Chef Alex Otero: Bongos' Kitchen is My House of Worship

​OK, we'll admit it: We haven't been to Bongos since we were tourists. Back then, we couldn't tell our vaca frita from croquettes, but we knew Gloria Estefan had something to do with the restaurant, so we were all in.

Seems the folks behind Bongos feared that perhaps we've lost that lovin' feeling over time, so they gave the resto some renovations and even put a new executive chef at the helm: Alex Otero. Yes, the boy is authentically Cuban, so there's no need to ask. But his upbringing in California makes him more attuned to lean bacon than deep fat fryers, so we were intrigued to hear what he was bringing to the tables.

Otero started out making upscale sandwiches at Bongos' outdoor café a few months ago and eventually rose up through the ranks to a more corporate role. And he even makes desserts (red velvet tres leches cake, anyone?). But the most interesting thing about Otero was that he thinks cooking is his religion. Hmm.

New Times: What's your background?

Alex Otero: I'm originally from California. I grew up in Pasadena. Both of my parents are Cuban. My dad was one of the Peter Pan kids and my mom came over a few months after Castro took over.

Lots of my friends were Mexican, Oriental, Armenian. I had a friend's whose mom was Hawaiian, so I learned to cook with banana leaves and SPAM in all kinds of ways. I always ate at other people's houses and they came to mine for my grandmother's cooking. I would ask their mothers how to make this, what's in this? I was so interested in their cooking -- this endeared me to their parents. I always wanted to go to cooking school.

Any other chefs in your family?

My grandfather cooked and my grandmother. They were all just naturally good cooks, but nobody was a chef.

Being Latin, there are certain things you can and cannot be. To my dad, being a chef wasn't one of them. I told him that's what I wanted to do, but he wasn't too happy about it so I ended up going to business school. I worked at American Express for 10 years, and then finally I decided I'm gonna do what I want, and I went to culinary school.

Where did you go?

I went to Le Cordon Bleu a few years back. I owned a catering company before that. My wife's uncle had a catering business. It was amazing for me to be in it. Then I opened up own restaurant and I said, now I want to go to culinary school.

I was going to school and I had a restaurant at the same time. I was going to school at night.

What was the name of the restaurant?

SoCal Café in Pembroke Pines. I was working both. But it's all worth it now.

Sometimes I'm selfish about what I cook. I can afford to be a little more adventurous. Growing up in California was great for the influences. Vegetarian I learned from the Hare Krishnas. In Venice Beach they have a Hare Krishna restaurant and I would always hang out there. Eventually they let me in the back to the kitchen. There are certain things you have to follow. You know you have to offer food to Krishna before bringing food out to the table. Even though I wasn't a Hare Krishna, you have to respect the way they do things.

I was always looking for something spiritual. I've been to mosques, I've been to a temple... you name it. It wasn't until I got to cooking that I thought, this was it for me. It made me happy inside. That spirituality has to come from inside. I needed to be able to express myself through food. It emulsified. All the diversity that I picked up in California--it brought everything together.

Why did you leave Cali?

It was real difficult for me to leave California. My whole family left. Cubans are really family oriented. It's a Cuban thing: Muslims go to Mecca, Cubans come back to Miami.

Come back Monday to find out which food he says tastes like a fart in your mouth, where he says you can find the best Cuban food in Miami (hint: it's not on Calle Ocho), and what exactly Cuban sushi comprises.

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Riki Altman