Douglas Rodriguez had a near instant affinity for cooking. He was in a professional kitchen by age 12 and co-owned his first restaurant by age 21, South Beach’s Wet Paint Café. He helped to preach the gospel of contemporary Latin cooking in New York City at Patria, and now owns four Latin restaurants that span three cities. Alma de Cuba resides in Philadelphia, Deseo is in Scottsdale, OLA‘s in Miami, as is his recent addition to South Beach, De Rodriguez Cuba. We spoke with Rodriguez on April 12 at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, and he shared insights that hint at how he’s cultivated culinary success.
Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
No. I knew I was going to be a chef at nine years old. Julia Child’s always been my mentor, watching her on TV, and always knew I was going to be a chef. I always said it. I knew I was not going to be a cop or a fireman. I always said, “I’m going to be a chef.”
What was your very first night like in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was that?
My very first job, 12 years old, I was a dishwasher at a restaurant in Miami, and my dishwashing career literally lasted three weeks. One time, the executive of the restaurant – it was called Pietro’s – gave me a case of whole garlic heads and asked me to peel the garlic. He showed me once. You wrap it in a napkin, get the cloves, mash it up with a sauté pan and pop the cloves. I came back with an entire case of peeled garlic in less than two hours, and he thought I had some secret helpers – elves – helping me. “It’s impossible you peeled that garlic so quickly.” I never washed another dish in my life after that. The guy took me under his wing and I was peeling stuff and prepping. Right after that, a friend of mine who I was going to junior high school with – his father was the General Manager of the Omni Hotel in downtown Miami – and gave me a job that was an externship. I got to work for minimum wage in different departments in the hotel.
What was the very first restaurant that you owned, and how did that opportunity come about?
It was called the Wet Paint Café. It was in Miami Beach, on Lincoln Road, and this was my partner here, 30 years ago.
[Rodriguez’s partner chimes in: “21 years old.”]
He gave me my very first opportunity.
What’s your favorite part about working in the restaurant industry?
My favorite part is that it’s always changing. It’s never the same thing, and in order to stay in the game, you’ve got to always change. It’s an evolution of everything, an evolution of growing up as a person, an evolution of growing up as a manager, and you wear a lot of different hats, and the day is never the same. There’s no monotony in the day. It’s not like being in an office and being in front of a computer. It’s multitasking. I just love it. My job is so exciting. There’s nothing I’d rather do than wake up in the morning and go to work.
Do you feel like, in terms of Latin cuisine, it was a bigger challenge to open your restaurants when you did, than it would be today?
No. I think the first one was the game changer. It made people look at Latin cuisine in a white tablecloth environment. No, it hasn’t been a challenge for me. It’s actually been a gift, to be quite honest with you.
What’s the biggest challenge of operating multiple restaurants?
Finding the right help. Finding the right people.
Would you say that signature dishes are a positive?
Both a positive and a negative. I have two dishes on my menu that I can’t get away from. One is a chocolate cigar that I’ve been making for 25 years. It’s not that great, and I’ve changed it a few times to try to make it better. Then I have another dish called a smoked marlin salad. That’s a good dish, but you can’t take it off the menu. People expect to see it.
Are they also your best selling dishes?
They’re the most recognized dishes. I wouldn’t say they’re the best sellers, but they’re the most often asked about or written about in any blog.
What are your best sellers at each restaurant, and why do you think they sell more?
Well, I think the more familiar dishes, the more normal dishes on the menu. I have a harder time selling sweetbreads than a New York strip.
Is there anything that you don’t enjoy eating?