Friday, April 18, 2014
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Chef Carmen Gonzalez, above, in the kitchen at The Danforth Inn in Portland, where she is busily preparing for the planned May opening of Carmen at The Danforth. Gonzalez’s plans for the summer menu emphasize seafood with a Latin twist.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
The Danforth Inn owner, Kimberly Swan, with dog Ava, in the “salon,” where guests are served cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before dinner.
Gordon Chibroski/ Staff Photographer
"Right there in the boat, with a machete, they would clean the fish, take the head off," Gonzalez said, "and they would save the heads for my mom, because when we went home at 8 o'clock at night, everybody came to my house, where my mom would make her very famous fish soup with the fish heads."
The wife of one of the fishermen would dig a hole in the beach sand and fill it with wood, then place a cast-iron pot filled with lard inside the hole. Fishermen would bring her fish, and she'd throw them in the pot to fry, then serve them on paper plates with a few tostones (fried plantains), a couple of wedges of avocado and a lemon.
Everyone sat in the sand and ate that for lunch. It's a memory Gonzalez treasures.
"I've been asked many, many times if there's anywhere in the world that you would go back and eat something right now – and I have eaten at some pretty decent places – I always say I would love to go back to being 10 and eating on the sand my fish with my tostones, my avocado and my lemon," Gonzalez said.
"And I also saw the happiness of everybody when everybody was eating. I always like to make sure people around me are happy, so that was it. At 10, I started my crusade that I was going to be a chef."
Gonzalez announced to her father that not only did she want to be a chef when she grew up, she wanted to own her own restaurant. She started regularly perusing the classifieds, looking for the perfect location. (Her father always asked, "How are you going to buy it?")
Gonzalez and her family eventually moved to San Juan. At 19, her persistence reading the classifieds paid off. She saw that a place called the Cafe de San Juan was for sale.
The asking price was $17,000. Gonzalez convinced a neighbor to go into business with her and buy it, a memory that elicits laughter.
"In three months," Gonzalez recalled, "we were the hottest place in Old San Juan."
ON TO NEW YORK
In 1983, Gonzalez moved to New York and went to culinary school at the New York Restaurant School. She graduated on a Sunday, and on Monday started working at The Quilted Giraffe, a renowned restaurant in 1980s New York.
She also spent time at another well-known spot, John Clancy's, where the owner called her "Cha Cha" because she was "always dancing the cha-cha-cha in the kitchen" trying to put out 200 to 300 covers a night.
She thrived on the adrenaline rush.
"I loved when I walked in the restaurant, they would tell me, 'We have 300 reservations tonight,' " she recalled. "I'm so hyper that, to me, that meant I was going to have fun for four hours. And everybody was looking at me like, are you freaking insane? To me, that was music to my ears."
In 2003, Gonzalez moved to Miami and opened Carmen the Restaurant. Esquire soon named it one of the Best New Restaurants in America.
The restaurant, which was located in a hotel, suffered a lot of water damage from a hotel fire and Gonzalez was forced to close. She soon moved back to New York, "because this is where my heart always is." She's been working as a chef consultant in New York ever since.
In 2010, Gonzalez landed a spot on season two of the Bravo show "Top Chef Masters" and made it far enough to raise $10,000 for her charity, the ASPCA.
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Carmen Gonzalez grew up in a small fishing village in Puerto Rico. She opened her first restaurant at 19 in San Juan and has since worked at highly regarded restaurants in Miami and New York.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer