Fernando Martinez is the Executive Chef-Owner of Ole Restaurant Group (Oh, Let’s Eat!). Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, he was inspired by watching his mother and grandmother cook. It became a lifelong fascination with food.

Fernando Martinez came to the United States in 1994. He’s opened several restaurants, beginning with Havana Rumba in 2002. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, he is a force to be reckoned with in the Louisville culinary world.

Chef Martinez sat down with author Steve Coomes for this July 2019 interview. Chef Martinez is a valued customer of Winston’s CVap® products.

Getting Started

In 2001, Fernando Martinez partnered with his mother and a friend to create Havana Rumba in Louisville, Kentucky. All were immigrants who fled communist Cuba to pursue their dreams of opening their own restaurant. Havana Rumba was a near-instant success, but Martinez would eventually leave to create six other concepts.

Article at a Glance

[Steve Coomes] What led you and your partners to create Havana Rumba?

[Fernando Martinez] “We wanted our own place, which you couldn’t do in Cuba. The government didn’t allow it. It’s one of the many reasons we left Cuba for the United States. We wanted an opportunity, and we knew how to cook.”

“My partners were Marcos Lorenzo and my mother, Yolanda Amaro. At that time Louisville didn’t have a Cuban restaurant. We believed people would like it. Cuban food is delicious, and we were good at cooking it. The location where we opened it wasn’t great, but it’s what we could afford. It was small and simple. We saved our own money to start it.”

“Marcos was out front, and we had a dishwasher, one cook, my mom and myself. That was our kitchen staff! Pretty soon, it wasn’t enough. After being slow for the first two weeks, it went crazy! We were on a wait every day of the week. We only had 15 tables, so we filled up quickly. It stayed so busy that people would wait on the sidewalk to get in. We didn’t even have a bar where they could sit. The wait to get in eventually got so long that people would go to the bar at the steakhouse down the sidewalk, drink there and then come back to Havana Rumba for dinner when their table was ready.”

Fernando Martinez

[Steve Coomes] What was a work day like for all of you back then?

[Fernando Martinez] “We worked six days a week from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. I never worked so hard in my life.”

[Steve Coomes] Why do you think it took off like it did?

[Fernando Martinez] “Louisville showed us our idea was right. It was ready for something like Havana Rumba. Especially people on a side of town where there aren’t many Latinos and no Latin restaurants other than Mexican restaurants. We also did our best to make it as authentic as we could. It was like you were eating dinner at our house.”

[Steve Coomes] Eventually, you expanded Havana Rumba.

 

[Fernando Martinez] “Yes, thankfully. After six months of being on a wait every day, we talked to our landlord about expanding into the space next to ours. They agreed, so we expanded the kitchen. We added a new dining room, and that gave us room to add a full bar.”

[Steve Coomes] Was the added rent any concern to your budget?

[Fernando Martinez] “Oh, no, trust me on this. We knew we had enough traffic to support the extra space. We also believed that having a bar–since you make more money on liquor anyway–would help. We were right about that, too. And people soon wanted to eat and drink in the bar.”

[Steve Coomes] Since demand was so high, surely there was talk about opening a second Havana Rumba?

[Fernando Martinez] “I never wanted to duplicate Havana Rumba. Ethnic food is so personal–too personal, maybe–that it becomes so hard to duplicate. A restaurant with good ethnic food is good because of that one person who’s there every day…that one person who really knows how to season the black beans just so. You really can’t duplicate that person. And when you try, it loses the essence of what you started with. That’s how I feel about it.

[Steve Coomes] Could you elaborate on why ethnic food is so personal?

[Fernando Martinez] “Growing up in Cuba, we never had the food and ingredient choices we have in the United States. So we cooked with whatever we had or could get. And when there’s that inconsistency in your ingredients, the food is going to be different, but it’s still good. Part of the charm of ethnic food is its inconsistency: that reality of not having all the ingredients you need or want forces you to just go with what you have. To do that well, you’ve got to have the same people making the food. They know how to make it best even when they don’t have everything they want.”

Growth Required Changes

Fernando Martinez’s partnership with his mother and a friend produced two of Louisville’s busiest restaurants. But it would eventually dissolve and lead the Martinez family on a culinary odyssey.

[Steve Coomes] Your second restaurant wasn’t another Cuban spot, it was a tapas restaurant.

[Fernando Martinez] “Right, that was Mojito Tapas Restaurant, which we opened in 2004. It did really well–not as well as Havana Rumba–but it was always busy, almost always on a wait. That really allowed me to express some creativity, to create beautiful Spanish dishes and give Louisville a tapas experience.”

Cooking in Havana Rumba Restaurant

[Steve Coomes] Was it tough spreading yourself over two operations?

[Fernando Martinez] It was really hard. It was the first time I had to delegate and get used to trusting somebody else to do what I had been doing all the time. When you open a restaurant for the first time, you tend to micromanage people. But if you want it to grow, you have to delegate.”

“Me not delegating created a lot of friction between me and the people I was working with. I learned that the easiest way to be unsuccessful in this business is to be a perfectionist. When you’re the typical type A personality like most chefs, it’s really hard to let go of control.”

[Steve Coomes] Now that you have multiple restaurants, have you learned to let go more?

[Fernando Martinez] “Some. I’m better, but I could always be better. I’ve learned that you’ve got to hire people who you trust and who are capable. And then you have to train them well. When you’ve done that, it’s much easier to let them do what you’ve asked.”

Formal Training

[Steve Coomes] As if your life wasn’t busy enough, you began taking 10-week courses at Le Cordon Bleu, the famed cooking school in Paris, France. Why the urge to gain formal training?

[Fernando Martinez] “It was very stressful to do that while overseeing Mojito and Havana Rumba, but thankfully my mother was there to help my wife, Cristina, with our kids, when I traveled there and while I was studying. I have an amazing family.”

“But I’m always learning. Always. I’d wanted to be a serious chef for a long time, and I believed culinary school was part of that. I learned a lot and it was a great experience.”

Dish at Havana Rumba Restaurant

[Steve Coomes] Is culinary school essential for becoming a great chef?

[Fernando Martinez] “No, I don’t think it is. Certainly not for everyone. There are many great chefs, chefs way more successful than I’ll ever be, who never went to culinary school or even college. It was just a challenge I wanted. And I’m really glad I did it.”

Partnerships End

[Steve Coomes] Your partnership in Mojito and Havana Rumba with Marcos Lorenzo, ended after a few years. What happened there?

[Fernando Martinez] “We began to see things differently and we couldn’t come to an agreement on them. The best way to settle it was for him to buy me out in 2009. Marcos later opened two more Havana Rumbas, and I’m glad that he’s doing well with them.”

“The end of the partnership was actually good because it gave my family the chance to travel for a couple of years and learn a lot more about restaurants and food. Cristina is from Venezuela, so we went there for a while. Back then it wasn’t like it is now. It was a much better place. And it was a great place to learn more about Latin American cooking. I’d go from restaurant to restaurant, cooking here or there for a few days or a week just to learn something new. It was a great hands-on education that I could never have gotten in culinary school.

Later, when we moved to Miami, my goal was to work for chef Douglas Rodriguez and learn the more refined Latin American cuisine he was doing. So many people said he was the guy to reach out to, and I did, and he let me work for him. I eventually became his executive sous chef.”

[Steve Coomes] You also spent some significant time working in chain restaurants as well. Why the shift?

[Fernando Martinez] “Cristina and I knew that if we were going to open up our own restaurants and be able to grow them to multiple locations, we had to have systems. So I worked as a kitchen manager at Chili’s Grill and Bar for six months to learn their systems. People can say whatever they want about chain food not being the best, but no one can deny how good their systems are. That experience was really valuable. Cristina also worked as a Panera Bread manager restaurant for about a year. She learned a lot, too. We took those lessons back to Louisville when we opened our first restaurant together there in 2012.”

Return to Louisville

[Steve Coomes] When you returned to Louisville, you had new partners. Your cousin, Yaniel Martinez, a chef, and your wife, Cristina Martinez, in the front of the house. What was the first restaurant you opened up on returning here?

[Fernando Martinez] Guaca Mole. It’s our twist on Mexican food. It’s focused on very fresh ingredients and traditional dishes done in a way no one else was doing here. The restaurant was an Applebee’s that had closed, and some said it was the location that hurt it. But we liked the building and thought it was a good place to start. It’s been a good restaurant for us.”

[Steve Coomes] Shortly after you opened Mussel & Burger Bar in another location many ignored.

Havana Rumba Cuban Restaurant

[Fernando Martinez] “It was a fine dining restaurant that didn’t do well. You couldn’t see it from the road. But we liked it and believed we could do something with it. I mean, it had so much space and the restaurant was pretty much brand new. We didn’t have to fix it up. The risk was low.”

[Steve Coomes] What led you to focus on mussels and burgers?

[Fernando Martinez] “Both were very popular; they were everywhere. We believed we could do the best burgers and the best mussels and that people wanted that.”

[Steve Coomes] And it worked?

[Fernado Martinez] “Very well. We became incredibly busy there, always on a wait for a long time. The menu was pretty simple but it was very creative. And customers were coming to a location that everybody said they wouldn’t. {He laughs.} People were driving from Lexington and Indianapolis to come try it–burgers! Our burgers were talked about in lots of newspapers and on the Food Network. I said to my partners, this concept has a lot of appeal. We knew it could open anywhere.”

[Steve Coomes] Then, in the well appointed basement of MBB, you opened a modern and upscale-casual restaurant called The Place Downstairs. Was that the high-end chef in you coming out?

[Fernando Martinez] “I really wanted to challenge myself, and we had the space. I thought it was really cool. You had to take an elevator down one floor from Mussel & Burger to get there, and it was a completely different place from upstairs. We wanted to create something like we’d never seen before, and we did.”

[Steve Coomes] But despite rave reviews, it never took off.

[Fernando Martinez] “Unfortunately, no. We put everything into that restaurant, our hearts and souls and all our creativity. But it didn’t catch on. We could talk about why all day, but it doesn’t matter now.”

[Steve Coomes] Your next concept turned sharply away from fine dining: talk about El Taco Luchador.

[Fernando Martinez] “We wanted to do great tacos, and that was easy for us. But we also wanted to be creative. So we did both with that, and added bocadillos to that. Quick, easy, affordable, high guest turns, low check averages. We knew we were really onto something with this one.”

Mixed Results

[Steve Coomes] Three other concepts you tried–barbecue, Italian, and upscale tapas did not do well. How did closing or selling those affect you?

[Fernando Martinez] “Sometimes you just think, ‘Well, that didn’t work,’ but it’s not that easy. We think every concept we do is great, honestly. But sometimes customers don’t support them and we can’t figure it out. So we’ve learned the best thing to do is look around, see what people want and give them that. We also look at our concepts that are doing well and consider expanding them.”

[Steve Coomes] You thought Mussel & Burger Bar would be your growth vehicle, but you sold both units to another restaurant company.

[Fernando Martinez] “That concept did really well for us and I know it’ll continue doing well. But El Taco Luchador is the concept we think has the potential to be really big. There are three of those now. We’ve got the systems down and they’re always busy. We sold Mussel & Burger Bar to have cash flow so we could grow El Taco Luchador.”

[Steve Coomes] So, no more new concepts?

[Fernando Martinez] “Oh, no, we’ve got more ideas. We’ve got a Cuban restaurant we’re working on that’s going to be amazing. We’re changing our tapas concept into a steak and bourbon concept, which is a case of giving people what they want. You look around Kentucky and you see that steak and potatoes and bourbon sell like crazy, so we’re going to do our own twist on that. We’re creative people. Just because not everything we’ve done has killed it, that won’t stop us from trying new things.”

Lessons Learned

Fernando Martinez and his partners form the OLE Restaurant Group. Since the beginning, the team has opened, run, sold, expanded, or closed ten unique concepts. And while OLE’s growth vehicle is a modern taqueria named El Taco Luchador, the team’s drive to create other new concepts remains strong. An older and wiser Martinez discusses some lessons he’s learned that made him a better operator.

[Steve Coomes] You’ve had okay partnerships,and solid ones. What’s the key to the good ones?

[Fernando Martinez] “The problem with partnerships is when people let their egos get in their way. I’m good at certain things that my partners aren’t, and they’re good at things I’m not good at. So I let them do what they do best and they let me do what they do best.”

[Steve Coomes] What are some of the hardest lessons you’ve learned as a restaurateur?

[Fernando Martinez]
Giving your customers what they want.That’s the honest truth. We’ve had lots of big ideas our customers didn’t care for. That’s just the way it goes. Find what they want and serve it to them.”

[Fernando Martinez] “Learn how to delegate. I’m a control freak, so I had to learn to hire good people and let them do what they say they will do and not get in their way.”

“Pick the best location you can afford and do your best. A long time ago, we picked the worst locations, places people told us we were crazy choosing. But every spot we picked worked. They turned out to be blessings. Those places were chosen out of necessity and opportunity.”

“But honestly, we’re over B and C locations. We don’t have to do those anymore. Twenty years ago when we wanted the best locations, landlords wouldn’t talk to us. Now they want us to be anchor tenants in shopping centers. It’s taken a long time to get here.”

[Steve Coomes] If you were encouraging someone to start a restaurant, what would you say to them?

[Fernando Martinez] “If you’re passionate about it, know what you’re doing and in for the long term, do it. If you’re not looking at it that way, don’t even think about opening a restaurant. This is not a job, it’s a lifestyle that’s not for everybody.”

“I don’t know when the last time I had a Sunday off that I haven’t gotten an email and a phone call from somebody that had a problem. There’s always a crisis. A cooler broke down and we need to move the food to a safe place. I’ve been on vacation in Cozumel, SCUBA diving, and got a call that my sous chef had overdosed. It can take a toll on your health if you don’t know how to deal with the stress.”

“Sunday is the day I try to unplug and have my creative time. Instead of calling my partners, we send emails to respect each other’s time and be sure we didn’t lose the idea we’re onto. Somehow you have to disengage to keep your sanity.”

[Steve Coomes] Would you tell budding restaurateurs to work for chains to learn systems like you did?

[Fernando Martinez] “Absolutely. You cannot grow without good systems. I took that kitchen manager’s job at Chili’s to learn their systems. If you can combine chef-driven cooking with the systems chain restaurants have, you’ll have a winning formula.”

“Another thing we’ve learned is to increase consistency by using our kitchen at Guaca Mole as a commissary kitchen. We not only increased consistency, but we also decreased labor costs. We cook 80 percent of our menu ingredients for El Taco Luchador offsite at Guaca Mole. Nearly all we do now at Luchador is assemble fresh food to order. We’re so much faster and the product is very consistent.”

“You can’t control customers or every circumstance, but when you focus on what you can control, you’ll have a very good business.”

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