to run a kitchen on your first Friday night rush, and the “Knotted Apron” pop-up restaurant he recently put together in Los Angeles with some of the food industry’s best Latino chefs.
TrunkSpace: When and why did you start cooking and who has been the biggest influence in your life with regards to your culinary journey?
Chef Linares: I have been in the kitchen since childhood, my two biggest influences in this game have been my father and mother. They have showed me what hard work, technique and patience will do to your craft. I have watched them closely. One of the biggest lessons I learned was to develop habits in the kitchen. Habits bring excellence.
TrunkSpace: What style of cuisine do you enjoy creating the most and why? And what would you consider your signature dish?
Chef Linares: It has to be Cuban cuisine. It speaks to me the most. Cuba has so much culture, history… different cuisines that influence what Cuban food is today. Signature dish? It has to be a plantain mash called Tre-Fongo made with sweet plantains, green plantains, and yuca. Some sofrito, pork skin, and topped with Roasted Pork Shoulder, aka Pernil Asado.
TrunkSpace: It’s been said that food is the gateway into a culture, that it identifies a history, family and a region. What do you feel your food says about your culture and history?
Chef Linares: Food is definitely a gateway to one’s culture. My food, the Cuban people’s food, is a staple. It tells stories of the old Cuba, a paradise, and it’s my belief food keeps that paradise alive. That’s why I fight so hard to keep Cuban food on the map.
My food is authentic, it fights, it tells you stories. The best compliment that you could get as a chef, in my opinion, is someone telling you that the flavors, textures and smells brought them back to the glorious moments in Cuban history. That is a great feeling.
TrunkSpace: Every cook and/or chef has a really bad service, and it haunts them, but they grow and learn from it. Do you have a worst service memory that keeps you up at night? And how did it change you as a chef?
Chef Linares: Such a great question. One year after I got out of culinary school, my mother got sick and dad was not around. During that time my mother ran the kitchen, and I had to jump behind the wheel – this happened on a Saturday. In the outside I was cool, calm and collected, but on the inside, I was like, “Holy shit!” So, dinner service starts and orders start coming in, and I was feeling confident at the moment because everything was calm. Not having the experience, I did not anticipate the dinner rush. The time is now 7 p.m. and that printer started to sound like a really bad song. Before long tickets were backed up, everyone is asking me a million and one questions, wait staff is asking for tables, people are leaving, and here I am thinking, “What the F happened?”
So, here I am, 15 years later absolutely crushing it!
TrunkSpace: On the flipside of that, do you have a particular memory of your best service or a moment in your career that really stood out and has stuck with you?
Chef Linares: Recently I put together a pop-up dinner in Los Angeles – the place was “The Knotted Apron.” Some of the best Latino chefs in the game gathered for one night. We put together an eight-course dinner paired with eight different cocktails. Using my connections, I was able to get “Hispanic Kitchen” to live stream a few cooking demos along with top influencers and celebrities that joined the dinner. That night was memorable, dinner was perfect, no mistakes, just good food.
The reason I loved this dinner so much was the family feel of it, but it was a true tale where my career has evolved too.
TrunkSpace: With the advancement of technology in the past years, food has also advanced in many ways. Has it changed the way you cook at all?
Chef Linares: In some ways it has, for example, sous vide is a great technique of cooking. It allows you to bring crazy flavors out of foods, from greens to proteins and even starches. The secret lies in playing around with ingredients and checking out other leading chefs that are doing it better than you. I would anyone and everyone to get the Best Sous Vide Cooker and create some delicious dishes. Hope that makes sense.
TrunkSpace: Molecular gastronomy… is it mad science? Or mad tasty? Do you feel it has a place in the culinary scene as entire dinner courses, or should it be used more in balance to further enhance traditional dishes?
Chef Linares: Molecular gastronomy, oh boy! I cannot comment on this one. I am very traditional with my food. From time to time I dabble with molecular gastronomy in my food and see how it plays with traditional dishes.
TrunkSpace: Chef life and tattoos seem to go together like sweet and savory. Do you have any food inspired ink? And if so, what does it mean to you?
Chef Linares: Love my tattoos. I have a lot of ink. One of my food-inspired tattoos is on my right pec. There is a skull in the middle screaming with an old school French chef hat on, surrounding the tattoo is a clever, chef knife, salt shaker and wooden spoon – my favorite tools in the kitchen. The ink keeps me focused to stay on track with my career.
TrunkSpace: If someone offered you a blank check to open your own restaurant, whether that would be a brick and mortar, food truck or gastropub, what would your vision be? Where would it be located and what type of food would you focus on?
Chef Linares: It would definitely be a brick and mortar. My vision would be to bring old Cuba back – when Cuba was a paradise – the restaurant will represent that vision. The food would of course be farm to table, dishes will represent all regions of Cuba, but would blend the cultures that migrated to Cuba over the last 100 years. It would become the best Cubano restaurant in the United States.