This is Carlos Barrera Duarte, the executive chef at Hey Hey Canteen. Carlos grew up in Mexico City, Mexico and talked about going to culinary school and becoming a chef since he was 5 years old. He says that growing up in his house, everything revolved around food. Whether it was a special occasion, a sad occasion or anything in between, you could find his family gravitating towards the kitchen, where his mom and dad cooked on a daily basis. Carlos found cooking interesting and it became a source of comfort for him, especially as he got older and sitting in classroom became more and more difficult. He was restless in school but cooking gave him a process to focus on and he enjoyed it because he was good at it. He began spending his summers working at a bakery and then a sushi restaurant and then at 15, he started taking some kitchen classes. When he got older, Carlos says that he tried to enroll in culinary arts school a few times but once he had experience in the industry, he realized that most chefs never went to school so he would question why he was spending the money and talk himself out of it. But his dad saw the value in school and convinced him to pursue his degree, so Carlos ended up enrolling in a four year culinary arts program at a small school in Mexico. After he finished school, he wasn’t sure what to do with his degree so he lived on a vineyard in Mexico for three months learning how to make wine before moving to Spain and working at restaurants in San Sebastian, Barcelona and Madrid. After a few years, Carlos moved back to Mexico but he didn’t feel that there were enough opportunities in the food and beverage industry there for him to be successful. So he decided to emigrate to the U.S., where he believed he could start fresh and challenge himself. However, after almost giving up a few times, he says he feels lucky to be where he is today and that he owes his success to the people who have helped him along the way.
In 2012, Carlos got a work visa and moved to Chicago where some of his family was living. But once he got to Chicago, things got complicated because he spoke no English and didn’t have any connections in the food industry in the U.S. He ended up taking a job at McDonald’s and then worked in a factory folding boxes. After a few months, he started thinking about returning to Mexico and going to work for his dad, but then he got a call from a childhood friend of his mom’s who lived in the U.S. Although they had never met before, he told Carlos that he was a doctor in South Dakota and that he could help him get a job in the food industry there. Carlos didn’t have enough money for the flight so the doctor emailed him a plane ticket for the next day. Carlos had no option. He didn’t want to give up on his dream and move back to Mexico so he moved to South Dakota. Right when he got there, Carlos says the doctor became like his second dad. He got Carlos a job at a restaurant in Rapid City and let Carlos live with him for a year until he could afford his own apartment. Although no one could communicate with him because he still spoke very little English, he started off as a prep cook at the restaurant and within six months was promoted to head chef. He spent two years in South Dakota, helping the owner run his two restaurants, until the owner decided to close for renovations. It was supposed to be four weeks but it ended up taking two months and during his time off Carlos decided to go to New York to visit some friends from culinary school.
Carlos says that he fell in love with New York when he came to visit. It had so much more diversity than the cities he had been living in that it felt like home. When he returned to South Dakota, the doctor pushed him to move to New York permanently but Carlos didn’t feel ready. He had no savings and no plan for what he was going to do once he got there but the doctor insisted and ended up buying him a plane ticket for the following week. Carlos moved to New York in January 2015 and again, had no connections. All of his friends from culinary school had moved back to Mexico and he had nowhere to live so he started staying in a hostel. He tried to search for jobs but couldn’t find any and he began getting depressed and feeling very lonely. The move started feeling like too much for him and although he wanted to work in food, he didn’t feel he could be a chef in a place like New York. He stopped looking for jobs and slowly began running out of money. Finally his dad made him a deal: he gave him money to live in New York for one more month and said if he didn’t have a job by the end of the month, he had to move back to Mexico. As he was nearing the end of the month, he met his girlfriend on a dating app and it motivated him to stay in New York. He started looking for jobs again and got an interview at 2 Duck Goose, a Chinese restaurant in Gowanus, and ended up getting the job as a line cook. On his first day of work, there were a lot of different events going on in the city so his hostel got booked up and he didn’t have anywhere to stay. So Kay, the owner of 2 Duck Goose, let him stay in the restaurant and shower at her apartment. Carlos says that’s the moment he knew that he wanted to work with Kay, because she didn’t even know him and offered to help. He says that she’s supported him since day one.
Similar to his time in Rapid City, Carlos started from the bottom at 2 Duck Goose and after six months, there was some changes to the staff and he was promoted to sous chef. Now that he was finally in a position at a restaurant he was happy with, he decided to take some time off and go back to Mexico with his girlfriend so that he could show her his country. While he was on vacation, Kay emailed him that the concept wasn’t doing well and that they were going to have to close the business. When he got back to New York, Carlos already had ideas for a new concept that he wanted to start with Kay because he enjoyed working with her. They met and started brainstorming and both had similar ideas of wanting to create a healthy menu with Asian flavors that was accessible for everyone. They wanted to continue to provide delicious food to their customers but at a lower price point, so they decided to make it a fast casual restaurant. Together they spent six months coming up with the concept for Hey Hey Canteen- creating the menu, working on dishes and coming up with the branding. It was a whole new experience for Carlos because he had never been involved in the opening of a restaurant before. But since he had created the concept with Kay, he became the executive chef on the project and says that Kay gave him the support and the freedom to figure out what worked. He says that they changed the menu a lot before it could get to where it is now. In fact, the Caesar salad is the only dish they kept on the menu from the beginning and everything else is new. They try to work with seasonal ingredients to keep everything fresh but also keep the dishes simple and cook them in the right way, using the right techniques to make sure that the taste is correct. They also try to stay very detail-oriented to stand out from their competitors because there are so many health-focused bowl/salad places in New York that they have to be unique to differentiate themselves. One of the key ways that they do this is with their homemade dressings, which they make from scratch each day. Carlos says that focusing on the details is very important to him because the care that they put into their food is evident to their customers.
The most rewarding part of working at Hey Hey Canteen, Carlos says, is his team. He believes that the team they have now is pretty solid, especially since in most kitchens they’re always rotating people in and out. Every one of them came into the new concept that he and Kay created so they’re always bringing in new ideas for a dish or feedback on how an item can be improved. Because they’re such a small team (only ten people), they have the confidence to be honest with one another but they also support each other when things are happening outside of work. So having a team he can rely on is huge for him. He knows everyone that he works with is very responsible and they all trust each other to get their job done. He doesn’t feel it’s helpful to be on top of people telling them what to do but it’s also taken them years to find the right people that are committed to the concept and have the same goal of making the restaurant succeed. Everyone on their team has been together for at least a year and everyone brings their own strengths to the menu. Now that they have found those people, it makes work much easier because they’ve created a positive environment where people enjoy coming to work. Carlos has worked with most of theses people for a few years at this point and he says that he “definitely considers these people my family”. They’re a diverse group and since they’re all immigrants from different parts of the world (Mexico, Tibet, Nepal, Hong Kong), they’re all so close because most of them don’t have families here to rely on, they’re each other’s family. He personally tries to keep in touch with everyone every day and know what’s going on with them both inside and outside of work. He feels close to his team because he feels like he knows what’s happening in their lives the same way they know what’s happening in his. And it’s nice to know that someone is looking out for you, especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed in such a stressful environment like the kitchen.
Carlos believes he’s “super chill” as a chef because he doesn’t believe in yelling at people and creating more stress in a high-stress environment. He says that he’s seen those strict chefs who run very strict kitchens and always promised himself that when he started running his own kitchen, he wouldn’t make the same mistakes that he thinks these chefs made. And his advice for other cooks or chefs just starting out in the industry is to not think there’s only one way to work as a chef because there’s definitely no one set way to do things. He believes that it’s important to care for the people you work with and to create a relationship where there’s respect on both sides so that you know that the people who work below you care for your problems the same way you care about theirs. If you treat people like machines rather than human beings, they’re not going to be invested in the job and eventually they’ll leave. Carlos and his team have a close relationship so they’re all invested in Hey Hey Canteen, which Carlos calls “his baby”. It’s been three years since they re-opened their Gowanus location as Hey Hey Canteen and now they’re focused on trying to gain more exposure in Manhattan with their new location at Turnstyle Market. Moving forward, Carlos says he’s excited to expand their menu offerings and open more locations so that customers can enjoy Hey Hey Canteen as much as he’s enjoyed creating it.
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