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Chef Harold Villarosa is changing what a boss in the kitchen looks like

No one is a born a hustler. There’s an environment you have to encounter in order to become one. Cassidy didn’t just make a hit record bearing the aura of a hustler just because. He made that song because he wanted people to know what it takes to call yourself a money maker from the streets.

That same mentality can be smeared across a plethora of professions, not just flipping a brick. One man that has taken the definition of a true hustler to heart and is changing the game in his profession is Executive Chef Harold Villarosa.

Villarosa told us in an extensive interview about how he arrived at the mindset he currently holds today, how he took advantage of the resources around him in order to accomplish his dreams, and what is possible when the right work ethic and heart is applied to your passion.

Villarosa learned fast as a Filipino immigrant growing up in the streets of the South Bronx in the early 90s. The neighborhood was hard on him at times, especially being the only Filipino on the block.

Walking to school was a “mission and a half” as he navigated his way through three different blocks trying to avoid getting jumped. If you’re from the Big Apple you should know what’s at risk as a youth trying to make it to school and back home in the inner city.

Villarosa had the Timbs snatched off of his feet, fitted hats grabbed from his dome, and constantly hit the high knees in order to evade his Bronxian attackers.

He told Kulture Hub how the South Bronx shaped his attitude to push through life with a vengeance. Harold said,

“Getting into fights and kind of fighting my way through it, kinda made me realize that’s how you push through life. You just have to keep going up that hill and just keep fighting through.”

Villarosa managed to stay on his feet as an inner city youth by tucking himself underneath the wings of South Bronx OGs. It was the OGs’ street wisdom and clout that kept Villarosa from becoming lunchmeat.

Yet, Harold never surrendered his life to the hood and instead of becoming a hardened OG himself, he took full flight at the age of 21 making a decision that would change his life forever. He told us,

“I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. There was really no sense of direction. I was surprised I survived past 21, to tell you the truth. So once I got past 21, I said okay ‘Fuck it.’ That’s when I said, ‘Now I can live. Now I can grow.'”

The first job he managed to snag was at McDonald’s. Still, back then, Villarosa had no idea that he would grow into the shoes he walks in today. It was a job he needed to work because of survival.

Even though he was only getting paid $7.35 per hour, to him it was fun and he could step into the crib at 1 AM without his mom tripping over his whereabouts. Villarosa told us,

“Nobody wants to be a chef. If somebody tells you they want to be a chef when they grow up, that’s a fucking lie because this shit is hard work. I didn’t want to be that. It was out of survival really.”

Villarosa, who now holds an executive chef position at Freeman’s on the Lower East Side, didn’t hear the call to take his talents to the next level until around the age of 25. Villarosa forced himself to turn something he picked up as a survival tool into a passion and a career.

But getting to the status of an executive chef at an LES restaurant was no cake walk and his journey has proved arduous by failing forward.

Harold has held numerous jobs within the restaurant industry, flexing his talents at a CitiField hotdog stand, Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly’s Fedora, Pret A Manger, and Markus Glocker’s Bâtard.

And before his prestigious executive chef position at Freemans, he held it down as chef de cuisine at Maison Pickle. Putting his long resume aside, Villarosa stands in a more humble position than when he first entered the restaurant industry.

Villarosa navigated through a foody full-court press and was able to build long-lasting relationships. Various mentors and a love for learning the business helped determine Villarosa’s next steps.

By enrolling himself in free small business classes at Columbia University he was able to set aside his emotions in a business setting and remain steadfast in his objectives.

He explained to us how his attitude changed over the years,

“If I didn’t like something, I used to say ‘Fuck you, I’ll never fuck with you.’ I’ve lost a lot of business opportunities because of that. I’ve spazzed out in meetings, and said ‘You guys are idiots’ and ‘I don’t give a fuck and I’m getting out of this room’… Doing those things kind of fucked up a lot of my business opportunities in the beginning…”

Villarosa added,

“So I’ve learned that after a few years, that if we can find a way, we can strategize a way, we can maximize relationships and once that relationship is done, we can cut it off and build off of that…”

One person Harold has to thank for much of his restaurant wisdom is the influential Chef René Redzepi. Villarosa worked with Redzepi at his two-Michelin-star rated restaurant, Noma, back in 2013.

But before Harold left, Redzepi blessed Villarosa with some valuable information. In an Edible Manhattan interview, Villarosa recounted what Redzepi told him that day and how he shouldn’t aim to be a Michelin star-ranked chef.

Instead, Redzepi advised Chef Harold that he should go back to his roots, take his time to learn from the best chefs, give back to his community, and teach them what he had learned. “Bring those people that are behind you up,” said Redzepi.

This motivated Villarosa to become an OG to underserved communities. He couldn’t keep all of this newfound knowledge to himself and having a mentor, to him, is a huge bonus. He explained the importance of not being selfish with information. He said,

“The one thing that every mentor always told me is that you gotta give back. That’s part of the structure of this whole relationship. You can’t just get this  information and keep it to yourself. You’ve got to pass it on.”

Villarosa was also massively influenced by a speech by President Barack Obama.

Upon returning to NY after a seven-year stay on the West Coast, Harold was moved by Obama’s powerful words. He realized that cheffing can be used for more than survival. It can be used as an outlet. Obama’s words that specifically resonated and shifted Villarosa’s mentality were “If I can do it, you can do it too.”

Thus, The Insurgo Project was born. The program founded by Villarosa, so far, has taught 1,200 students from the South Bronx, Philly, and Copenhagen. As the official culinary ambassador to Denmark, chef’s influence is reaching a global scale as he continues to establish partnerships with different international embassies interested in the program.

Villarosa uses the Insurgo Project to give youth the tools to turn water into wine. It’s an NPO he wishes he had as a kid growing up.

The curriculum of The Insurgo Project focuses on three key lessons – the importance of the farm-to-table movement, the know-how of creating your own restaurant business, and professional leadership.

What’s the most important takeaway from the now global NPO according to Villarosa? Knowing “how to maneuver in a room full of white people and vultures, and being able to demand the presence and demand the attention of the room and being a boss,” said the inspiring chef.

Combining food and education was a stroke of genius and going that route seemed to make the most sense to Villarosa. In relation to stepping into a realm that makes over $9 billion a year, Villarosa said,

“All of these education companies are profiting crazy off of kids and it’s been going on for over 60 years and maybe I can change it around and create something else. Become a catalyst to change the way we think about the educational program… I realized that if food can take me somewhere like that, then education can too.”

He sees The Insurgo Project’s institutional model as a way to combat the current public school system. Villarosa is fed up with modern day schooling. In a lick of frustration, he told us,

“They’re just trying to move the kids through the system. There’s no of care, there’s no kind of thought process of what’s happening. What’s going to happen to those kids after they get out? That’s why programs like that make sense for schools like that. They’d rather pay for those programs to save these kids because half of the kids that I teach are the worst ones in the school. They never show up to class, they’re the loudest, are always in the hallway, and are always getting into fights. The funny part is these are the leaders of the school.”

Villarosa continued,

“So I’m guiding these kids to be better leaders, and you can see the difference. They show up to class, everybody’s there at the same time. For me I would just knock the whole thing down and start over. Just crash it and start over.”

That’s the long-term vision of Villarosa’s project, to change education as a whole. In the near future, he hopes to build his own school. A school that gives a newfound hope to the next generation of leaders.

His vision is pretty ambitious. Villarosa wishes to have a three-floor building that will hold a restaurant, an administrative floor, classrooms, and a rooftop garden. It’s like he’s creating a Hogwarts for young, aspiring chefs.

The whole idea is “so people from the community will come in and will work at the restaurant as part of our teaching process,” preached Villarosa.

The classrooms would allow students to learn to generate business. A farm, kitchen, and a culinary school will create a holistic approach to food.

Over time, Harold’s perspective of the food game changed and as his business acumen began to grow. Chef wants the youth to understand how and why his mindset of being in the kitchen evolved.

“Throughout my career, my passion is still there, but I’ve kind of realized that the restaurant business is more of a business now instead of a kitchen so I don’t get as emotional anymore about food. I see food as a product now. I see food as stuff I can move, you know. I see the food as like the drug game.”

The future seems bright for Villarosa and his students as The Insurgo Project get placed in more progressive schools across the globe. The project shows no discrimination either accepting all economic statuses in the classroom.

“There really is no classism. Rich kids and poor kids in the same space. Learning about farm to table practices,” said Villarosa.

It seems as if Chef Villarosa’s journey through life has taught him something really special – to have a long-lasting impact on the youth he will mentor.

As he teaches these kids, a realization overpowers Villarosa. He told us about this revelation,

“I’ve just realized throughout my age and growing up in this business, all those old things chefs used to do to me, I’m doing them now. All of the little mind games, all of the little quotes, all of the little rah-rah speeches, all the little things that they used to do to get the team together, I’m doing it now. It’s very fascinating to see how I’ve translated those teachings into my own kind of way and how I’ve used hip-hop and sports, and growing up in the South Bronx, and not being a typical chef. I wear my beanie at work and I play DMX during service.”

We can all learn something from Villarosa’s story — stay true to self and whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly. Hopefully, we can all cook life like Chef Harold and share the fruits of our labour with the next generation.