In the spring of 1999, Manhattan-based Chef Rafael Palomino moved his family out of the steamy city and into the picturesque ‘burbs of Westchester County.
The plan was a simple one; to relocate his family and replicate his Sonora concept (Eastgate Tower Hotel, NY) closer to home and create his elevated Latin cuisine for a new clientele. Rafael Palomino was introduced to the former Two Moons restaurant space in Port Chester, NY, straddling the border of Greenwich, CT. Spearheaded by restaurateur Denis Ossorio and Chef Billy Rosenberg, Two Moons, in its day, was somewhat of an enigma, a mash-up of Southwestern cuisine comprised of uncharacteristically Southwestern ingredients, a cocktail menu that was ahead of its time (“waiter, there’s an herb in my cocktail.”), and a design aesthetic that was dubbed a “Mesa Verde cave of the Anasazi” by the New York Times.
“It was perfect,” recalls Palomino of the physical space and the juxtaposing communities, “It had just enough edge to it and the canvas I needed to create my Latin concept. The location was a bit quirky too, which only added to its appeal.”
Port Chester had yet to attract any major culinary talent at the time Palomino swooped into town. Downtown was filled with taquerias and bodegas, a few neighborhood pubs, and an old-school steakhouse. This fearless chef was taking a gamble.
“Cilantro and chipotle weren’t flavors people were craving. Ceviche was for the adventurous and Latin inspired tequila and rum-based cocktails were not hot like they are now. I knew I had to stay true to my concept though and educate the consumer,” Palomino says of his long-term plan and his mission to have people fall in love with his food.
Fortunately, his long-term plan was accomplished in the short term as it wasn’t long before his Miami Beach-meets-Port Chester restaurant and bar was the talk of the neighborhood. While the clientele may not have been familiar with the dishes, they knew quality and could appreciate the creativity. Palomino’s classically trained culinary background shined through. Colombian-born, Palomino drew from his childhood in Bogotá, his earlier years in New York City alongside such culinary legends as Larry Forgione and Charlie Palmer, and his time in France honing his craft with renowned Chef Michel Guèrard in Eugènie-les-Bains.
One could say “and the rest is history” as Palomino continued to open more restaurants and pen 5 cookbooks; Bistro Latino, Viva la Vida, Nueva Salsa, Fiesta Latina, and Latin Grill!. But history is just that, a look back. A chef’s career met with great successes and unique challenges.
Upon the success of Sonora, Palomino and his partner Moe Gad introduced their Pacifico concept a mere 2 miles up the road in Rye, NY and another up the line in New Haven, CT.
“We soon realized that we were competing with ourselves with the Rye location. Whereas, the New Haven spot was a home run from the beginning. We were quickly accepted by a city with a large student population and mix ethnicities.”
The partners sold Pacifico in Rye after 8 years and soon tried their hand at a location in Greenwich in hopes of expanding upon their large Greenwich customer base from Sonora. Bistro Latino, a sophisticated restaurant and bar, open in 2013 in the former Boxing Cat Grill location in Old Greenwich. It struggled to find an audience and so the duo quickly morphed the restaurant into a more casual, albeit, upscale tavern, called Greenwich Tavern. That too was unable to find its groove, whether it was due to its isolated location so far from the center of town, or its quick turnover and consequential mixed messaging.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” reflects Palomino, “And I soon realized that it was more important to nurture the restaurants that had forward momentum and nurture my staff who were all counting on these restaurant jobs to support themselves.”
Palomino’s passion for cooking and being a part of an industry he holds so dear is matched by his dedication to his staff. He believes in sharing in his success and compensating his team generously. Long-term managers, some of whom have been with him for over 15 years, are vested in the restaurants as partners and have the opportunity to carve out a significant career within Palomino’s restaurant group.
“First, their phones need to work and they need money in their pockets,” explains Palomino of his reputation for paying his staff above what other restaurants typically offer, “Happy, well looked after, trained staff stay. It’s that simple.”
This past spring Sonora celebrated its 20th anniversary. While still a neighborhood darling, there’s no denying the plethora and caliber of restaurants that have joined the Port Chester food scene since Sonora first opened. It’s even fair to say, Port Chester is a saturated market. In true Palomino fashion, the challenge is met with humility, creativity, and a spirit that continues to motivate this chef and his team.
Palomino celebrated the anniversary with a trip to Spain, finding inspiration while roaming wine country, exploring tapas bars throughout Barcelona, and drinking in the country’s “viva la vida” spirit.
“It’s a new day. In place of mainstream media and traditional advertising, we’re enjoying being a part of the digital age and social media culture. It’s a take-out and delivery world and we’re just living in it,” Chef muses, “Vegan, gluten and dairy-free, you name it. I’m cooking for how people are eating today while staying true to the restaurants’ Latin roots, keeping things fresh and growing with our customers, as well as an evolving foodservice industry. You can’t be in denial – or else you go out of business.”
Today, Chef Palomino’s restaurants currently span four states and many miles. They include: The Urbano in Bethlehem, PA; Tapas on Main in Bethlehem, PA; The Flying Egg, Cachette Bistro & Creperie, and Mesa Modern Mexican in Easton, PA; Pacífico in New Haven, CT; and B Square Burgers + Booze in Fort Lauderdale, FL. His extended services include a robust catering arm under the Chef Rafael Palomino brand and corporate delivery from his newly developed multi-cuisine ordering platform.
Palomino is well-liked and respected by his peers. Humble to a fault, he remains a sought after chef figure for food festivals, cooking demonstrations, and high-profile events throughout the region.
“Everything in this business is about relationships. The camaraderie I share with my fellow chefs, the bond I have with my partners and staff, and the relationships I enjoy with my customers. Plus, there’s a whole new generation of customers to meet – and I can’t wait.”
Visit Sonora at 179 Rectory Street, Port Chester, NY 10573, (914)-933-0200, www.