Becoming a Chef: Timing, Passion, and Risk
The conversation begins with Hugo sharing his memories of growing up in Guatemala and the influence that his grandfather and father had on his life.
After a bad investment in textiles, Hugo’s father took a huge gamble and moved the family to America to provide his family a better quality of life for his family. Twenty years after moving to America, the family was able to achieve U.S. Citizenship.
Wanting to achieve the American Dream, Hugo wanted to shoot for gold and enter the restaurant business by becoming a waiter at 17. At that time the required age to be a waiter was 21. During the interview, the manager of the restaurant offered Hugo an opportunity as a runner, but he had to prove himself.
During that time in the kitchen, Hugo developed a relationship with Chef Fred Iwasaki who would become his very own “Mr. Miyagi”. Wanting to learn to be a chef, Hugo asked Chef Iwasaki to teach him.
The Chef replied:
I will not pay you anything. If you want to come in, I will pay you in lessons. You come in the morning, you clean the bathrooms, you clean the floors, and if you can hack it- at the end of the day I will teach you a lesson every single day.
One day a chef did not show up for work and Hugo got his first big break as a Line Chef. When the restaurant closed its doors, Chef Iwasaki took Hugo to cook at the Oscars as part of the Wolfgang Puck Catering team. This was a life-changing moment for Hugo which would go on to alter the course of his career.
At that time in his life, he wanted to work at the Cheesecake Factory, which was always busy and looked cool. Hugo went through six interviews, including a physiological test and he ultimately did not get the job.
I tell myself all the time when I drive by the Cheesecake Factory, if I would have gotten that job, it would have changed my whole life. It would have taken me down a different road.– Chef Hugo Bolanos
After being turned down for the Cheesecake Factory job, Hugo received a phone call from his mentor, Chef Iwasaki, who invited him to join him once again cooking for Wolfgang Puck Catering. This time it was not for the Oscars, but a private party at the home of the actor David Carradine in Beverly Hills.
Hugo was in charge of driving the catering van this evening. This evening turned into a make or break moment. When the party was over, backing out the van, Hugo crashed into Wolfgang Puck’s prototype Mercedes.
With the fear of getting fired, Hugo went into the party to inform Chef Wolfgang Puck that he had crashed the van into his car. Wolfgang asked if was OK and told him that it was fine.
You have to get over your own fears to see what you are capable of.– Chef Hugo Bolanos
The next day, Hugo had to report to Spago for a demo for Chef Charlie Trotter. Feeling like “death”, Hugo shows up and has no idea what is about to happen. Will his parents get a phone call. Will he lose his job. What will happen?
During this time, Wolfgang Puck and Chef Lee Hefter were talking about the event and how it went. Wolfgang told Chef Hefter about the incident which did not go over well, to say the least.
As Wolfgang makes the rounds during the demo, he locks eyes with Hugo and says:
You are that stupid kid who hit my car.
Wolfgang calls over Chef Hefter, who respects Hugo for the fact that he showed up at Spago after the incident. Chef Hefter transferred Hugo from Catering to Spago to repay the debt. Once again it was about timing as Hugo owned the situation.
Hugo ended up spending 10 years at Spago working his way up to #3 in the kitchen. When famous chefs such as Daniel Boulud or Alain Ducasse would visit Spago, Hugo would ask to join their operations for a summer to learn new cooking techniques.
He made it happen and paid his own way. The world’s kitchens were Hugo’s internship.
You cannot cook great food or give a great experience unless you received that great food. Received that great experience and seen that for yourself.– Chef Hugo Bolanos
From Spago, Hugo transferred to the Hotel Bel-Air where he created the annual End-of-Summer Barbecue. This conversation evolves into a discussion around not giving up when facing obstacles in life.
With COVID-19 impacting the world, Hugo’s dream of opening his own restaurant was starting to diminish. Having to make a big life decision, Hugo pivoted and shifted to a takeaway restaurant business – Búho Rouge.
With takeaway food, packaging and ingredients are crucial. Grayson and Hugo have an in-depth conversation around packaging and foods that can be packaged for takeaway and delivery.
Building upon packaging, Grayson asks Hugo for his thoughts on cloud kitchens and what the experience will look like for customers when the food is delivered.
I am looking for whatever that next platform is.– Chef Hugo Bolanos
Closing out the conversation, Grayson and Hugo discuss culinary experiences and why they are important for the hospitality industry.
Recorded on Tuesday, November 24, 2020