No cook in Miami makes pasta like Roberto Fernandez. Deep below the Fontainebleau Miami Beach, in a room reachable only through a labyrinth of corridors, he emerges from a walk-in refrigerator with a crayon-yellow heap of dough about the size of an adult sea turtle. The wiry 52-year-old with silver hair, plump cheeks, and narrow eyes drops it on a table, divides it in half, and runs it through a pasta machine until it's as supple as the leather in a luxury sedan.
Soon he's running an accordion-style pasta cutter with five round blades down the length of the dough, dividing it into five strips. He pipes on thick cylinders of whipped duck and foie gras, then folds the pasta around it and pinches the long tube into little pockets. Once trimmed, they look like a pretty heap of wrapped saltwater taffy.
"You can't use the same recipe every time you make fresh pasta," Fernandez says while dusting the little purses with flour and semolina. "If it's hotter, it changes; if it's colder, it changes; and the recipe is different depending on the kind of pasta you're making."
Before the day is done, he'll make enough noodles to feed more than 500 people.
Behind Roberto is his brother Francisco, who is 51 and, other than being a bit shorter and pudgier, looks strikingly similar as he carves a case of ducks into breasts and thighs. Soon he's on to breaking down a huge halibut that covers most of his workspace.
"These guys are legends, true legends," says Macchialina Taverna Rustica chef and owner Michael Pirolo, one of Francisco's bosses. "If you give them a recipe, they won't follow it, but they'll make something better and faster than you ever could. And they're always consistent."
Francisco's record is 800 portions of pasta in a single day.
Roberto and Francisco aren't the only Fernandez brothers who work long hours in Miami's best restaurants. There's also Felix and Jose, as well as Roberto's daughter Nicaury. All of them are usually gone before the first dinner guests are seated.
Since Roberto led his brothers to Miami in 2010, they have become unsung kitchen heroes for their speed and precision. They're creative in a way few prep cooks are ever allowed to be. They're well paid, fiercely loyal, and — in an industry where getting people to show up on time is a challenge — more reliable than a pocket knife.
Roberto, Francisco, Felix, and Jose are only four of 13 brothers born and raised in Campo Jánico in the hilly countryside of the northern Dominican Republic. The family compound included two houses with a total of eight bedrooms. There was a separate kitchen where most of the cooking was done. The boys were inseparable, with free rein of the countryside. Their family baseball team was known throughout the area. No one had an assigned bedroom, and after a long day of playing ball, the boys slept wherever they fell.
Neighbor helping neighbor was common, especially when it came to food. "You would trade the fruit that grew outside of your house for the vegetables another family grew," Felix, age 48, says. "There was no organic, no GMO, none of that. You knew where everything came from."
The family business was a string of small grocery stores around their hometown, but as the island's economy struggled in the 2000s, some began leaving for work in New York City.
In 2008, Felix and Francisco made the move to Queens, where much of the family lived in cramped apartments in Long Island City. They worked nights in the even more cramped dish pits of the Tribeca restaurant Ago, a joint venture of Robert De Niro and producer/alleged rapist Harvey Weinstein.
It didn't take long for the brothers to climb out of dishwashing. Soon they were lording over the prep kitchen. About a year later, Scott Conant, who'd long employed one of their cousins, hired Roberto for a Scarpetta outpost in Miami. Word quickly reached New York about life in South Florida — so Francisco and Felix soon followed. For a short time, the four brothers lived together in the same apartment in Miami Beach's northern reaches.
There, they retold kitchen war stories and plotted how to become better, faster cooks. "Anytime one of us was having a problem with a recipe or an ingredient, we'd sit down with a beer — a few beers — and talk for hours about how to fix it," Francisco says while rolling out a 15-foot-long gossamer sheet of pasta.
Today the four brothers spend their days, which can last as long as 15 hours, bouncing between Macchialina, the Dutch, and the Fontainebleau, so the evening cooks can churn out dishes with ease. Felix arrives at Pirolo's Macchialina around 6 a.m. to begin preparing.
On a recent day, he starts with a mountain of white beans, corn, farro, and potatoes before drying massive piles of tomatoes. Nearby, Francisco produces the pasta for which Pirolo is beloved. He turns out a few dozen servings of spaghetti, along with a few dozen portions of black pepper-speckled cavatelli, all while cracking jokes at Felix's expense.
Around lunchtime, Francisco pulls off his gray apron, buttons a white chef's jacket bearing the Fontainebleau's logo, and rushes out the door. He'll spend the next several hours portioning seafood, preparing vegetables, and doing whatever else the massive hotel operation needs.
"These are guys who want to work, who want to build a life for their families," says Nina Compton, who won a James Beard Award earlier this year and oversaw the Fernandez brothers while she was chef de cuisine at Scarpetta. "They always show up on time, and they're extremely loyal. No one can poach them."
Though the brothers are faithful to their chefs, they're fiercely protective of their recipes. Once, when Compton requested his pasta recipe, Roberto gave her a fake that yielded a soupy egg-and-flour slop. Pirolo says he's been trying for years to figure out the secret to their empanada dough.
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On occasion, they do share. For a time, Pirolo ran a special for strozzapreti, which translates to "priest stranglers." The stubby noodle spears are made by rolling three strands of pasta together. The labor-intensive prospect of turning out enough for a night's dinner terrifies most cooks, but Pirolo arrived each afternoon to find exponentially greater numbers of trays filled with perfect portions.
"Instead of making three-inch strands and rolling them, Francisco made three as long as the table, attached the ends to an electric egg beater, and just twisted them together and cut them," Pirolo recalls. "I lost my fucking mind when I saw it. You never see ingenuity like that."
But in an age when cooking seems a glamorous choice, the Fernandez brothers seem to take little interest in the restaurant scene beyond their shifts. They don't read food media or follow trends or chase awards. They look to the ingredients for inspiration. And they rarely, if ever, eat in the restaurants where they work.
Roberto's daughter Nicaury, who is 26 with a thick crop of black hair, began toiling alongside her father about three years ago at the Dutch in Miami Beach, where she started in prep before working her way up to line cook. Asked whether he wants his daughter to spend her life in the kitchen, his answer is far less nuanced than the saffron-infused tagliatelle he makes so well. "I love my job. It's easy for me, and it allows me to be creative," he says. "But, no, I don't want her to follow me."