El Cocotero: One Venezuelan’s Dream

El Cocotero in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York (Photo by Niurka Vidal for Voices of NY)

Luis (Lucho) Quintero used to work as a receptionist at his brother Arturo’s flower shop. One day Arturo found out that the business Taylor’s Bakery in Chelsea was closing. Immediately, it occurred to him that his brother should open a restaurant, and he suggested to Lucho that he leave the flower shop and do just that.

“It is now or never!” Arturo told his brother. Lucho put together $110,000, with money he saved from working as a receptionist and as head of a kitchen in a deli. He also borrowed money from some friends and family members who lived in New York and Venezuela.

After raising the initial capital, Lucho rented the premises where Taylor’s Bakery was, but was afraid to open the new restaurant. “I rented the place in August 2003, I had three months to renovate it, but the place remained closed, I did nothing, I was afraid. Finally in 2004 we started at once. I called an architectural company. My brother and his husband, who is an interior designer, also helped me a lot with the décor and we created El Cocotero,” Lucho explained.

The grand opening of El Cocotero in 2004 was a total success, especially after the publication of an article about the restaurant in New York Magazine. “Thanks to the article a lot of people attended the opening and from then on, everything has been great,” said an emotional Quintero. At the beginning he only had one employee and the restaurant served eight different types of “arepas.

“Here in El Cocotero I’m the chef, I’m the star, the face of the business. I’m not a morning person, I wake up late every day and I come to the restaurant to try our main dishes to make sure the quality of our food is good or [to see] if there is something [that needs] to be added. For example, I serve as the quality assurance specialist for our nata, a homemade Venezuelan cream,” Lucho explained.

Luis Quintero and his employee Manuel Gallardo seasoning a steak at El Cocotero. (Photo by Niurka Vidal for Voices of NY)

Although Venezuelan cuisine was not well-known at the time in New York, gluten-free arepas or arepas of his own imagination with peculiar names like Miss Venezuela, La Dayana Mendoza (Miss Universe 2008’s name) or La Pelúa (the hairy), fascinated his customers.

“Offering our clients a different taste, innovation and well-presented dishes is what differentiated us from the rest,” Lucho said. His restaurant also offers other dishes like Bola de Pabellón, which consists of a ripe plantain’s ball stuffed with shredded beef, black bean sauce and Guasacaca (a Venezuelan sauce based on avocado, tomato and onion, similar to Mexican Guacamole). This variation of traditional Venezuelan dish Pabellón “was invented by Lucho. It has a price of $2.50 as an appetizer and $16 as a dinner dish,” said Lucho’s business partner Mirian Mavarez.

Mavarez started working in the kitchen as a cook’s assistant and became El Cocotero’s shareholder in 2012. That year Quintero offered Mavarez 50 percent of the ownership in exchange for her work as business manager and she accepted.

At the restaurant, they have hosted renowned celebrities like Venezuelan and Grammy Award-winning composer Simón Díaz and the American actor and film producer Harrison Ford. Customers come from all around the world.

They’ve fallen in love with the bistro-style traditional cuisine and rural décor of the restaurant, on the walls of which are hung pictures of Colombo-Venezuelan Wayuu indigenous peoples and different religious statues. Also on display are an antique mill used to make the flour for arepas and a statue of the Goddess Maria Lionza, the central figure of Marialioncismo, a cult that consists of a mixture of African, indigenous and Catholic beliefs. El Cocotero seats 50.

“All my life I wanted to be a cook”

Quintero was born in 1959 in a small city called Cabimas in the state of Zulia in Venezuela. He was raised in a low-income family with his six brothers. “My dad worked at a brewing company, and my mother, with the help of my grandmother, was in charge of our education, making sure we learned to be disciplined,” he said.

His parents got divorced and Quintero moved to Caracas with his mother. He went to Universidad Central de Venezuela to study civil engineering. “I hated it, that was not my thing, all I wanted in life was to be a cook.”

“At that time in Venezuela everyone was expected to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, not me, that was not my cup of tea, I even considered becoming a priest just to skip school, I didn’t like it at all. I barely graduated from high school, I even forgot how to add,” he joked. “In order to support ourselves my brother and I sold Hallacas – similar to Mexican tamales – in a popular market in Caracas called Guaicaipuro. We did so well that I would skip classes and ultimately I got kicked out of school,” he added.

Celebrating the opening of the second El Cocotero restaurant, in New Jersey. (Photo by Niurka Vidal for Voices of NY)

Quintero moved to New York at the age of 24. He never lost focus and he decided to study English while he worked at his brother’s flower shop and his other job at a deli. “At the deli I started as a dishwasher and within just three months I was the head of the kitchen in charge of all the hot food. I learned so much, that’s where I realized that cooking was my calling,” he said.

The budding chef studied three years at the New York Institute of Culinary Education. These studies were the building blocks for becoming the top chef at El Cocotero restaurant. The hard work and dedication he has put into the restaurant have won him numerous awards and invitations for special appearances on major television networks like Telemundo and The Food Network.

New restaurant

Thirteen years after opening El Cocotero restaurant in Chelsea, Quintero and his partner Mirian Mavarez opened their second restaurant on Feb. 24 of 2017 across the Hudson River. Both invested “an initial capital of $285,000. All the décor work lasted seven months,” Mavarez said.

The new El Cocotero restaurant has 100 seats and is located at 749 Bergen Ave. in Jersey City, New Jersey. When asked how they gathered $285,000 to open this restaurant, Mavarez said $100,000 came from El Cocotero Chelsea and she invested $185,000 by borrowing money from friends and from her credit cards.

According to Mavarez, the way she and Lucho cope with rent increases in Chelsea is by focusing more on sales growth. She said that instead of firing employees, both owners meet with them to find ways to improve sales. “In 2016 we almost went out of business because the landlord didn’t want to renew the lease agreement. But we renegotiated, reached a new agreement and signed a contract for four more years,” she said.

Quintero says his dream is “to open El Cocotero restaurants all around the world and then I would like to go on to study culinary arts in Paris, a dream my mom always had for me. We are also thinking of starting a new brand of Latin food for people to be able to prepare at home, and a live cooking show in front of people, not for TV.”

“It is said that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan! You have to believe in yourself. Self-esteem is not something you give or get, it is something within your heart and soul. I see myself as the most handsome, creative and talented person, a man who has followed and fulfilled his dreams,” claimed Lucho.

Aside from cooking, Lucho enjoys jogging, dancing and pampering his cat “Pao Pao”, his companion at his New Jersey home. He responded to congratulations on the opening of his new restaurant with his friendly signature salute: “Tonk iu.”

Niurka Vidal is a reporter for Impacto Latin News. This article was produced as part of the 2016 Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. Another version of this story appeared earlier in Spanish in Impacto Latin News.


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