Chef Juan Carlos Aparicio: An improbable culinary career
Designing innovative Mediterranean menus, Chef Aparicio delights customers with decades of cooking experience.
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When Mexico City native Juan Carlos Aparicio arrived to New York at age 13 alone, with no English skills and penniless, his plan was to save up some money to help his family then return to complete his education in Mexico.
“That never happened,” Aparicio smiled. “I had no idea this was how my life was going to play out.”
Now 39 years old, Aparicio is the Director of Culinary Operations at Zavino Hospitality group. In this role, he designs the menu for multiple restaurants in both the Philadelphia and D.C. areas, overseeing a staff of 200+ line cooks and chefs.
“There’s always the pressure that if I make a mistake 200 employees will go hungry. I don’t want to fail for these people,” explained Aparicio.
Chef Aparicio’s improbable culinary career began shortly after he arrived in New York City. He initially scrambled to make ends meet working as a dishwasher and delivery boy, making a few dollars an hour. He eventually ended up working at Bay Ridge Bakery in Brooklyn where he learned how to make everything from cookies to cakes to pastries.
But when his sister moved to Philadelphia in 1999, he accepted a role as a pastry chef at Buddakan in Old City to be closer to her.
“I learned how to cook at Buddakan, but my career at the time was as a baker,” said Aparicio.
These baking skills later landed him the head-baking job at Fork in 2008, but his big break into mainstream cooking occurred two years later when he was asked to be head chef at Serafina on 18th & Sansom.
Although the position gave him experience cooking Italian food, he became frustrated with the politics of the restaurant and low pay. He then joined Zavino, an Italian wine bar and pizzeria, in 2011 where he has worked since helping owner Greg Dodge expand and develop the business.
“One of my biggest challenges is taking our Zavino concept and applying it to new restaurants,” said Aparicio.
Aparicio’s latest project has been the development of Tredici Enoteca, an Italian and Mediterranean restaurant that specializes in serving smaller plates that can be shared. The initial idea was to provide a comfortable lounge for guests to drink and snack while waiting for a table at Zavino.
“People were willing to wait 3+ hours for a table at Zavino,” Aparicio said. “We wanted to create a place for them to drink and eat.”
Going forward, Aparicio is expanding the business with new Zavino locations in Fishtown, Downington and Kansas City. The company has also taken over Kosher restaurants Dairy as well as Citron and Rose with plans to open a “kosher Zavino” named Zagafest.
Although his role is now more administrative in nature, Aparicio still takes charge in leading the kitchen.
“I help design the kitchens,” said Aparicio. “I make sure that they flow. I still design menus and develop recipes for our restaurants.”
But most important to Aparicio is what his story means for the Latino community and the many meticulous Latin American chefs that drive Philly’s diverse restaurant scene.
“I do it because of what I represent as a hardworking immigrant to the U.S. If you work hard and train people how to do things the right way things can be done correctly.”
To learn more about Aparicio and Zavino Hospitality Group and their many restaurants check out their website. Their Center City Tredici Enoteca is located at 13th & Sansom, across from Zavino. Hours: Monday – Sunday 12 p.m to 10 p.m. Prices: $15 - $39.