Javier Ramirez had a better 2016 than most. Despite his native Venezuela plummeting further into chaos, the energy analyst and hedge-fund risk manager saw doors open at Brickell's Bachour Bakery + Bistro and Wynwood's Cake Thai Kitchen, where he has partnered with some of the city's most exciting chefs to create polished standalone projects. Food & Wine named Brad Kilgore of Alter, another of Ramirez's partners, one of America's best new chefs.
In 2017, the 43-year-old Ramirez is planning a hip Venezuelan café straddling downtown and Wynwood in the Filling Station Lofts in the developer-named Arts & Entertainment (A&E) District. Consulting on the project will be Carlos García, whose Alto in Caracas was named among Latin America's 50 best restaurants in 2016. Ramirez tells New Times the café is a turning point, and one he's completely dedicated to after leaving his hedge fund late last year to concentrate on developing restaurants full-time.
"I'm no longer a guy with a day job trying to play the restaurant game," he says. "This is what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life."
Ramirez says his Venezuelan bistro will be named Amelia, in honor of his wife's great-grandmother, and will serve the simple fare of his home country in a place with a vibe reminiscent of Los Angeles' Gjusta. In the offing will be a rotating list of three or four classic Venezuelan arepas and the yellow corn pancakes called cachapas. The centerpiece of the open, fast-casual kitchen will be a glinting rotisserie, a beloved cooking apparatus for turning out simple roast birds in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. There will also be a spin on a beloved Venezuelan pork sandwich found at a place call La Encrucijada, situated on a major highway that connects Caracas to the lakeside city of Maracay.
"The pork is tender and juicy, and it has a bit of cracklings; the bread isn't stale but very sturdy; they add tomato and just the right amount of salt," Ramirez says. "I don't know how they figure that out. You're just about to complain it’s too salty, but it adds the perfect tingle to the palate."
For most of his life, however, food seemed to be about the last thing he would make a career of. Born in Caracas to doctor parents, Ramirez attended Universidad Católica Andrés Bello to study economics while aspiring to a career in the stock market. After graduating, he went into the oil industry, a natural for educated Venezuelans because the country is basically bobbing on a yawning reserve of crude. But rather than join Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company better known as PDVSA, Ramirez went to work for what was then British Petroleum helping to analyze and commission investments.
The position eventually took him to the company's head office in London, where he began scouring the city for its best chefs and dishes. The election of strongman Hugo Chavéz in 1998 brought that high-flying life to a halt when the socialist revolutionary began nationalizing private companies, forcing BP to pull out. From there, Ramirez bounced around a handful of big-name firms, including Oracle and French cement outfit Lafarge. He was rewarded well enough to take a month off to live in Paris, where he paid an exorbitant sum of money to spend a week inside the kitchen of Alain Passard's Arpège in the city's Seventh Arrondissement.
By 2010, he'd had enough of tumultuous Venezeula and decamped to Miami, where with college friends he launched a hedge fund that at its peak had about $10 million under management. But in Miami, a new passion began to take form. He started a food blog and a now-well-followed Instagram account. Buddying up with chefs led to the foundation of Alter, and pretty soon Ramirez was working two jobs.
"I would run out of my office as soon as the stock market closed to get over to Alter for meetings with designers, general contractors, and Brad," he says. "One day, after Alter opened and became what it is, and the opportunity to work with Antonio [Bachour] came about, and I had already had the first bite at Cake Thai, I said, 'This is it. This is what I should be doing.'"
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Ramirez's goal for every project is almost foolish: to create Miami's best places to eat. And Amelia, he says, will be like an El Palacio de Los Jugos, where you can visit with your mother or on a date. He says there are more projects in the works, and business partners want to see if his newly opened Cake Thai Kitchen can be scaled up like Harry's Pizzeria or Pizzeria Vetri.
But he's not as interested in quantity, already having seemed to have earned a tidy sum in oil and the stock market. "I am a guy focused on the single standalone version and making it the best it can possibly be," Ramirez says. "That's what really drives me."