In late 2005, while Toro opened its doors for the first time to critical acclaim and hour plus long waits, Luis Palacio was preparing for a move from Colombia to the United States. He landed in Boston with the desire to work in a restaurant and the passion to dive right in. The next day he walked into Mike’s City Diner to say hello to a friend he knew that was working there. The owner, Toro neighbor, landlord and most importantly friend, Jay Hajj asked Luis if he was looking for a job. When he replied yes, Jay walked Luis next door to Toro, and though he expressed that he was interested in being a food runner or barback, Luis was approached by the opening sous chef.
“Someone told me you know how to cook.” said Chef Anthony Mazotta. Luis responded that he did but reiterated that he was hoping for something out of the kitchen. The chef was persistent and asked if Luis would give just two hours of his time. “I don’t even have clothes to work in the kitchen right now,” he protested, but the chef said he would find him clothes and asked which station he could work. “The grill,” Luis finally relented. And like that, he took his place working on the grill until Toro closed that evening.
“Everyone in the kitchen at that time was American and they had all gone to culinary school,” Luis recalls, “I was the only Spanish person on the line. I stayed there that night and for 11 months working that grill station making paellas.”
After almost a year at Toro, Luis was finally made a food runner. He left his apron behind for the job he desired, one interacting with guests. On his second day, on a Friday night, right around 7:30pm with a completely full restaurant, the barback walked out the back door and never returned. The chef remembered that Luis had expressed an interest in the bar and gave him his shot. At the end of the night he was hired as a barback full time. Three months later, he began working as a service bartender. Four or five years later, he was working five to seven nights a week building and pouring cocktails for a restaurant that was full every night.
Five years later, in 2010, Luis received a call from one of the oldest spanish newspapers in Boston, El Planeta, to tell him he would be included in a competition for the best Spanish bartender in the state of Massachusetts. It was an online vote, that lasted one month, and each week contenders were eliminated. Each week Luis advanced, and by the final week he won the competition with 65% of the votes.
“I won the competition as the best bartender in the area for 2010. That gave me the confidence to realize how much I could improve,” says Luis, “so I took the BarSmarts bartender class in New York.”
For two and a half months Luis studied, taking tests online and preparing for the final exam. The test consisted of a practical section and a 100 question test. 85 questions must be answered correctly in order to pass. He did.
“One of the judges came and asked for a mojito. I made it the way they had instructed us to do so, and he told me it was perfect. When they asked if I had any questions. I said ‘Yes, I have a question why do you double strain the mojito?’ And he asked me if I was out on a date with a girl and she had mint in her teeth would I want to kiss her?” I said, ‘I like mojitos, I like mint, I would kiss her.” He laughs. “And I got my BarSmarts diploma.”
The story of Luis’s journey into professional bartending is as colorful and adventurous as the rest of his life. When he was still living in Columbia, Luis once caught and killed a massive jaguar who was hunting his livestock in rugged mountainous terrain. A wild jaguar. He also spent more than half a decade scuba diving in exploration for coal in deep underground mines. Luis moved around quite a bit throughout the country, learning different dialects and parts of the culture, becoming a well-versed person in more ways that one. Still, it’s when he is talking about being a bartender that his face truly lights up.
“I love working behind the bar. When you are in front of your guests, you can interact with them directly. When you’re serving people at the table, you say hi and you talk a little, but when you are behind the bar, you have people right in front of you. You can answer their questions, get to know them, and make cocktail recipes that you think they’ll like. I always say, ‘if I have the ingredients I’ll make it.’ I want them to be happy.”
Making the guest happy is paramount in hospitality, but it’s not the only thing that keeps guests waiting for over an hour to sit down after 13 years of service. From the guy who has been there since the beginning, here are some of Luis’ tips of the trade for a place that he says wasn’t the first Spanish tapas bar in the United States, but is still the best. And come see us this Thursday from 5pm-Midnight, as we celebrate all 13 years by bringing back the old, embracing the new and porrón-ing like pros.
Consistency. From the managers, servers, line cooks and chefs, this place is getting better and better every day because of the consistency that every person working under the one roof strives for.
Learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of other people. I always say to my coworkers, “try to never lose your head.” At the end of the day, the guest is always right. It’s not easy, I’ve worked the line with the pressure of the tickets, and behind the bar. But the moment that you are busy is the moment that you have to concentrate.
Everyday when I cross through the door, leave your problems outside. If you’re busy, if you’re stressed, you’re going to go crazy, and you’re going to lose your head. I have many problems, but every time I come in here I say “Ok, I will leave my problems out there”. And maybe that is how I’ve stayed in this place for 13 years.