When Cesar Cardenas came to America from Ecuador in 2001, he had a dream in his pocket: to become an executive chef. In his home country, he says, “It’s the women who do the cooking. Over here, I knew it was different.”
Arriving with no culinary experience, Cardenas found a dishwashing job at Salt Creek Grille in Rumson. It was the first step in his 20-year journey at the restaurant.
Cardenas rose to grill guy and then sous chef. In October 2020, he was named executive chef. Over two decades, Cardenas has learned all his skills by watching, listening and practicing. He is grateful for his Salt Creek family, a group he feels “will always have my back.”
How did you get started at Salt Creek Grille?
Cesar Cardenas: I came to this country looking for a future. Being in the kitchen was a future for me because people are always going to eat. My mom loved to cook and my grandma was always in the kitchen making the same things all the time. I always thought you could mix it up and create something new. I started doing dishes because I had no experience and I was pretty young.
How did you progress?
I started learning a little more, like desserts. Over the years, I became a grill guy, and Salt Creek only uses a wood grill. I did that for six or seven years, and was like, ‘I’m good here!’ Now I wanted to move up. There was an opportunity to become a sous, so I told the chef I can handle it and started learning more and more, and the chef told me I had a future here. I wanted to be like him and learn more every day.
Did you hone your skills at home?
I’d always try something at home. If something was ever good, we could put it on as a special. When we got good feedback, it was like, “Wow.”
How did you become executive chef?
One of the chefs moved to another state during the pandemic. The owner was like, ‘Cesar, you can run this kitchen.’ He had faith in me. We had a big meeting and everyone said I was the right person. The other chef taught me every single thing, so I learned it all.
What’s one of the most important things you’ve learned?
I learned to respect all my co-workers, and they always got my back. I never went to school for this. I started from the bottom, so they’ve seen me, and want to learn. It might be hard, but we can do it. Everyone has worked together for years, so one of the great things at Salt Creek is the communication. If you don’t like something, you just say it, and we will fix the problem.
Tell me about your menus.
We put on a lot of specials, and next month for wintertime we are changing the menu a bit. We do a lot of fish and meat, and change the sauces and types of vegetables. For winter we will do more pastas. My favorite dishes are the NY Strip and the Chilean sea bass. For cocktails, we change those every month.
What does rising to executive chef mean to you, after 20 years?
I want to do my best to show everyone that you can do this. I always wanted to be a chef when I was a kid, from watching TV shows and all that. It was complicated in my country. Everyone used to make fun of me as a guy wanting to be a chef, because in Ecuador only the women cook. When I came to the United States, I knew my dream could come true. I knew it was different here.