From Auto Mechanic to High-End Chef

Cosme Aguilar, 41, began working in a French restaurant as a doorman and also performed cleaning duties. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Cosme Aguilar only believed the news when he heard his brother Luis’ voice break with emotion on the phone as he said that he was not kidding, that their kitchen had received the prestigious Michelin star.

Since 2015, Aguilar has renewed his Michelin star every year, the last time as recently as a few weeks ago. His restaurant remains the only Latino eatery in the city to possess one.

The acknowledgement of the tough critics of the “bible” of world cuisine forever marked the trajectory of the Mexican chef and co-founder of Casa Enrique, in Long Island City. “A Michelin star puts you on the world’s map,” he said, referring to his diverse clientele.

The continued acknowledgement of the guide recognizes a man who learned everything he knows through hard work and self-confidence.

The 41-year-old native of Cintalapa, Chiapas, did not graduate from a prestigious cooking school. He learned about business at 18 by managing the auto shop his father owned in Puebla, and started out in the kitchen of a New York restaurant by performing the most humble job: cleaning.

All his brothers were electro-mechanical technicians, and he, too, had pursued a technical career because he liked cars. Although he was doing well in Puebla, he wanted to return to San Luis Potosí, where his whole family lived, and open a business there. “It didn’t go well,” he said.

With his business going under, some friends convinced him to go spend six months in the United States and visit his brother Luis in New York. “I thought that I was going back to reopen the shop, but I have been here for 20 years now.”

His brother was working in the kitchen at the French restaurant Le Solex, in Manhattan, and Cosme started there as a doorman and also performed cleaning duties. (…)

In 2003, the chef at Le Solex, who gave him his first opportunity, asked him to join him at another restaurant. There, he became chef and manager. Five years later, he arrived at Café Henri, owned by Winston Kulok. Aguilar used to cook for him at the catering kitchen located where Casa Enrique is today.

The Aguilar brothers had been thinking about starting their own business, and Kulok – whom Cosme describes as “family” – gave them his support. The opportunity came up when the owner of the catering kitchen offered them to take over the lease. “It was a comfortable rent,” said Aguilar about the space, located in the heart of the recently renewed and modern neighborhood.

(…) Casa Enrique opened in 2012 with three associates: the Aguilar brothers and Kulok.

“I had my savings of 10 years, and everything I had went into this place. I had nothing left,” he said, adding that he had no qualms about doing this for two reasons.

The first, that he considers Mexican cuisine “one of the best in the world, and it is hard not to reap the benefits of your work if you execute it the right way.”

The second reason: Aguilar had learned to trust himself. He realized that he was a fast learner, and experience taught him that, when you set your mind on something, “there is a chance that you will achieve it.”

“We manage ourselves the old way. We do everything on a small scale; like family,” he said about the business, which employs some 40 people. “One of the things I have learned is to value our employees.”

Cosme was confident that the restaurant “was going to be a hit – we had a lot of energy – but I didn’t think it was going to go this well.”

(…) The Aguilars believe that they could open another place in the future. Cosme dreams of renovating a hacienda in Mexico to host banquets. In New York, he wants to keep that star that has shone brightly at Casa Enrique for years.

He said that, all these years, the hardest part has been sacrificing hours of sleep and having lived with the bare minimum. “Twenty years have passed, and I have forgotten to get married and have kids.” Time has flown, but Aguilar admits that he is enjoying it.

“When I was little, someone told me that I had to choose a profession that I liked so much that it wouldn’t feel like I was working. Cooking is not work to me.”

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