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The legend of Chef Maximo, the man who taught me about the kitchen and life

“Looking for a line cook in Lower East Side restaurant,” is all it said on the Craigslist post.  I thought to myself, “whatever.” It’s been 2 months since I had a job. My girlfriend at the time was on my ass about it. So I applied for the position and headed to the interview.

Between Allen Street and Stanton Street, right in the heart of the Lower East Side, I walked into this beautiful wonderland of a restaurant.

A huge olive tree was in the middle of it, roots dug into the floors and it looked like it was gonna stand up – it had the confidence of a lion in its element. Colors of green, yellow, white, and exposed brick were everywhere – each booth had white sheets separating the booths for privacy.

A magnificent staircase behind the tree led to the second floor, and if you listen closely you can hear the water in the indoor pond. Maybe 3-4 feet long underneath the stairs leading to the doors to the kitchen.

The bartenders in the front, holding down the fort with a majestic marble slab of a bar and behind them elixirs and potions. Colors of fresh-squeezed guava juice, melons, and orange juice in carafes created the background for this bar.

In my head, I thought, “WTF?” This restaurant looks like an oasis or a fancy hotel in Miami. This was 2010 and I hadn’t worked in a lot of restaurants then.

I just came from cooking Mexican and Polynesian food in Utah and I was looking for some New York experience. Judging by that tag line on Craigslist, I thought it would be a small restaurant. I asked the host if I could speak to the chef. She told me to wait and she went to get him.

While I waited, a bustling front of the house staff was getting ready for dinner service, weaving through the tables and stairs with ease and grace.

Bartenders wore green chef jackets. One of them, Amaury, was a bald South-American dude with a palette as a chef. He worked for a lot of great bars, especially in the Nuevo Latino wave in NYC.

There was Hugo, a smooth Mexican waiter with long brushed-to-the-back black hair, with two unbuttoned buttons on his shirt to show off his chest and his cross-chain.

There was the petite hostess named Carolina, wearing a short black dress and a wide smile greeting you at the door. With a twinkle in her eye, you knew she knew something you didn’t.

There was a young Tibetan runner named Ashman, skinny as can be, putting away silverware with jaguar-like quickness. Another runner named Ivan was a broad-shouldered half-Chinese, half-Jew from Queens, barreling down the hallway with 3-4 napkin bundles spinning and juking like he was on the football field.

The manager Craig wore a firm-fitting grey suit, with a dark blue solid color tie. Tall and sharp, this guy was smooth, as he was overlooking the whole team with a stern face and directing them on his perch just like a hawk.

This was the first image I saw in this place and I realized just like the jungle, the restaurant business was going to be wild.

The back kitchen doors swing open and a chef with a satin navy blue jacket and red trim comes out (what the fuck is he wearing?). I found out later he was Dominican and he was an integral part of the Nuevo Latino cuisine in New York. We greet each other and he says, “Hi Maximo Tejada pleasure to meet you.” I respond back and say, “Hi, I’m Harold.”

We head up the stairs to the second floor to the back patio of the restaurant. There was an open area, a luxury for Lower East Side spaces, and it led to a private garden space. We sat on a bench across from each other and we started talking; I told him I had little to zero experience in NYC restaurants.

He calmly said, “I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for someone who can work with a team and who is passionate about his work.” I was taken aback.

I was passionate and I started to really dig deep into what the restaurant business was about, but I was green. He then asked about, “A moment in your life where you felt hardship and how you responded.”

Shit, in my head I was thinking, “What are you my therapist? Wtf? I thought this was a job interview.”

I just told him, “We all have hardships, I just feel overall if you go through it – you learn from it and move on.”

He smiled sheepishly with his brown eyes looking into my soul. He abruptly stood up with his hand out and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow at 1 pm.” I was surprised but I stood up and shook his hand.

The next day I returned and stepped into the kitchen. I was hit right in the face with Norteno Mexican music and the smell of charring tomatoes and jalapeños on the grill.

Huge Atlantic halibuts were being butchered on a butcher block, huge mounds of avocado being scooped for guacamole, pots of chicken stock bubbling away, fresh lobster being poached in a Boullion. This was a bustling kitchen.

Two bald-headed Mexican cooks looked at me and said “Que Onda Guey?”

These were the brothers; one was Mauro who was a bit heavier, and the other was Emelio, a bit thinner. Both were mean as shit and both some of the best cooks I’ve ever cooked with in my life.

On the line was another Mexican cook from Puebla named Vitelio but we called him Paka, after a Mexican singer. They say he looked just like that person, but I Googled it and it was a woman, so I never understood it.

He worked the grill and for him, that was nothing but drinking a Modelo and cooking – just another day in the neighborhood.

“Hello, ching-ching,” says a slender female chef with hands that looked like she can strangle you and kill you if you cross her (I never did). This was Bruni the pastry chef – she was the best.

Then there was Frank, the Puerto Rican-born South Jersey raised sous chef, a 5 foot, skinny and fast cook at some of the best restaurants in the city from 21 Club to David Burke’s. We clicked and he became my best man at my wedding 5 years later.

We worked and toiled away at this restaurant, every day. Day in and day out we executed beautiful paellas, braised beef with cassava purée, skirt steaks on yuca with a salsa verde. It was a magical place. I would really try to do my best.

Frank bailed me out a few times, but this one particular night we were in the shit boy! I think the whole board was packed with tickets – the restaurant was bustling with salsa music or Brazilian jazz every time the kitchen doors would swing open.

Chef Maximo was calling tickets of platters of guacamole and shrimp, fried Colombian-style empanadas stuffed with chorizo just slinging out of there.

The one thing you should know about kitchens is that it all comes in waves. There’s a balance formed and you need to be constantly swimming.

The faster Mauro is plating and pushing those ceviches and cold apps out, the faster we on the entree sides need to keep up. Frank worked middle, Paka worked the grill and I worked sauté. We were getting smacked man.

I couldn’t keep up and I was drowning. Frank kept nudging my side with his tongs to wake me up and push but I was sweating man. I started to panic.

I backtracked a little bit. It was my birthday and I was celebrating it by working at the restaurant. It was the norm for me but for my girlfriend, a beautiful Dominican thang who later became my wife, it was a big deal.

She had 10 of her girlfriends and my friends up on the second floor having dinner. She had cake and it was too much going on. We were in it – war zone shit! I felt myself passing out.

Then I felt a hand on my sweaty and burned right arm – it was chef Maximo. He looked me straight in my eye right into my soul and said, “Just take a breath.”

Everything slowed down for me right at that moment. I saw out of the corner of my eye Paka flipping the steak to get perfect sear cross marks, Frank searing fish so perfectly squinting trying to avoid the splatter of oil, Mauro pointing and laughing at me mouthing “PUUuTOoo!!!!” (I hated that fucking guy), and Bruni giving me that smile she always does and making me feel all warm inside.

I looked back over to my right. Chef was gone. He was already on my left and started bailing us out. He was tasting, spinning, cooking, plating, and in a matter of minutes we were out of it. What the fuck!??? I was overwhelmed.

The next thing you know a birthday cake appeared in through the door with my friends, my girl, and all the staff singing happy birthday right in the kitchen as loud as they could. What a fucking ride. “Happy birthday, Kung-Fu Panda,” Paka would say. That was my nickname and it stuck.

At the end of the night, Chef Maximo was at the bar sipping on his nightly pisco sour. He asked me to sit with him on my way out and he just started talking. He began explaining his philosophy not only for food but for life.

Little sayings like, “Energy is key, you transfer it to everything you touch,” to, “Have empathy and compassion to your fellow co-workers,” and, “Build community, walk around the Lower East Side and talk to people.”

I sat there mesmerized by this man. I’ve only been in his life for 3 months but it felt like I’d known him forever. He became a father figure to me.

Walking the walk, he did all those things he spoke about.

He would take me around the Lower to meet people he’s done business with. Take me out to lunch and talk about life and how to find balance. I didn’t know then, but he was grooming me to be the leader he knew I was.

I was with him for two years until he passed away from an asthma attack that ultimately led to a heart attack.

At that point, I was the chef at his casual restaurant Macondo and Frank was the chef at Rayuela, a fine dining one.

I remember the night they pulled the plug at the hospital. I hadn’t visited him for two weeks before he died. We had gotten into a disagreement and I was ashamed to show my face near his deathbed.

There were about 40-50 people clammed up in his room spilling into the hallway. All holding hands and putting hands on each other’s shoulder to create a human chain touching back to chef Maximo.

I was in the front with Frank and Hector, his business partner. Each person looking fondly at an artist, a man who dedicated his life to the craft and who loved people. Each person saying goodbye to him in their own way, letting him know people will always love him, and that he is now going to be in peace with his long-time love in heaven.

I was still in my chef jacket, tears running down my face and nothing but love for him pouring out my soul. I wished him a safe journey to the other side, told him I would see him there when my time was up and to have the pisco sours and cigars ready.

We were all there – his staff and family. On my wedding day, I reserved a seat next to me with one of his fedoras on the table to signify his presence and how much he meant to me.

This one is for him – to continue what he had instilled in me those many years ago. Passion and knowing your greatness, connecting with people through the community, and leading with compassion.

These principles and pillars have guided my path in the industry and in life. After 18 years of being in my craft and enjoying every minute of it, this year 2020 I’m pivoting and working to create a new path for myself.

Insurgo Project is continuing our work as a consulting company with projects in Philadelphia and New York. The Insurgo Foundation continues its work in the community teaching through the curriculum generational wealth and financial wellness.

And a new company called Unkle Harold’s, which breaks classism in society through meals and showing people good food is for everybody, not just for the people who can afford it. We are never going to stop the work and I understand we may not accomplish it in this lifetime. The legacy and the torch will be passed on to the next.

And when times are tough and you are going through it, like when the world is flipped on its head with racism and a virus that’s killing people, take a second like Chef  Maximo who told me a long time ago, “Just take a breath.”

RIP Chef Max.

Happy staff, better food: Why family meals are the key to great restaurants

When you ask any chef, “What’s the most important meal of the day?” 90% are gonna say family meals or breakfast.

That term family meal is one that gets cooks and chefs excited.

The daily motions of cooking can get monotonous. Leeks in a nage of white wine and aromatics, roasting veal bones for stock, reducing red wine and port wine for a sauce… when you hear family meal you sigh with relief.

You have a chance to break the daily grind of these intricate dish components and be able to do something you love to cook.

Go-to dishes are fried chicken, roasted potatoes in the oven, mac & cheese… and when the Mexican Mafia (aka la Banda) decides to get in the mix you will have a feast of Mexican dishes that will blow your mind.

It’s a rule and a duty to make sure the family meal is amazing.

Most of the skills you learned in the kitchen should translate to the family meal. Some chefs recognize where you are on your journey by the way you cook a family meal. How you manage your time, how you use the scraps and odd ends of restaurant products to create that family meal.

Thomas Keller, the renowned chef of French Laundry and PerSe fame, loves roasting chicken for his family meals. He said the reason why he loves it is because he learned to time manage with the chickens for family meals he used to make as a cook.

When I was in Copenhagen, working at the restaurant Noma, the family meal had its own team and they created dishes that were out of this world. From a whole lamb roast, fresh pita, and all the fixings to good old American burgers and homemade ketchup.

When I worked at Rayuela in the Lower East Side, we made huge paellas of shrimp and chicken, to roast pork (pernil), with rice and beans, and a nice homemade limeade. Magic.

One of the fondest memories of the family meal I had was at the West Village gem, Fedora. Chef Matt, the chef de cuisine in the space, was a master at controlling food costs, and he was a great teacher. Matt was atypical for a chef – a tall, lanky looking motherfucka, always wearing trucker hats.

He worked for Rick Moonen at RM Seafood in Las Vegas and Le Bernardin with Eric Ripert. Now he’s the partner/executive chef for the group running multiple properties and hotels.

Always pushing us to be creative, the family meal was a time for us to shine and he didn’t hesitate to applaud or recognize you when you cooked the meal to our front of house staff.

I remember he made me make a family meal with the white mussels that were attached to scallops. I swear he was fucking with me. But I think in hindsight he was forcing me to be creative and work with what I had.

I pulled it off and made ramen, and from then on I was hooked on the family meal. Not only for the challenge but the instant gratification of people loving or hating your food.

It helped me build tough skin and it also helped me get ready for the future as a head chef when I would go through that daily.

Ever since then I became the guy for the family meal. If it was my turn to cook I would go all out and experiment on flavor profiles I thought would work. There were a lot of misses but when it hit, it was amazing.

Every Sunday during the summer we would eat outside in our garden where there was a bench. 5-10 people would be out there and we would bond over watermelon and fried chicken. When it was the last day for someone we would go all out and cook them an amazing meal.

One of our colleagues was moving to Germany after working at Fedora for some time. We pooled some money together and I went to Chelsea’s Market and went all out. We got 3-4 beautiful Branzinis, spice mix from the spice place, and fingerling potatoes from the West Side Market.

I seasoned it with this beautiful yellow spice, so aromatic you could smell pungent and prevalent flavors like turmeric and coriander. Stuffed it with lemon and garlic and some rosemary, wrapped it in banana leaf and poured some coconut milk in it. The potatoes became German potato salad to signify her journey.

Oh boy! Once we opened that parcel, it fumed the whole place. It legitimately was one of the best meals I’ve ever had and everyone enjoyed it. I went on to do all types of dishes at my time there in Fedora.

Then one day without a clue, I was sitting by my station, writing my prep list down for the next day. I got called to the front of the kitchen by Waz, one of the managers. Chef Matt and the whole crew were all there too when he said,

“Harold, for all of your love and hard work towards the family meal and feeding us amazing meals these past few months. This is for you.”

A huge square box was presented on the table and I opened it. It was an old school vinyl player. I absolutely lost it. I was just trying to do the right things by my colleagues and they rewarded me with this gift. I was touched.

I thanked everyone and I was so overwhelmed. It was such an amazing and satisfying feeling. There was a direct correlation between doing good and getting rewarded for it. It was a life lesson for me: do the right things and karma will reward you.

Ever since then, any crew I ran needed to focus on the family meal.

They always want to cut it out of the equation and have the staff pay for food “with a discount,” but it creates separation and divides the team. I used what I learned at McDonald’s to always make sure there’s food for the family. Just imagine working 12 hours and only eating once or not eating at all.

You would be an angry server/cook/dishwasher/manager and it would give the customer, who we are trying to make happy, a bad experience. We budget it out in the P&L and we take a pool of cash from each employee for the spend every week.

Owners never understood why I took such great pride in it. They never understood the use. I’ve always translated it as a team-building activity, to training, and it helps the cooks stay engaged. The funny part is the owners always end up on the line for the family meal and they enjoy it too.

The most significant part of a family really is the time we spend when we sit down and eat.

There we talk shit about the other night’s service, when Manuel burned the steak, or when Chookie became the hero and banged out a crepe batter in minutes when we were in the middle of the hard push.

It’s also a chance for us to talk about current events, sex (a lot about sex), and food philosophies of other chefs and their techniques.

One of my favorite moments is when one of the guys makes something from their hometown and they go in on what it means to them eating this food this day. Or when Paul makes curry chicken Jamaican style and it gives everybody the sleepy eyes.

It’s a timeless ritual just like, before TVs and iPhones, where we would sit together and talk. It also becomes representative of our time now, More and more people are taking the time to sit, talk, and cook for each other at home.

It disrupts the ecosystem of the food industry, but morally and ethically it brings us closer as family. I transfer that feeling when I cook in the restaurant to when I cook at home now since the COVID-19 crisis. It makes me miss the restaurant, but it also helps me let go of the industry.

Now it’s time to turn the chapter to what’s next.

The concepts and the principles of the family meal have really guided the companies I now run, taking time to sit down and have conversations about the impact of the leadership in the company. Also, and perhaps most importantly, always eating and doing work around food, breaking bread together.

One of the main pillars of my leadership skills which I’ve learned through the family meal is the word compassion.

It’s often mistaken or folded with empathy. Those two are not the same. From what I’ve learned: compassion = empathy + action. Feeling what that person is going through, being in their shoes, and doing something about it.

That simple move of gifting me with that record player shows every bit of compassion of that happy cooking hospitality group, Fedora, Chef Matt, and the team showed me.

I will never forget it, and I will never forget the lessons I’ve learned about family meals there.

Roasted Branzino in Banana Leaf recipe


Branzino 1 P.C.
Banana leaf 2 ft
Coconut milk 2 cans
Lemons 2 pcs
Lemongrass 1 pcs
Ginger 1 P.C.
Red chili 1 P.C.
Spice mix 2 tbs
Unkle Harold’s 360 Spice


Stuff the Branzino with herbs and lemon slices, season the inside, and make sure you add the spice mix too.

Make a parcel with a banana leaf if you don’t have, use aluminum foil or parchment paper.

Cook in a 350 oven on a metal sheet tray for about 20-25 min.

Enjoy life. It’s too short.

Ever worked at a 3-star NYT restaurant? You might not want to

Chef’s note: Names have been changed for the sake of defamation – and the drama it might bring.

“Pop that champagne,” shouted restaurant mogul Robert Henderson having just received the news of his latest venture, No Name restaurant, receiving a 3-star NYT review.

As far as reviews go, especially from a ballbuster like Sam Hass, this was like being nominated for an Oscar. This wasn’t Mr. Henderson’s first and wasn’t his last. The past two tenants of the space in the trendy (and rich as fuck) Tribeca area also received this particular award.

Ever since the doors opened in April of 1985 the culinary individuals that walked through and cooked in this kitchen are what you would call chef royalty. The first chef was young and ambitious as he created classic French dishes that helped make the once ghetto area of Tribeca into the posh area it is now. He then proceeded to create his own empire a few blocks down and became one of the best chefs in the country.

The latest tenant didn’t come until 2008 when a revamp was needed and like always having an eye for talent, Mr. Henderson tapped into his young upstart, a new radical chef. Having worked at Marco Pierre White in London and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, this guy was the real deal. With him leading the team and the new restaurant, not only did they receive a 3-stars from NYT but they earned a coveted 2-star Michelin review.

So fast forward to March 2014 — I was finishing my stint at the West Village gem Fedora. There was a buzz in the culinary world about the chef at this No Name restaurant and the team he was putting together, a squad of culinarians, to open this new establishment. Having also worked for Gordon Ramsey in London and Charlie Trotter in Chicago, this was the most anticipated opening in NYC.

I don’t remember how I got into this conversation, but as it usually goes in this industry someone vouched for me. I met the chef and we just talked about food and nothing else. It seemed so focused but at the same time, he knew the type of people he wanted to work there. After exchanging our food philosophy and how we felt about the craft, he hired me.

Our team was diverse and consistent with fine dining. There was Ryan from New Orleans, who just did a stint at Daniels, working the cold station. Crazy Phil who just left Aureole worked the fish. Paige, who also came from Daniel, was on pastries. Justin, the junior sous chef, was from Per Se and lastly Big Mike working meat from Bouchon bakery. Then there was me working entremets from Fedora.

The chef’s philosophy was to push yourself until the casket dropped. We were all given a binder with recipes and pictures of the dishes. Obviously I’ve worked in Michelin-style kitchens before but as the help — not the main guy. So I was super intimidated and that hindered me and created a lot of the problems that I experienced.

My day would go like this:

10 am – gather vegetables in the walk-in and put all away deliveries. 11 am – start veggie production for the station, from celeriac root purée to roasted eggplant purée, Bruniose 2 quarts of eggplant, 2 quarts of red pepper, and 2 quarts of zucchini.

If you worked in that kitchen you know, the basement is where the storage was and I lived down there. Dehydrating parsley in the microwave to make parsley powder, slicing the eggplants on the slicer so you have even cuts, and don’t forget to clean it! Because if you don’t you will get a new butthole opened by the sous chef. 1 pm? Shit! I’m falling behind! Whose watching your purées?

Shit, I burned the fucking eggplants – gotta start over! What time is it? Shit, I got to make baumkuchen! For you guys that don’t know baumkuchen, it is a layered cake famous in Austria and it’s made of whipped egg whites with cake flour and it’s cooked thin, layer by layer in the salamander. Shit! It’s 2:30 pm! Gotta make a family meal in the next hour and a half I have to:

Blanch asparagus
Shuck peas
Shuck fava beans no shells!!
Pickle chanterelle mushrooms
Parsnip crumble
Set your station up
Pea soup
Make risotto
Make gnocchi

Once I look up it’s 4:30 pm and I am way behind. The station looks like a tornado came through and said fuck you pay me! Gotta heat this cold pasta real quick before service! Everyone else’s station was clean and ready and I was just overwhelmed. Don’t ask for help! You’re the man! You can do this! Life lesson learned – ask for help stupid.

Chef asks me right at 4:45 pm just to fuck with me, “Haroooold, did you make pasta?” I froze, white as can be, sweating my balls off, making sure my station was set up. I forgot the fucking pasta. I look up sheepishly and said, “no, chef.” With a cunning smile and sort of “watch this young buck” look, he pulls out pasta dough beautifully kneaded and rested, pulls out the pasta machine, and in a matter of 15 minutes shows why he’s the head chef.

Beautiful sheets of pasta shimmering in his hand, arms waving like he’s conducting an orchestra, with the dust of Caputo flour dusting the wooden table as he bangs out 15 orders of tagliatelle pasta in front of me. My romantic monologue gets interrupted by the chef de cuisine Yosef, a big ogre looking motherfucker, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Is your station ready asshole, or are you gonna stand there and jerk off to chef making pasta?!”

I hurriedly cleaned my station and wait for the first call, “Chomage!” (Which is French, btw!) I had no clue what he was saying but figured it out – he was calling out the order. “Chomage! One tagliatelle, beet salad, octopus pastrami, on back veal, turbot, rabbit.” In unison, without fail and at the same fucking time I yelled, “Oui Chef!” Mind you none of us spoke French but for some reason, it guided our life.

Now I’m getting my pots on the plancha, buerre blanc the veggie for the rabbit dish, grilled leeks for turbot, blanch my pasta, run to the front station to start marinating beets and laying down the lemon yogurt. Run back and make the sauce for the pasta – add the caviar – don’t burn the leeks! Run back, plate the beets, and pull all pots back before they over reduce.

Chef’s system was the Gordon Ramsey system so every fucking 30 seconds from 5 minutes out we had to tell each other “5 minutes out.” Once we get down to zero, you should have all your pans to the chef so he can taste and plate at the pass. This would go on till 10:30 pm and we would take one hour and a half to clean up and go home.

So this is what it is – it’s a kitchen and chef had it that way. One night, supposedly six chefs from whatever land that had Michelin stars up their ass were having dinner at our restaurant. They were the last table, a six top, and for the grace of god they ordered every entree on my station.

I remember this night so vividly. Everyone else was breaking down and it was Mike and I dealing with this table. He had two dishes and I had the other four. I had to get the veggies ready for his dishes and also for mine. So just imagine about 12-13 small handled pots lined up on my station seasoned well and ready to go.

Chef fires up the table. I bring them all back up to temperature and start passing everything up. He’s tasting and nodding his head so I thought I was good. He was up to the last dish and asks for the leeks for the turbot. I froze I totally forgot them.

I drop them on the grill and yell out, “20 seconds!” I turn and all I see is rage and anger in his face as he scolds me saying, “You’re a fucking loser! Do you want to be a superhero? Who the fuck you think you are? You are nothing!” He picks up the plates and tosses them towards my direction and says, “start over!” I wanted to die that night. Just a samurai sword my head off.

I failed the man, He was trying to impress his friends and I blew it. Our relationship became sour after that and he never forgave me.

Fast forward to the day the NYT article comes out. Everyone was jubilant and going crazy. I had no clue what was going on, just moving along trying not to be yelled at today by these white guys.

Chef walks over to everybody and either shook their hand or gave them a big hug, congratulating each person like they won the lotto. When he approached me he had this look in his eyes, as a father does to a kid that just got spanked and is hyperventilating. He said, “congrats chef,” and just gave me a high five. I’ve never felt so down in my life. I knew then I didn’t belong there and had to move on. Two weeks later I gave my notice and proceeded on my way out.

I’ve never shared this story before to anyone. It was one of the lowest moments in my life as I began to dive into a deep depression. Was I good enough? Did I belong in these elite kitchens? As I moved forward in life I learned it was moments like these – even though hard and difficult at the time – are what made me.

I learned to cope, and in the end, I understood empathy. I lead with that now – knowing where a person comes from and knowing what it took for them to get there. I learned wonderful and hard lessons there.

But one lesson, in particular, that sticks with me every day: never forget where you came from, otherwise, you will become an asshole. That is now embedded in my soul.

Chef life before Covid-19: My roots are grounded in community

Ever since I was young, I’ve always been attracted to the restaurant business.

Born in the Philippines, I moved to New York City at a young age. I first stepped foot on the concrete pavement of my beloved borough, the South Bronx, on a hot ass summer day in 1994.

The smells carried me as I walked down 3rd Ave. Turning left on Brook Avenue and making a right on St. Anne’s I would land right in front of a restaurant called Caridad.

Smells of oregano, sour orange, and Sazon filled the air while majestic birds rotated on the spit. Their juices jumping from one crispy skin to another and the char from the flames coming out of the rotisserie hissed burned garlic into the window. I was hooked.

From that day on, any time I was able to help my father cook that night’s dinner, I did. We lived in a progressive home where the matriarch of the family brought home the bacon while the patriarch toiled in the kitchen and did the cleaning.

For most of his career, my father was a leader, starting as a humble deck cleaner on a merchant marine boat to becoming the captain after 15 years of climbing through the ranks. I know for a fact that when he retired he received a new Rolex and a thick gold pinky ring that had a ruby red diamond on it.

Coming from a middle class, as good as the middle class gets in the Philippines, my mother was a bonafide badass nurse. When Lebanon was on fire back in the 80s, she met my father. Unfortunately, their marriage was frowned upon at the time with her being a well-off nurse and him hailing from the slums of Iloilo city.

In the end, they made it work and fast forward 20 years later, we lived in the South Bronx as my father ultimately got a job at the hospital folding linens and washing bed sheets for the elderly. Ironically, my mom was the head nurse in that same hospital 10 floors up. Obviously, arguments, frustrations and downright battles came to a head at home.

However, our one place of peace was the kitchen. My father would whip up stuff of magic. He had a trusty cookbook from the motherland that he referred to daily and cooked dishes from his childhood.

Mongo over rice, chicken adobo, dinuguan, and pinakbet were on regular rotation. And any chance I got to join in and help, he would teach me. My mom on the other hand had a stiff reign on the household as the breadwinner.

So, she dictated what needed to be done. Each of us siblings had to fall in line, from who was on trash duty to who was doing the salad. We were a small kitchen brigade and didn’t even know it.

When I turned 15, I saw a pair of blue Penny Hardaway’s I needed (we called them air foamposites back in the day). I wanted the all blue metallic with the black bottoms but they came at the hefty price of $220. When I asked my mom for some dough she looked at me and said, “McDonald’s is hiring.”

So that’s what I did. I got a job at fucking McDonald’s. I was super happy making $7.25 an hour and just eating as much McDonald’s as possible.

As you know, McDonald’s is not that light but I was experimenting on a few things while I was there. Cheffing it up early on, my signature creations included: the quarter pounder patties in a Big Mac set, hashed browns in between sausage egg and cheese, and my favorite, a supersized milkshake with Oreos and sprinkles.

I also learned one of my most valuable lessons at McDonald’s – the power of food. Each day all types of individuals would be eating McDonald’s. There were people that worked at AMC and TGIFridays on the corner to Jimmy Jazz down the block, everyone needs to eat.

When I saw that, the hustle was created. Each day any one of those customers who were employees at any of those establishments would get free large fries, a burger, soda, or a Happy Meal toy.

And with a simple head nod and a thank you, the deal was in motion. It felt like the Goodfellas when Henry gave his earnings to Pauly after the Lufthansa heist. Each day this would happen and when it was my day off I would cash in.

Just imagine Nas’ “New York State of Mind” blasting in my headphones, as I walked through Penn Station checking in on all my new friends. First, I’ll go check in on my man Dawson, the Haitian homie at Crispy Creme.

“What’s goodie brodie! Let me get a dozen beautiful freshly glazed donuts piping hot, so warm I can feel it through the box,” I’d yell.

Next, I’d walk up to my homegirl Diana at Aunty Anne’s pretzels. She’s a petite Puerto Rican girl from Bed Stuy. We were always flirting but she had a man in the army or some bullshit like that. Whatever. I’d stop for a bit of small talk, then she’d hand over four large pretzels with the sauce warm as fuck too.

As I’d walk up the stairs, skipping a couple of steps to the bass drum, keeping in smooth head bops, and spitting a few bars along the way I’d head to AMC theaters on 34th street.

There I’m treated like royalty skipping the line, like a true VIP and getting my tix. The manager comes out. She and her man are regular customers at McDonald’s and she personally brings me upstairs in the elevator. Approaching the concession stand I shouted out, “large coke and large popcorn please!” My man Kev shouted back “fuuuuuuuck youuuuuuuu,” with a smile.

Now picture this 16-year-old kid in the movie theater with a giant box of crispy cream donuts, four big ass pretzels, a large popcorn, and a large soda. Not a dime spent. As Scarface would say, “The world is yours.”

As I watch Bad Boys 2 on the big screen, I never imagined this same mentality or barter system would catapult me and open doors to some of the best experiences of my life.

I can still hear my headphones blaring out loud now…

“The city never sleeps, full of villians and creeps
That’s where I learned to do my hustle had to scuffle with freaks
I’ma addict for sneakers, twenties of Buddha and bitches with beepers
In the streets I can greet ya, about blunts I teach ya
Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death
I lay puzzled as I backtrack to earlier times
Nothing’s equivalent, to the New York state of mind”

But, true to form like most hustles it came crashing down in the end. One day the head regional manager called me to the office, and that’s when I knew shit was gonna hit the fan.

Apparently, in the last few months, there was a sting operation with the manager and other members of the team tallying up what food I was giving away. Smiling in my face all day long and ratting me out to the bosses like 6ix9ine.

It got out of hand in one week. Supposedly, I gave away some absurd number like $5,000 worth of McDonald’s food. That’s a lot of Big Macs. Life lesson number one – don’t trust anybody.

Fast-forward to today, and I’m cooking $150 tomahawk steaks and $65 dollar whole branzino in a multimillion-dollar kitchen making more money for the rich and tolling away in the kitchen. I realize it’s time to make a change.

The job description of a chef has changed too. Building a community is the only way. It’s time to take responsibility and accountability. It’s not the individual anymore it’s the whole team that can make that change.

I am and always will be a product of my environment, but I won’t let my environment dictate my future. And I look back at those days with fondness and I smile knowing: New York-bred me, New York made me and that New York fucking city is my home.

Meet Tunde Wey, the Nigerian chef creating social change through food

America is known as the land of opportunity.

But while that statement holds some truth, most of us know for a fact that this is still a country very much divided as racism, wealth disparity and violence are all still big problems all throughout United States.

Regardless of our differences in a multi-cultural society, there are a handful of individuals who still create ways to come together and look past all of that. Whether it’s through music, sports, or healthy debates, we still strive as a collective society to push for a more harmonious culture.

Nigerian food truck owner and chef, Tunde Wey, is playing his role perfectly.

austin, tx. 2016 dinner. respect the shooter: @moyo3k

A post shared by Tunde Wey (@from_lagos) on

Through food, Wey is able to shine the light on the racial economic divide in the U.S.

If you are White and you stumble across Wey’s food truck, you have the option to either pay $12 or $30 for a plate of food, while on the other hand, people of color are only obligated to pay $12 for a plate.

Seems fair right? Wey was recently in New Orleans when he was conducting his social experiment. If you don’t think it’s fair, Wey will be quick to put you on game.

The average income for African-American families in the “Big Easy” is $25,806.

On the contrary, the median income for white families is $64,377. He’ll also let you know that the national average income of white families compared to black families is $919,000 to $140,000. Sheesh.

Wey is trying to right the ship. Every plate is $12. Out of the $30 that is spent on the food, Wey gives $18 directly to any minority customer who wants it.

this place is “da shyt” fr fr

A post shared by Tunde Wey (@from_lagos) on

Wey said:

“When I tell black folks what’s happening, 90 percent of them start laughing, like, ‘For real?’ They’re tickled. White folks, there’s this blank —  blank look. They’re like, ‘Huh, okay.'”

As the customers eat their comfort food, Wey engages them with some discomfortable table topics. You can expect to discuss police brutality, racism, sexism, wealth distribution and any other pressing issues the chef might want to indulge in.

While minorities find his social experiment as a relief, Wey said White’s felt uneasy about the situation.

Wey said:

“White folks or privileged folks are quick to try to find a solution, or ask for a solution, as opposed to sitting in the discomfort,”

Nevertheless, this is nothing new for Wey. Since 2014, he’s been traveling the U.S. serving his Nigerian delicacies to food lovers alike. Touring around the country on a Greyhound bus, Wey made a name for himself at pop-ups throughout the biggest cities.

Now, Wey has his own website where you can see what city he will be in next. There is also a full menu and he explains his reasoning, tailoring his service to your privilege.

there’s a generation of young nigerians my age, more weary than millennial, disconnected in body from the place we were born but we carry it in our chests– even if we don’t admit it. it’s why we cloister about each other, and hold on to old slangs from secondary school. it’s why we celebrate each other; protect ourselves against the negative stereotypes with codes (handshakes that break into finger snaps and belly laughs at inside jokes that don’t require an elaborate backstory or an american accent to deliver). it’s why we cook, because the smell of palm oil, crayfish and onions has been painted into the roof of our nostrils. it’s why we blink furiously, because the sand from this place which exists in memory and real time is stuck in our eye. it’s why we cook– we all cook: stew, rice, dodo. even meat pie, puff puff, efo. of course jollof, fried rice. but we’re also afraid of… nigeria. scared of going back to the sand that is not allegorical. and the sand flies that bite and the mosquitoes that rob. but we’ll go back one day– and melt into it again. into the frustration and champagne and garri with moi moi. in the mean time we cook and talk shit in our voices. our real voices, the ones buried under beige accents and baggy expectations. love to all my nigerians in the diaspora. love to the ones I call and text when everything falls apart. to ife and chuck who shit on my food but support the movement. the only people I cry to and really laugh with cus they’re me. nigerians are the best fuck everything else you heard. and come through and eat my food cus it’s my life when it tastes good, and it’s especially my life when it tastes shit but that’s when it’s the best! naija no dey carry last 🙌🏾🙌🏾

A post shared by Tunde Wey (@from_lagos) on

Wey said:

“If I created the framework where I outline a problem that is indisputable, and I position you as an antagonist, and I give you a way to solve the problem tidily and be the hero — in the moment, anything other than the $30 choice becomes antisocial behavior.”

While in New Orleans, Chef Wey was astounded to see over 80% of White’s paid $30. Those who didn’t apologized when doing so. That’s when it dawned on Wey that social pressure plays a huge role in his experiment.

Chef Wey said:

I thought, if given the chance to voluntarily give up privilege, folks would not because it is not in their interest. That explained to me why the folks who refused to pay the $30 were equivocating, because they understood that they were participating in antisocial behavior”

Chef Wey is fighting for social change. Without a formal culinary background, he is still providing honest food and healthy conversation.

From April 29 – May 5, you can find Wey in Detroit giving back and enlightening the city.