Chef Tony Torres is a native Floridian who, unlike many chefs, has made his career in South Florida and plans on staying right here.
Chef Torres started working at the Boca Raton Resort and Country Club at age 19 and hasn't missed a beat. After graduating from the Florida Culinary Institute (now Lincoln College), Torres continued his career at such notable restaurants as Nikki Beach and Lotus Restaurant. Now executive chef at Buddha Sky Bar in Delray, Torres chatted with us about his career and dream of taking Buddah Sky Bar to the next level.
Clean Plate Charlie: How did you land the gig at Buddha Sky Bar?
Chef Tony Torres: Well, I pretty much started out opening this restaurant as a chef; there really wasn't any other chef here before. The project was ready to open, and they needed somebody to develop the menu and open up, and so I've always been the chef, since opening.
What's your background?
I grew up in West Palm Beach, and after high school, I went to Florida Culinary Institute, which is now Lincoln College. When I was in school, I worked at the Boca Raton Resort. After college, I worked at Gatsby's West Palm Beach; then I opened the ones in Dania and Kendall. I stayed in Kendall for four or five years.
I moved to South Beach and worked at Nikki Beach and Pearl. I was the sous chef for about three years. Then I got an executive chef position at Lotus restaurant in Sunny Isles. I started learning a lot about sushi and got Japanese trained and learned a lot about that. I was in Sunny Isles for the last five years. It was like a Russian European restaurant with a sushi bar. It did very well for a while. Then I came back to Delray to help open Buddha Sky Bar.
Seems like you've worked all over South Florida. Which part of South Florida do you prefer?
Yeah, pretty much. I've seen a lot of South Florida. It's been a fun adventure. I've done a lot of things. I like it back here in the Palm Beach area. I like South Beach, but it's too trendy for me. Everyone's doing the same thing in every restaurant. I like Delray Beach. Every chef does their own thing, and they all have new ideas coming out of their kitchens. I've always liked this area. I grew up in this area.
Many chefs tell me the grueling hours they put in. What's your typical week like?
I spend a lot of time here. Well, in the beginning I was working 70 to 80 hours, seven days a week, to get the place running. Now I'm working less -- maybe about 50 to 60 hours a week. I get a couple of days off now. It's all about trusting your sous chefs. I have confidence in all my staff that they can get the job done when I'm not here. All my staff can step up and get everything done without my having to worry about anything. I make that a big part of training.
Do you think, then, it's an ego thing when chefs work seven days a week or a sign that their people aren't trained... or both?
Well, I used to be like that, and a lot of chefs are like that. I think it's more of an ego thing that they have to be there. It all comes down to the fact that if you can't trust your staff just to take two days off and you don't trust anyone in your kitchen, you have a problem. It wears you out if you have to worry about everything. One chef can't do it by himself. We have a team of chefs and workers. No chef can do everything, and trust me, chefs have that passion in their hearts that they have to do everything. But you can't get burnt out.
If you have confidence in what's going on and you trust your staff, you come back to work refreshed. You don't have to be that chef that works 100 hours and does everything as long as you have the right staff.
We're seeing a lot of restaurants fold, possibly because of the economy. We just heard, for instance, that Chef Allen's is closing after 25 years. What does a chef need to do to ensure his or her restaurant makes it?
Well, here's the thing. I grew up with a lot of old-school chefs, and they're trying to bring it up to the next level, and a lot of chefs are trying molecular gastronomy, and they think that's what people want. Chef Allen's been around for years, and he did a lot of simple dishes, and, of course, it's due in part because of the economy. Seafood is going up in price right now, as are meats and produce.
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To succeed, a good restaurant needs to make good, simple food. Don't get a lot of foams and sauces and certifications. People want to go maybe once in a while and spend like a thousand dollars for a dinner, but people come back to the restaurant that serves good simple food. Just make good food. You can't beat a braised lamb shank with red wine. A lot of sous chefs that come out of school make these crazy plates, and it's not cost-effective.
Those days are drawing down to a close. If you go to New York, you can do those things. People in South Florida want to come down to the beach and have a nice piece of fish. It doesn't have to be that expensive. I see a lot of chefs trying to do that, and they'll fail. Just keep it simple; just make good food.
Watch out for part two of our interview with Chef Torres, coming soon.