Across the United States, in all fields of endeavor, Latinos are working to uphold their place in American society. Fox News Latino is proud to present "Our American Dream" – a series of snapshots and profiles of Latino success stories.
Perhaps more than any other industry, the restaurant business provides a regular place for new immigrants to make their transition into the American workforce. Kitchens all over the country are filled with those in search of the American dream, often enduring long hours for very little money. In many ways these are thankless jobs, yet there are a countless number of people waiting to fill these positions.
Ricardo Cardona’s story begins this way. A new immigrant from El Salvador, Cardona came to New York City at the age of 15 and got his first gig as a dishwasher. As he tells it, “I started with washing dishes and then I became the chef’s personal slave.”
But the hard work paid off. Cardona quickly moved up the ranks of 'la cocina,' handling food prep and eventually joining the line as a cook. Then – as it frequently does – life threw Cardona a curveball. He became a father at the age of 18, and his job became a career.
“Then it was more serious you know? You don’t count the hours of work anymore. You do what you need to do,” said Cardona.
With no formal training, Cardona was able to land a job at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. But the position came with more pressure for the then-ambitious 19-year-old.
“I borrowed the text books from the Culinary Institute of America. I would read them on the train, with a dictionary to translate, so that I could be on level with those guys.”
A few years later, at the age of 25, the former dishwasher and the newly titled chef opened his first restaurant, Josephina’s, just across the street from Lincoln Center.
In 1999, when artists like Marc Anthony were taking part in a “Latin explosion” within pop music, Cardona joined a different kind of Latin movement. For the first time, he diverted from French-American Cuisine and joined restaurateur Jimmy Rodriguez at the very successful “Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe”.
“This was a very hardcore Latino restaurant. Now I was cooking for Puerto Rican and Dominicans and a roster of Latino celebrities. By going back to my Latin roots, I became more successful,” he said.
Coming from Central America, Cardona not only had to learn about Puerto Rican cuisine but about a very different Caribbean Latin culture, one for which he developed a respect and admiration.
“One experience I will never forget was while I was with the Ritz Carlton and someone called me a 'spic'," he said. "I was the only Latino in the kitchen at that time but our union rep was a Puerto Rican and he made a big deal about it. I will never forget the way he stuck up for me back then. I think the Puerto Rican community opened doors for Latinos in this country. I mean we have Sonia Sotomayor in the Supreme Court”.
Embracing Caribbean Latin culture was not the only byproduct of his professional foray into Latin cuisine. Cardona was also able to witness and experience how giving back to his community was just as rewarding as receiving support.
“I believe in karma and whatever was given to you, you have to become a vessel that gives back," he said. "Everything you put out will come back to you somehow.”
Chef Cardona continued to expand beyond the Bronx hotspot, and is currently the consulting chef for many restaurants all over the country and Dominican Republic, including the popular chain “Mamajuana”. He is also chef for the New York Yankees and stars in a new reality show on nuvoTV (formerly SiTV) called “Mission Menu”.
“I wouldn’t trade the hard work because I wanted to experience what it was like to be successful to enjoy a better quality of life. I’ve been all over the world and I don’t care how beautiful it is, here in America you find the opportunity to succeed. I took a chance and took advantage of that opportunity."
As for his advice to others - dare to dream big.
“You have all the tools here, you have the education, the privilege of going to school to study," he said. "What would be your excuse for not being a success?”
Erica Y. Lopez is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @LaloSays