This is the second installment in a three part story about two Marine veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars–Ruben Diodonet and Sam Finan–who, after their final deployment, followed their dream to own and operate a food cart in New York City.
Part 2: “Cooking in a restaurant means sweating, pushing your body, using your hands, creating something people want.”–Ruben Diodonet
Sam and Ruben talked about food whenever they met up during their deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trading ideas was a way for the two Marines to feel some sense of home, and take them away from what they were going through in country. At one point Sam told Ruben his idea for starting a food truck. He had no restaurant experience, but then how hard could food truck cooking be? He expected to work hard but he would have the opportunity to cook the kind of food he wanted. Ruben filed Sam’s idea away as something for him to circle back to.
When he returned home, Ruben applied and received an offer to join the New York City police force but he kept coming back to culinary school. What attracted him to becoming a chef was what had drawn him to the Marines. Restaurant kitchens are battlefields. They require your body, your hands, your mind, a firm set of knowledge, discipline. It would give him a sense of direction. And he was endowed with a natural knack for cooking, an instinct about how ingredients would blend together, an innate understanding of how recipes are structured and the imagination to create new dishes–all talents you can’t learn or fake. It began to made sense to him, given the resources available through the Veterans Administration, to enroll at the International Culinary Center and begin intensive training to become a chef.
Sam’s goal after he returned home was to pursue a masters degree in social work with the hope of working with veterans. His thesis looked at the VA’s approach to mental health and he designed a comprehensive program that covered service members throughout their lives. But he found few job openings and ended up taking a position at an organization who assisted families, in particular survivors of domestic violence, out of the shelter system and into transitional housing. He became responsible for 20 single-parent families in need of intensive counseling and supervision. On weekends, he taught himself to cook.
Ruben went from the culinary program into some of the best restaurants in the city, working his way up through kitchen lines and bent on learning as many techniques and cuisines as possible. He started at a high-end restaurant ruled by a formal chef who insisted on keeping the staff on a regiment routine of staying at one station and given no opportunity to veer from the chef’s recipes. His next stop was at an upscale rustic establishment where the cook allowed her staff the freedom to experience every kitchen station, including pitching in as a dish washer. Ruben could even offer dishes for the menu if the owners approved. He found his rhythm there but he was restless for different experiences. The restaurant business expects a level of impermanence in the staff and Ruben shifted through several more places to learn different cuisines and management styles, always looking for what he wanted to do for himself. Eventually he was hired at a posh Italian restaurant where he would learn how to cook on a wood-burning stove. He fell in love with the technique and when the owners expanded their concept to equip a food truck with a wood-burning stove to bake pizzas he jumped on it, cooking and managing the operation. Le Pain Quotidien recruited him to be the project manager for their food truck venture and he became involved in every aspect of the business including watching friction developing between the CEO and chefs.
Money started seeping away, staff stole from the trucks. Ruben returned to restaurants, obtaining a position at a trendy place with uptown and downtown locations. He liked the open kitchen design and enjoyed cooking in front of the patrons but it started to go wrong in the way Le Pain’s food truck business did: Money shortages, chef and owners bickering, staff stealing from the kitchen. Married now, he wanted to take control and be on his own, cooking the way he wanted to. He just didn’t know how.
Sam and Ruben continued their talks whenever they got together, bouncing recipe ideas off one another. Sam, gradually growing frustrated and disillusioned about the social service organization he was at, kept circling around the idea of going to culinary school.
Ruben’s wife worked at a program that helped veterans build up their resumes and find job openings. Sam asked her how he could go about starting a food truck.
“You should talk to Ruben,” she said.
A few months later, he quit his job and entered culinary school.
Ropa vieja is the national dish of Cuba. The men served it in their beef sandwich or platters. The ingredients are given in the amount they used for the truck which requires you to have a very large pot. For home cooking, half the ingredients. You can cook it either in your largest pot or a Dutch oven. The recipe is also great for a slow cooker. You’ll have plenty for 8 servings or about 20 lucky party guests.
2 Spanish onions
2 tablespoons canola oil
20 pound of round sirloin or chuck round beef, trimmed and cut into large even size fillets
2 quarts beef broth
5-8 plum tomatoes, stemmed and quartered
20 ounces white wine vinegar
20 garlic cloves
1 large pinch of cracked peppercorn
1 large pinch of salt
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
Peel and slice onions into large ring and layer them on the bottom of your pot then layer the onions on top.
Add 1 tablespoon of oil to a skillet and brown the beef fillets on all sides.
In a large bowl, mix the beef broth with the tomatoes, vinegar, garlic cloves, cracked peppercorns, and salt.
In a skillet, with just enough of the oil mix to cover the bottom, brown the meat on all sides over a medium flame. Strew the finished meat over the onions. Pour in the beef broth mixture and add enough water to cover the beef about 3/4 of the way. Add rosemary and thyme.
Cover the top of the pot with 2 layers of aluminum foil. (If you’re using a dutch over, use the lid.) Place in oven and cook for 10 hours. For slow cookers, cook for 10 hours on low or about 4 hours on high. The meat is done when it starts easily falling apart.
Remove from oven, shred the meat and return to the pot to stew a little more in the juices.
To serve: When you’re almost ready to serve, drain the meat and heat a tablespoon of the oil mix in a large skillet. When oil is hot, add the meat in a single layer (you may have to do this in batches). Mix in a pinch of salt, pepper and Sofrito over the meat and sear until you get a nice crust.