Yun Fuentes’s first industry job—as a Hamburglar costume-clad McDonald’s birthday attendant—wasn’t exactly glamorous. And though his second saw him arm deep in suds as a dishwasher, it got him into the kitchen, where he proved himself an able cook. Moving from the dish basin to the stove, Fuentes realized just how much he had to learn. And that initial spark of curiosity fueled his ascent in the industry.
In the 1990s, Fuentes worked the restaurant circuit in his native Old San Juan. He cooked under Roberto Treviño at The Parrot Club and served as the first chef de cuisine at Blue Agave Bar & Grill, where he worked with Richard Sandoval. To push his knowledge and comfort zone, Fuentes left Puerto Rico for New York City, where he landed at Patria, followed by stints at El Zocalo, and Pipa and Lucy Latin Kitchen in the ABC Building. Eventually, Fuentes found his way to Jean-Georges Vongerichten kitchens—all the while continuing to stage.
Fuentes finally found a culinary home in Philadelphia, working on the Amada salad station for Rising Star Chef Jose Garces. Fuentes impressed his new mentor Garces and soon had the chance to take on more responsibility and the role of chef de cuisine. Moving within the Garces Group, Fuentes worked at Tinto and Village Whiskey before taking over as chef de cuisine at JG Domestic, where his passion and hunger to learn continue to drive him today.
Interview with 2013 Philadelphia Rising Star Chef Yun Fuentes
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Yun Fuentes: My first job was at McDonalds. I was the birthday attendant and dressed up as a Hamburlar. I was a dishwasher at 15 and then studied telecommunications in college. My last semester, I got a job offer to open a restaurant as a chef. I found myself at a crossroads. I opened in Puerto Rico, the El Convento Hotel, which means “the convent.” It used to be a convent, in old San Juan. I never looked back. I worked in New York, and thought I needed to learn more. I worked for great chefs; every day off, I staged at restaurants I admired. I would take my notebook and write everything I could remember on the subway.
CH: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
YF: Hang in there, keep working. Work hard. Respect the food and listen. I always tell the guys, “I might not be the best chef. I'm a very good cook. I love to cook.” Sometimes we begin a conversation about how to sear protein or roast poblano peppers, and it opens a conversation in a nice way. You want to bring joy to the table. It's about that experience, like going to a movie. This is what's displayed on the "screen." Just listen. It's been here for a while; we’ve cooked from the beginning of time, at least ate from the beginning of time. Be a sponge and keep learning. You'll never stop learning. Always learn new techniques. There are new truths. It is an art form; this is how I present this to you, like a director. You see the sequence of events through someone else’s eyes.
CH: What’s the toughest challenge you have had to overcome?
YF: The long hours. I don't spend as much time as I'd like to with my son. But it brings satisfaction when someone like Jose Garces tells you you're good. It makes it all worth it.
CH: Who in history would you most like to have cooked for?
YF: Van Gogh. He had vision. I think he believed very much in his vision, as well. That’s soul and heart. There's respect for that in a certain way. And pushing through, everyday pushing, that lone struggle. I would like to see what he would have to say about my butternut squash.
CH: What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?
YF: Working for Garces. I got to Philadelphia, worked the salad station and had a lot of years of experience, but I felt so happy the day they approached me with a sous chef position within a year of employment. I wasn't looking for it. I didn’t call anyone. I was so happy to be working with young cooks who loved what they were doing. They were like sponges, and I would show them things I'd learned. It helped my career in the company, but it was nice to see how people had that respect. They've given me the best job. They've entrusted me with some of their operations. It feels amazing.
CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?
YF: I’ll keep growing in the Garces group. I’ve found a home here. I started working at Amada. They treat me very well, and I'm really happy.