Cesar Cardenas started washing dishes at Rumson’s Salt Creek Grille at age 18 in 2001, months after arriving to New Jersey from Ecuador.
This year, 20 years later, Cardenas became executive chef.
“Over the years, I was learning, learning, learning. I wanted to be the leader in this kitchen. I wanted to be the executive chef, and my dream came true,” he said.
Cardenas came to the U.S., as many others have, seeking opportunity. “The economy in my country wasn’t that good. Even if you go to college and do everything right, you don’t find a job there. I knew when you come to the U.S., there’s a lot of opportunities over here, so I thought, ‘I better go there,’” Cardenas said. “I started in restaurants because I knew there was a future. Always, you watch TV, it’s [shows about] the ‘best chefs’…I thought, ‘that’s’ the right profession there.’”
He started cooking with his mother at age 13 at home in Azogues, Ecuador. Despite the lack of economic opportunity, it was a beautiful place to grow up, he said. “In the morning it’s like wintertime; in the afternoon, it’s like summertime; and nighttime, it’s like fall. It’s beautiful, the food is amazing, and it’s really safe in my town.”
Dishwashing wasn’t his goal when he started at Salt Creek Grille. It was a point of entry, something to put him in the right place around the right people where he might get a chance to show what he knew how to do and to learn more. He asked the executive chef at the time to give him chances to learn and to prove himself, and he moved around and up with time. Six years in, Cardenas became “head grill guy,” he said, where he stayed for six or seven years.
The position carries a lot of weight at Salt Creek Grille. The kitchen uses real Mesquite wood logs as fuel, and wood is temperamental, so the person in the head grill role must compensate for the uneven heat to maintain consistency in grilled dishes.
Still, he strived for more.
“I wanted to do sous chef. You can be in charge of specials and all that stuff. The chef was kind of scared, because I wanted to learn more, he thought I wanted to take his job. I said ‘don’t be scared, I just want to learn.’
“When he got fired, the sous chef took his job, and then I took his. and I said to him, ‘when you win the lottery, I’ll take your spot,’” Cardenas said.
That chef moved to a different state, elevating Cardenas to be executive chef: only the third executive chef, in fact, in the 23 years that Salt Creek Grille has been open.
“The first [reason for lack of turnover] is the owner. He treats everybody really good. And then we’re always busy,” Cardenas said. “Another thing, all the employees we have, they’re with us for a long time. We have some of the guys who started day one — they started as dishwasher, now they’re my line cooks. They know what to do, and that makes the job easy for every single person.”
Headaches are few at Salt Creek Grille, Cardenas explained. His 15 employees show up on time. Plenty of customers come in weekly, so the kitchen knows who to expect when.
“We have customers who come in Monday, Tuesday. We have a couple, they always come in Sunday 5 o’clock, and they always get the same thing,” Cardenas said. “Sometimes I go to the tables to say hi, but not to everyone. We’re missing three guys right now, so I have to be on the line with them. We gotta do the job.”
He said he knows his crew has his back, and that he couldn’t do his job without them.
Co-owner Steve Bidgood offered high praise for Cardenas. “Chef Cesar has shown himself to be a tireless, competent leader with a strong loyalty to Salt Creek under the tremendous strain that the pandemic has dealt to the restaurant business,” Bidgood said. “He has worked hard and continues to strive for excellence at everything he does, from developing new menus, to securing the best product for the best price, to leading our teams. He deserves the success and rewards he is experiencing. We couldn’t be prouder of Chef Cesar and his accomplishments and we welcome him on board our executive team.”