As a child, Mike Cordero aspired to be a chef. At age 13, he began his culinary career in a humble pizzeria a few streets down from Yankee Stadium. Fast forward to 2018, Cordero and his business partners are opening their 8th restaurant, Rockwood Sports Bar in Gainesville, Va. In addition, he is currently writing a cookbook.
The Bronx native is now a Northern Virginia-based chef, and rising culinary personality. His establishments include Barley Mac, Bronx Pizza and G.O.A.T. This past week, we reached out to Mr. Cordero and had him share some of his wisdom that lead him from the lower income neighborhoods of South Bronx to the posh kitchens of “NoVa”, the richest region in the United States.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a chef ?
When I began working in a local mom and pop pizza shop in the Bronx…I realized I love[d] to be in the kitchen. I started making jello and pizzas and really enjoyed it. That’s where I learned my passion for cooking.
What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
I have been in the kitchen since I was a child. At the age of 13, I had my first job working in a pizza shop a couple of blocks from Yankee Stadium. I worked there at night and eventually became a pizza chef. Since then, I’ve had many work experiences in the restaurant industry under the guidance of many great chefs, including Vittorio DiVivo, a staple in the Italian restaurant business.
“At 18, I landed a position as a line cook at Sardi’s and moved my way through the ranks to become a headline cook working directly with Vincent Sardi Jr.”
At 20, I had an opportunity to serve as the President of Operations for a pizza chain called Italian Delight. [With Italian Delight,] I opened my first restaurant, moved to Fairfax, Va. and took the chain across the country. After the company sold in the late ’80s, I partnered with master chef Sergio Castilloni to develop and open the first Bravo! Cucina Italiana. The Italian restaurant chain now includes 50 locations worldwide. In 1995, I sold my locations to my partner — except the Fairfax venue — and began working on other opportunities in the DMV (Washington D.C./Maryland/Virginia region).
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
Years ago, I had a restaurant in Annapolis, Va. It was a Friday night and we were jam-packed because of a boat show in town. There was a lot of chaos in the kitchen. I was cooking pasta. We were flaming steaks on the grill. One of my dishwaters came to me and said “I smell smoke.” I told him it’s just the grill and the oven was smoking from all the food we were cooking. He came back 20 minutes later and insisted I come outside because it smelled like smoke. I got off the busy line just to make the dishwasher happy. When walking outside, I realized the roof was on fire. We had to evacuate the building immediately:
“It was funny because customers were asking me if they can take their food to go while evacuating.”
What is your definition of success?
“My mantra is ‘chase the vision and not the money’…”
The money will end up following you. But I always say when you no longer have to introduce yourself by name, then you’ll know you’ve made it.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
“I probably have a doctorate in making mistakes…”
When you start out so young in the industry, you’re bound to have many disappointments. I’ve missed out on business opportunities that could have turned out to be successful ventures; I’ve expanded restaurant locations too quickly; and I’ve hired the wrong people. I take those missteps as life lessons and not as failures. The disappointments of my past have helped me look out for red flags in business opportunities.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
My advice for aspiring chefs is to go work for an independent restaurant company and a corporate-structure restaurant, so you can learn all areas of the business.
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
Creating the perfect dish starts with using the freshest ingredients. Using those ingredients along with technique and execution will give you the perfect dish.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why?
1.The restaurant industry is an ever-changing business. When opening my first pizza chain, I felt bogged down to just one concept. This industry requires you to keep up with new cuisines, new trends and new concepts. Today I own five different restaurants in a two-mile radius. The restaurants are thriving because they each have a different concept and appeal to many audiences.
2. I’ve learned taking on partnerships has been instrumental in my growth. I always felt the need to be the sole owner and be involved in every single aspect of the restaurant at all times. Taking on partnerships has helped my employees be successful and has allowed MACNAC to grow faster. I’m okay having a small piece of the bigger pie.
3. Wow factor at any price. As the chef and business owner, you have to come up with something that keeps your guests coming back. [The customers] want the wow factor and the bang for their buck. At Don Taco we wouldn’t be able to keep our guests satisfied with typical tacos. We serve out-of-the-norm tacos like seared ahi tuna tacos topped with seaweed salad and a wasabi cucumber sauce for $3.95 [per taco].
4. Don’t ignore signals from your body. It’s no secret that the restaurant
business requires long hours. I make it an important part of my routine to work out daily. I’ve seen chefs die at young ages because they ignored [the] signs from their bodies. Keeping the body well-oiled helps me work long hours. You also
have to learn how to balance your life, so you can have a great quality of life. For me, taking breaks from the kitchen to go to the golf course gives me a chance to relax, but it also gives me time to think of some new ideas.
5. Incorporate growth with technology. If I had an upper hand on technology the food business, I would have had more information to run my company a lot smoother. I didn’t acknowledge the importance and advancements of technology and how that can be beneficial in a restaurant. Right now, I can use my iPad and look at my restaurants on camera.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
“My movement would be to stop hunger…”
Restaurants in America are known for serving big portions. With these portion sizes, there’s a lot of waste. I wish there was some type of government regulation to address food being wasted in restaurants. That food should be delivered to shelters to feed starving people in this country.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?
I had great accomplishments along the way. I’ve cooked for several politicians, as well as the entire Washington Capitals, the Washington Nationals and the D.C. United team.
I would love to cook for other great chefs like Gordon Ramsay or Daniel Boulud. I’d like to see if my culinary skills are up to par with their skills.