Chefs are finding refuge from New York's High rents and entrenched hierarchy in the unlikely confines of hotel kitchens.

By Diana Spechler
Updated July 18, 2017
Luisana Suegart

“The next three superfoods that everyone’s going to be talking about are all from Peru,” Chef Thais Rodriguez of the JW Marriott Cusco says. She’s standing in front of a chocolate vendor in San Pedro Market, wearing her chef’s coat, the sleeves pushed up to the elbow, her right forearm vibrantly tattooed. She elaborates for her audience (she takes guests to the market twice a week): Though it tastes herbal, rather than nutty, sacha inchi is used like a peanut, and is packed with antioxidants, protein, and fiber; camu camu is an acidic fruit filled with vitamins C and A; and kaniwa is a more protein-rich version of quinoa. “Not that people around here use the word ‘superfood,’” she says. “They just know what’s good for them. They’ve known forever.” Rodriguez seems totally in her element, her dimples sinking into her cheeks as she moves easily between Spanish and English depending on whom she’s addressing. She’s bilingual thanks to her Dominican parents, and a New Yorker to the bone: She grew up in Washington Heights, helped her mother run a Latin-fusion restaurant in Ridgewood, New Jersey, studied at the French Culinary Institute in Soho, and made pastry at Jean-Georges. But then took a step chefs once might have considered beneath them: She left arguably the most prestigious restaurant scene in the world to cook in a far-flung hotel. Newfound creative freedom in hotel kitchens combined with the burdens of New York City are sending renowned chefs on a diaspora of sorts.

JW Marriott El Convent Cusco

“New York is great, but it isn’t easy,” Chef Kelly Jeun tells me over the phone. Like Rodriguez, Jeun is a New Yorker, born and raised. She spent most of her career working at Eleven Madison Park, recently named the number one restaurant in the world, before taking off in 2013 to run Orsone, a new restaurant in a B&B in Italy, with her boyfriend, Chef Eduardo Valle Lobo who spent time at Del Posto. “You’re doing two hundred, three hundred covers a day,” Lobo tells me. “And your rent is so high.”

Lobo's is a common refrain among chefs departing the city. “I was cooking at Daniel,” Chef Trevor La Presle tells me over the phone, “making $10.50 an hour. I got priced out of my Bushwick apartment, so I moved to Bed-Stuy. I was paying $1,700, and then my landlord decided to raise my rent.”

Around that time, La Presle was offered the executive chef position at Casa Fayette, a GrupoHabita hotel in Guadalajara. He had just returned from a month-long backpacking trip in Mexico, where he’d fallen in love with the markets of Oaxaca and the endless varieties of chiles. He accepted the Casa Fayette position in 2014 and immediately started making $50,000 a year – more than enough for a good life in Guadalajara. The $400 a month he and his wife paid to rent a spacious two-bedroom in a great neighborhood might not have been able to rent a parking in space back in New York.

But it’s not just about the money. In their new home—a medieval town of just under 12,000 near the Italy-Croatia border—Jeun and Lobo found a new, exciting challenge. "At Orsone, we could build the thing from the ground up. In New York, you’re working under a chef,” Jeun says, “and maybe it’s one of the best chefs in the world. But you think about breaking out. Having control.” Their new kitchen also offered them a sense of place. Cooking Italian food in New York, Jeun and Lobo both tell me, even at the best restaurants in the City, just isn’t the same as cooking Italian food in Italy.

Thais Rodriguez is having a similar experience in Peru: “They say you can find everything in New York, but you can’t,” she says. “Before I left for Cusco, Peruvian food was huge in New York. But you have to go to the source to find out why. The food here is just amazing. Even if I’m working with a tomato, it’s not the same tomato I’d find in the States.”

And she has found unexpected artistic freedom in the unlikely setting of a corporate hotel kitchen. “There’s that stereotype about hotel food,” Rodriguez says as we sit together in the lobby of her hotel by the fireplace. “Everyone thinks hotel food is crappy—that it’s sandwiches and burgers or it’s room service, and that hotels don’t allow chefs to be creative. But that stereotype doesn’t hold up anymore.”

JW Marriott El Convent Cusco

These days, hotels, corporate and boutique, are scouring for the most talented and innovative chefs in the industry, hoping to attract a new generation that isn't interested in a buffet full of white dinner rolls and some guy in a chef’s hat slicing roast beef lit by a heat lamp. “I was nervous about leaving New York City fine dining to cook in a hotel,” La Presle says. “I thought I’d have to make American food like mac ‘n’ cheese. But instead I got here and learned about Mexican cooking. I got to be so much more creative than I ever was before.”

As the hunger for authenticity increases among today’s travelers, hotels are getting on board. The JW Marriott in Cusco, for example, is Instagram-traveler porn: The building is hundreds of years old, a convent-turned-five-star-hotel. They’ve kept some of the original stone flooring from 1645. There are ruins on display from a 13th century Incan street. The place is filled with Peruvian art, including a golden representation of the sun hanging behind the front desk, made of 76,500 crystals. And the ride to Machu Picchu is only a few hours by train. “What I love is that people come here and they don’t expect an experience like this,” Rodriguez says. To accompany the exquisite backdrop, she created menus for the hotel’s restaurant, Qespi, that highlight the local cuisine: kaniwa waffles (my friend actually moaned while eating them), homemade Andean potato chips (some count 4,000 kinds of Peruvian potatoes), lomo saltado, cuy confit (that’s guinea pig), a salad made of edible flowers, camu camu cheesecake, cocktails—some mixed with pisco, some garnished with quinoa, and one garnished with a tiny clothespin holding a pouch of fresh local cheese.

La Presle, too, loves making use of local ingredients. “The best thing I’ve learned in Mexico is how to cook with habaneros,” he says. “Everyone’s scared of the habanero because it’s so hot. But here I’ve learned how to control it...At Casa Fayette, I make a hangar steak with a puree of this pumpkin seed from the Yucatan. For the sauce, I do bone marrow with a habanero vinaigrette. It’s aggressive and spicy, but it’s so good. I could never put that on a menu in New York. I would have to tone it way down.”

Rodriguez is moving on from Cusco soon, but she won’t be heading home. She’s going to travel all over the world, developing menus at various Marriotts, taking chefs into local marketplaces, teaching them how to cook new dishes. “I learned so much,” she tells me. “I want to share my knowledge.” She’s talking about what she learned about pisco from the Peruvian bartender, what she learned about chocolate from the women who sell it in San Pedro Market, what she’s learned about quinoa and organic coffee and starfruit – things New York couldn’t teach her.