By Margie Merritt
“Juanito, Juanito,” a high pitched voice screams from behind the doors in the kitchen. “I’m not here,” Juan Ponce Lopez, sous chef at Minton’s, jokingly hollers back as he organizes plastic containers filled with salad toppings.
It’s 5:15 and the staff at Minton’s is finishing up preparations for the evening. Minton’s opens for dinner at six, and the staff normally eats together at 4:30 — a protein, starch, and a salad. “It’s a democracy, we all decide what we’re going to have,” says Lopez.
Tonight it’s mushroom pizza, plantains, baked beans, rice, and a salad, a group effort. Someone made the pizza dough from scratch, someone else made the sauce, and then Lopez put it all together. He’s in charge of making sure that the staff of 20 gets fed every night before the restaurant opens.
“We take suggestions around here,” says Lopez. “I try not to waste things we have. Let’s say I have six chickens left from last week or steaks leftover from the night before, that would be apart of our dinner.”
Lopez, a friendly 24-year-old dressed in a white chef’s coat, tattoos peeking out on every square inch not covered by the coat, started at the Cecil in 2013 as a line cook. Four years later he has worked his way up to be one of the two sous chef positions at restaurant, which has been combined with Minton’s. During the week Lopez comes in around two o’clock to start his sous chef duties which range from prepping the kitchen for service to making sure the staff is present and fed. Once service begins, he’s the expediter. Responsible for making sure everything is prepared in a timely manner and that each plate looks and taste correct.
“My head is all over the place an hour ahead of time,” says Lopez. “But once I’m open I should be ready, so I’m really just waiting for that first order.”
Minton’s cuisine is a hybrid of African, Asian and American influences, the menu developed originally by Lopez’ boss, JJ Johnson; Lopez has had to learn to prepare everything from Feijoada, a black bean, oxtail, and lamb sausage stew; to gumbo and tuna tartare.
“The owners really wanted to show how diverse food was during the slave trade,” says Lopez. He explains that many people don’t realize how many of the cultures are intertwined. “So we cook with a lot of lemongrass, plantains, and curries from all over.”
Tonight Lopez is responsible for the salads. Around five o’clock he begins to carry up prep dishes filled with the ingredients he needs for the night. While the staff usually gathers to eat at around 4:30, Lopez doesn’t always have the time to join them. When asked when he would eat, Lopez replied “Oh I’ll eat later.” Right before the doors open he wolfs a slice of pizza.
“This is so good,” he chuckles. Other staff members take their slices back to their work stations so that they can eat while they finish their last minute preparations for the night.
Lopez, originally from Mexico City, Mexico, came here when he was eight years old. He traces his interest in food back to when he was 14. “We didn’t have cable, so the only channels we got were Food Network and Elmo,” he says, referring to the Sesame Street character on PBS. Lopez went with Food Network. When he turned 16 his cousin got him a job at a dishwasher, and after that he bounced around from IHOP to Popeye’s before landing as a prep cook at Tree Bistro in the East Village. Lopez says it was at Tree Bistro, a small French restaurant, where he really began to take cooking seriously.
All of Lopez’s training took place on the job, but he is now enrolled at LaGuardia Community College to get his associate’s degree, with hopes of going to the Institute of Culinary Education after that.
Once Minton’s is open, Lopez doesn’t get a break until the end of his shift, which is around 10 o’clock during the week. “Then all your life-needs catch up with you,” says Lopez. “Like can I send a text, run to the restroom, and then maybe have a snack.”
On his days off Lopez enjoys cooking food at his Bronx apartment. Things he can eat with his hands, like sandwiches, but tacos are his favorite. “I could be stranded on an island with tacos forever,” he says. But after work he goes for something lighter. “I always grab a salad when I get off,” says Lopez. “Even if I don’t eat all of it, these salads are good here,” he says, referring to the curry bleu cheese salad. “It’s the easiest thing to just grab when we’re closing.” He normally grabs one of the salads from the menu to take with him to eat when he gets back home.
Lopez says he doesn’t want to be a sous chef forever. He has dreams of eventually opening up his own taco truck. “Owning a restaurant is nice, but I really want to bring my food to you and not you come to the food,” he says.
Tags: chef, dinner, Harlem