“I felt like I was lip-syncing, like I was Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Nigh Live,” says Adolfo Garcia. Garcia is talking about Rio Mar. More specifically, why, after owning and serving as executive chef at Rio Mar for more than ten years, he up and sold his share to longtime partner Nick Bazan. The nightly act of putting on a chef’s coat, walking around the dining room and being called “chef” had worn him down. Not because of the stress and hard work, but because Garcia was no longer cooking, he was no longer deserving of the title in his mind. His other restaurants demanded more attention: There were servers to train, managers to hire, concepts to develop. Suddenly, after 35 years in the restaurant business, the 51-year-old Garcia was no longer cooking. He had become a restaurateur.
It is late summer. No conventions are in town — besides ones bringing in Lutheran teenagers. We sit down inside a Mano, which attracts locals during the summer by running special menus based on the cuisine of various Italian regions. Out comes a cocktail and a platter of cured meats, cheeses and olives. After a quick chat with his general manager about the number of reservations on the books, Garcia leans forward and begins to tell his tale.
He was born and raised in New Orleans by parents of Panamanian descent, his childhood, one of two cultures. “Outside of my house, I grew up American, but inside the house I crossed into another culture, another time zone,” Garcia explains. When he was 12, his family moved back to Panama for two years. There, they would take weekend trips to the beach. Right before reaching their destination, there was an outpost where the river met the sea where his family would stop at a roadside stand to eat grilled lobsters and rice with coconut milk. The name of that outpost was Rio Mar.
When Garcia returned to New Orleans, he began working at Pancho’s, first as a dishwasher and then a busser. Soon, he was a waiter and moving on to other restaurants around town. During this time, he worked for his first culinary and spiritual mentor Goffredo Fraccaro at the now closed La Riviera. While waiting tables, Garcia would come in early to watch Fraccaro work. He watched how his knife moved while cleaning veal, the way sauces simmered on the stove and learned to make the then exotic spaghetti carbonara. He spent some time at UNO before moving on to UT-Austin where he majored in political science and planned to go to law school. Law school was the smart, responsible choice for a child of immigrants. In Garcia’s mind, it would give them something to tell their friends and family: “Oh, Adolfo? He’s a lawyer in America.”
“My parents were different than normal Latin parents; they told me to do what I loved. My dad especially would constantly tell me to get into the restaurant business,” Garcia recalls. So, Garcia did what anyone facing the prospect of going to law school should do; he picked up his life, packed up his car and drove home to New Orleans to work in restaurants while waiting to be accepted to the Culinary Institute of America.
In the mid-’80s, the CIA was a campus crammed inside of an old monastery in Hyde Park, New York, with students who came mainly from New York, Boston and Philadelphia. For someone who spent his whole life up to that point south of Mandeville, the whole experience was something of a shock. But being older than most of his fellow students, Garcia took to the curriculum easily and has fond memories of his time there: “All we did was smoke weed, drink beer and talk about places you’d worked, places you’d eaten, chefs you wanted to work for and dishes you wanted to make.”
After the CIA, it was on to New York City, working for Alain Sailhac at the famed 21 Club. Then Garcia joined the team at Menage a Trois, the Anthony Thompson restaurant and the last hurrah of nouvelle cuisine. Next, he became sous chef at the Russian Tea Room, where 30 cooks served 1,000 diners a day. “I learned how to run a kitchen, how to deal with the unions, how to make the suits happy. That was an operation,” Garcia says.
Itching for a change and knowing that marriage and kids were on the horizon, he found himself drawn to better understand the food of Panama by learning the food of Spain. So in 1992, Garcia went to Madrid to work and study. The tradition and techniques were overwhelming, and he absorbed as much as he could from the other cooks he worked alongside. “The other cooks couldn’t understand this. They would tell me, ‘You came all the way from America to learn this? It’s just food,’” Garcia says.
After returning to New Orleans with a wife and a baby, he opened Criollo, which in his words was a “bad situation.” The food suffered from a lack of identity, and the cuisine of Spain got put on the back burner as bills piled up and tables needed to turn. Garcia’s tenure at Criollo would end within two years but not without introducing him to Nick Bazan. Soon, the two began planning Rio Mar, which would take the Latin heritage and experiences of Garcia and Bazan (Bazan’s family being from Argentina) and marry them to the New Orleans palate.
Rio Mar opened in 2000. Not a year into their tenure, 9/11 occurred. The resulting economic calamity reduced the restaurant to a staff of nine serving lunch and dinner, six days a week. In between services, they slept on the floor on rolled-up napkins, waiting and hoping the crowds would return. In a few years, Rio Mar was humming again and plans were underway to expand by opening an Argentinean steakhouse next door. The opening was set for late August 2005. “I learned a huge lesson when Katrina hit, you have to be very conservative in this business. We got lucky. Because we were trying to open a second restaurant, we had money in the bank. That money came in handy,” Garcia explains. To this day, the only thing he splurges on personally is a nice car every few years.
Within a month of Katrina, Rio Mar was back open, serving simple plate lunches of roast pork, beans and rice. Within another month, the white tablecloths had returned. On the first day of hurricane season in 2006, La Boca opened. The decision to open the restaurant was a gutsy one, but it was motivated by prime real estate and a challenge. “Opening La Boca was a very personal thing for Nick and I. We did seafood with a Latin twist; now, let’s flip it and show New Orleans we can do steaks as well,” Garcia says.
He had a stable of young culinary talent and needed to find outlets for it. “This is always the hardest challenge of owning a restaurant. So many good people work for me, and I needed to find something they could do to keep them with me,” Garcia says. Thus, a Mano. For the first time, Garcia partnered with one of his former cooks, Joshua Smith. Smith was an ardent student of Italian cooking, and the restaurant became an extension of his skill set. Within a year of opening, a Mano and Smith were racking up awards. Then one day, Smith came to Garcia and said he was divorcing his wife and running off with a waitress. “It was like you buy your kid a bicycle because all he fucking talks about is riding a bike; then, he no longer wants to ride a bike,” Garcia says.
He continued to expand, this time upriver to Freret Street where, last summer, he opened the High Hat Cafe and Ancora. High Hat is an ode to the cooking of the Mississippi Delta. To accomplish this, Garcia teamed up with his old friend from New York, Chip Apperson. Garcia worked for Apperson at Shelby in New York after his time in Spain. They kept in touch, and a few years ago, Apperson moved to New Orleans. Apperson told Garcia he’d retired from the restaurant business, but Garcia saw right through that. “In the restaurant business, no one retires,” he says. “You either go bankrupt or die.” Meanwhile, Ancora is an authentic Neapolitan pizza parlor run by Jeff Talbot whose oven gets more press than most C-list celebs.
It was George Solomon who approached Garcia with an idea for better food at the movies. “George says to me, ‘I know the movie business; you know the food business. Let’s work together. But more importantly, let’s stay out of each other’s way,” Garcia recalls.
Construction on Gusto at the Theatres at Canal Place was halfway done when the deal was struck. Garcia had a month to develop a menu and learn how to serve food in the dark. The kitchen, he recalls, wasn’t even operational until the first day of service, which happened to be the premiere of Sex and the City 2, with 300 people on the books. Now that concept is expanding, with more seats at Canal Place and plans for a North Carolina complex. “This is my golden goose,” he says.
This is the backdrop that led Garcia to sell Rio Mar. Always teaching, always training and rarely cooking in his restaurants had transformed him from a chef to a restaurant owner. He grew tired of dealing with customers who wanted to complain to him personally about food he hadn’t cooked. After years of staff telling him to stop, he just recently discontinued his practice of kicking complainers out of his restaurant. He knows people think he’s rude, a charge he doesn’t deny. “The contract isn’t that we become best friends; it is that we serve you good food at a good price,” he says.
There are always other projects on his mind, but he’ll never do a cookbook because his biggest fear is hundreds of books with his “face on the cover sitting in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble.” Garcia still derives pleasure from seeing the doors open to his restaurants and people coming in to eat and drink and enjoy themselves. He no longer cooks in his restaurants, and as of this moment, he seems just fine with that.