How far can one idea take you? Where will the casual comment of another person lead you?
I learned a lesson on the power of ideas about a year and a half ago. I was in Mexico City for the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. It’s the top food awards event for the region, when spectacular chefs gather together to celebrate their past achievements and their future goals. The whole week, not just the night of the awards, is a thrilling experience; as a food writer I get to attend numerous dinners and parties in glittering settings and try the best food in the city.
El Cielo is a restaurant in Colombia that will knock your socks off. Baby-faced chef Juan Manuel Barrientos’ inventiveness and his experimental tasting menu will challenge your preconceptions about food. In fact, it’s better not to come with any expectations at all – the experience will be different than anything you imagine.
Robb Finn has a lot of energy. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute, he worked at a number of New York City restaurants, including Daniel Boulud’s Daniel. He opened up restaurants like Fatty Cue (and their offspring Fatty Crab and Fatty Crab St. John), Blue Smoke Battery Park City, Fritzl’s Lunch Box, several of Michael Psilakis’ restaurants, and others.
Robb was recruited by the Takami restaurant group (think: Osaki, Central Cevichería) to open up their newest addition to the Bogota dining scene, Cacio e Pepe. I sat down with Robb Finn to talk about how he got into the world of food and his first year as a chef in Bogota.
You’ve opened a number of restaurants; is it accurate to say you’re attracted to high adrenaline experiences?
At every opening I tell myself it’s the last opening. I tell myself I’m going to stay put, do something small and low-key…and every single time it just gets more and more intense.
You mentioned that you dropped out of high school. Isn’t it quite a leap from not finishing school to opening restaurants in NYC?
I dropped out of school when I was 15. I was getting good grades but I was incredibly bored. I got my GED and worked washing dishes at a diner, and later I waited tables. I traveled around, and when I came back I realized I love hospitality. So I bartended in places throughout Jersey and later I opened a bar as the manager. Really, I just kind of fell into it.
I’ve been cooking with my mom since I was old enough to stand. Then one day at a restaurant, the chef didn’t show up and they said to me, “Let’s do a tasting.” I said ok. From there, I decided to attend culinary school. From then on it’s been non-stop; I‘ve just been running.
Did you have any fears about moving to Colombia?
I was very blind to any danger. Growing up in Jersey City for part of my life, and working in NYC, I was used to it. What could really happen in Colombia? It’s pretty much the same thing everywhere; I mean, walking home from work in Brooklyn I could get smashed in the back of the head with a bottle and that’s it.
How’s it going working in the kitchen with Colombians?
My Spanish is horrible, so I have no idea how it works [with the kitchen staff]. It’s almost spiritual; it’s a deeper bond because we don’t necessarily understand each other all the time.
The kids feel good about what they do, they’re proud of their work. At the end of the night, I’ll be at the bar hanging out and the kids will come up and say, “Hey chef, thanks so much.” Everyone is so excited. It’s really cool. That doesn’t happen in NYC.
What will we eat at Cacio e Pepe?
It’s progressive Italian food designed for a Colombian palate. Part of the Italian influence is to use local ingredients, cooking with what’s fresh. We make everything possible in-house.
One of the top sellers has been the meatballs, much to the chef’s surprise. The pizza has a fat crust, Brooklyn style, much to the confusion of some Colombians.
Appetizers run from $5,000-11,000, and main dishes go from $21,000-40,000.