Chef Carlos Fernandez, head chef of Hi-Life Cafe in Wilton Manors, clearly loves what he does. Although he fell into his role 15 years ago, he has since developed a passion for cooking that shines through when he talks about the restaurant, his staff, and most of all the guests who keep coming back to eat his food.
You may know him from his stint on Top Chef as one of the "cheftestants" on season two. Although he'll be the first to admit that it was fun to be a minicelebrity for a while, his passion lies in his 65-seat "neighborhood bistro with a big heart."
Chef Carlos recently sold Hi-Life Cafe but
will stay on as chef. In this three-part
interview, we talk to Chef Carlos about his unique route to the kitchen,
his Top Chef experience and what the future holds for Hi-Life Cafe.
New Times: How did you get into the restaurant business?
Chef Carlos: I
actually studied engineering but didn't love it, so I left school and
started waiting tables to make ends meet. But you don't get rich
waiting tables in NYC... that's when I realized that if you operated
your own place, you could make a decent living.
So you decided to become a chef?
I actually fell into it. We were originally three partners; a chef; my
partner, Chuck, who was going to handle the front of house; and myself. I
would take on the assistant sous chef position and act as a sort of
"floater" to help out with both. But at the last minute, our chef got
cold feet, so we lost him and the money he was putting in. Chuck and I
decided to go for it anyway. I would take the back of house, and he
would handle the front.
That's quite a start. How did it go?
was trial by fire. When the first delivery arrived from Sysco, I simply
froze, I was so overwhelmed. But I pulled myself together and just
started putting things away, one box at a time. The recipes I used were
old family recipes that I was already familiar with, and I was fortunate
to get some great recipes from some chefs I knew from New York -- dishes they
knew I could make and would be a hit.
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And how long ago was this?
We opened 15 years ago, November of 1995. That's why all our prices end in $.95, sort of a tribute to the year we opened.
What is the concept behind Hi-Life Cafe?
I call it American Contemporary. We strive to be a restaurant with a truly neighborhood feel. I spend 12 hours a day here, sometimes more, so it's my home, and I want my guests to feel like they are coming into my home.
You and your partner, Chuck Smith, worked together. How was it working and living together?
Hard, but we had separate departments, so there was some separation. We also learned early on that you have to respect each other and not take the other for granted. Once you put respect into the equation, you can solve all the world's problems.
So you recently sold Hi-Life Cafe. Why?
It's a lot of work owning a restaurant, so when Chuck wanted to go back to school, we decided that, after 15 years, the timing was right. The new owners, Carlo and Aude Weis, are great. They moved here from Luxembourg and are very hands-on. You can usually find Taude here in the evenings. She's out front welcoming guests and making sure everyone has a a drink in hand. It's perfect for me -- I can focus on what I love, making good food.
Stay tuned tomorrow to find out what's in store for Hi-Life Cafe in the coming months. We'll also talk a little about Chef Carlos' 15 minutes of fame on Top Chef and get one of his winning recipes.