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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.