East Boston’s Michael Serpa, 37, learned about cooking from his dad, a Cuban immigrant who worked 80-hour weeks in restaurants in Reading, Pa., and in Miami. (Serpa’s first job was as a 12-year-old delivery boy, raking in tips and trying to look older.)
After high school, he attended the Culinary Institute of America during the week and commuted home to Pennsylvania on weekends to pitch in at a hometown Mediterranean restaurant, Judy’s On Cherry, for extra money. After that, he worked for Todd English in New York City before heading up to Boston. This was partially to look out for his brother, a student at the Berklee College of Music, and partially to work at English’s Olives in Charlestown, then the hottest spot in town. After that, Serpa took over the kitchen at the North End’s Neptune Oyster before opening a trio of his own Boston restaurants: Select Oyster Bar, Grand Tour (a Parisian bistro), and Atlántico (Spanish and Portuguese tapas).
You come from a cooking family.
So all my grandparents are from Cuba, originally, and they’ve actually known each other since they were kids. It’s kind of a crazy story. My mom’s dad, he was slightly older. He was family friends with my dad’s mom’s family. He was 12, maybe, and he was there when my grandma was delivered, when she was born — you know, you’d be born at the house. He literally knew my grandma from the minute she was born. So the families are really close; they all knew each other back in Cuba.
Why did they come to the United States?
My dad’s dad came [first]. Cuba was going through all that stuff in the late 1950s. And he said, “Alright, we’ve got to get out of here. This is a mess.” So he did a test run. He came first to Montreal, got on a bus, and came down to New York.
They [settled in] Reading, Pa.. At the time, there were a lot of Cubans there. That’s sort of how immigration works.
My mom’s side, they came from Cuba, same situation. They ended up settling in Brooklyn, Park Slope. And, you know, at the time, Park Slope wasn’t the real “Park Slope” like it is now. My grandpa owned a brownstone right off the park, which is now worth, like, $7 or $8 million. At the time, it was just a quiet part of Brooklyn. But there was a lot of violence at the time. It was essentially like “West Side Story,” with Italians and the Puerto Ricans fighting for territory.
So they moved to Reading. Obviously not the smartest real estate move, but they ended up back with their friends. My grandfather was in restaurants; in New York, he worked at the Waldorf. He was a hustler. He had a little chicken restaurant, a Cuban restaurant, he was doing catering. Once the kids were old enough, my dad, my uncle, my uncle on my mom’s side, everyone jumped in.
Reading is a medium-sized town. There was a place I used to work called Stokesay, this old castle, and my grandfather used to be a chef there in the 1970s. My dad worked there, doing banquets. My uncle did banquets. All my family had worked there, and I was washing dishes there 20 or 30 years later.
Everyone fell into restaurants by default. It’s what everyone did. We had a German restaurant called the Glockenspiel, which was pretty well-known. My grandfather was the chef, my grandma worked there, my mom bussed tables, my dad was in the kitchen. It was super-family-owned, back in the late 1970s. The place burned down; it had a fire. Everyone’s like, “Ah, remember when we all worked at the Glock?” Now everyone’s 60 years old, and they still talk about that place. Imagine having that connection with people from 40 or 50 years ago?
Where did you get your start?
My dad ended up moving down to South Florida. He ended up opening his own place as well, which is sort of where I got my start. He had a place called the Brickell Grill. I’d go down there when I was 14 — even younger, 12. I’d do deliveries and learn how to cook. I’d make coffee and whatnot. I was a little kid making $100 a day, which was like making $1,000 a day, raking in all these tips.
He ended up moving back to Pennsylvania. Judy’s On Cherry, which is still in existence, got me my start in fine dining and nicer restaurants. It got me interested in getting out of Reading. I wanted to learn how to be a chef. I wanted to learn how to make all the sauces. [The owner’s] name is Judy Henry, and she’s been around Reading forever. She’s worked with all my family. She knows everyone. She bought the building for nothing downtown and renovated it and put this great restaurant in there.
[While I was the CIA], Judy would be like, “Hey, we’re short-handed. Can you work this weekend?” And I’m like, “Well, OK, I’m in class until 3 o’clock on Friday.” It’s a three-hour drive. I would finish class, get right to my car, and just drive straight to Reading. She’d pay for my gas, which was super nice. I’d run upstairs and I’d go right to the line. Friday night at 6:15: “I’m here!”
What’s the biggest lesson that your dad taught you about cooking?
Cooking-wise, my dad was always very well-prepared. I’d see him doing events and catering stuff. He’d have everything checked off and prepared. That’s number one. But more important than that, what he really taught me was work ethic, working hard. You don’t realize it when you’re a little kid. But, man, my dad was working two jobs, like I see a lot of my guys doing.
I was young, probably 6 or 7, playing video games one night, late. And I stayed up, and I’m playing these video games, and it’s probably 1 in the morning or something. My dad comes home, and he’d worked from 8 a.m. until midnight. He’d just worked a double. I’m usually asleep. I don’t even realize that. It’s kind of interesting, because when you’re a little kid, you don’t realize how hard they’re working. But really, he was working 80 hours a week and whatnot. That work ethic was really something important and obviously rubbed off on me. I’ve done plenty of weeks where I don’t even know: I just wake up and go to work and then pass out when I get home, and I don’t even know what time it is. Thankfully, not too many of those recently.
What drew you to Boston?
I was working with the Olives Group, Todd English, in Union Square [in New York]. And, you know, New York is very expensive. Especially at the time, I was paying all my money to rent. I burned all my savings that I had.
I left New York and went back to Pennsylvania. I had three places selected: Boston, Chicago, or Seattle. I looked at the restaurants and the housing and whatnot. Chicago was cheap, but it’s the middle of the country; there’s no ocean, and I wanted to be near the ocean. Seattle seemed cool, other side of the country. But, at the time, my brother was finishing high school, and he was going to Berklee. So my mom was like, “Hey, just move to Boston with your brother; you have a job lined up there with the Olives Group. And you can look over him because you’re a little bit older, you’re more street-smart, you’ve already lived on your own.” So I moved to Boston in 2006 or 2007 and started at Olives in Charlestown back in the day.
What’s the future of the restaurant industry in Boston, hopefully coming out of COVID? What’s next?
The future of the restaurant industry is something that restaurant owners are wary to predict anymore at this point. We’ve gone through so much, up and down. What I do know is that anybody who’s smart is bracing for impact. Everybody’s all worried about recession and whatnot. It’s hard. You can’t really live like that. Hopefully things work out, and the restaurant industry really has little say in that.
I have two fairly new restaurants, and if I had opened those in 2017 or 2018, those restaurants would be lucrative and successful. But the game has changed in terms of costs. Labor cost is significantly higher: 20 to 30 percent higher. Cost of goods is at least 20 to 30 percent higher. I’m sure you’ve heard this from everybody else. A case of avocados is $106, right? That’s $2.25 an avocado. What are you supposed to serve that with? Is avocado toast supposed to cost $20? How do you put that on the menu and keep a straight face? Lobster is a great example. Lobster was over $70 a pound this year, wholesale for fresh meat — which means it should cost, for our portion size, about $95. We were charging over $60. People were buying it, but I’m still not making the right margin.
So what’s the solution?
We’ve raised prices a little bit, and we’re hesitant to keep doing that. We started adding a 3 percent operations fee to soften that blow a little bit, but 3 percent is not 20 percent. Overall, the future is a little bit cloudy. We don’t really know. I’m always glass half-full, ambitious, and looking on the bright side, but you have to be realistic. I’m looking at two restaurants that are pretty busy, Atlántico and Grand Tour. Food’s good. Staff is amazing. People like it, the vibe is great, and we’re barely scraping by. That’s a hard thing. The cost to play now is so much higher. Unless you’re just totally killing it, you’re really going to struggle. That’s going to deter people from doing it now, right? A small operator? “Hey, I’m gonna make the jump, I want to do my first place. I’m gonna do this.” And I’m like: “Don’t do it. What are you doing? Get out of here!”
Would you recommend opening a restaurant in the suburbs instead?
Avocados cost the same in Newton, Wellesley, or Framingham as they do in Boston.
And then the labor market is going to be the same or more expensive as the suburbs to get people to work there. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a solution. You’re seeing a little bit of that with liquor license costs. I could open up a restaurant in Lexington for $300 bucks a year for a liquor license or whatever it costs versus the city. It’s $400,000-plus. But that’s only a portion of the operating costs.
Everybody knew that it was already a tight industry to make money in, and people were already toughing it out in 2019. Now the numbers are starting to look even worse. I think it’s going to deter small little things that make the industry cool.
Where do you like to go when you’re not working?
Number one is Grill 23. The upstairs bar at Grill 23 is my default. Their hospitality is amazing. The food’s great. The wine program’s insane. My friend’s place in Charlestown that I’ve really started to like a lot is Dovetail in the Navy Yard. They do lunch as well. Lunch on Monday is an impossible thing to find. If I have Monday off and want to go out with my wife, it’s a great place.
And I eat out in East Boston a lot because I live in Eastie. We go to Rincon Limeño. I get my ceviche and tostones. Service is good, close by, cheap, you can park. It’s easy. We know what we’re going to get. I’ve started going with friends to Prezza in the North End, which is sort of a sleeper hit. Been around forever, food’s great, service is great. I just pop in at the bar and always have a good time.
What’s your favorite snack?
I eat a lot of Clif bars. I ride bikes all the time, so they’re easy. Pack them in your jersey. It’s not really a great snack. It’s not like, “Oh, this sounds amazing!” But a peanut butter banana Clif bar.
Interview was edited and condensed.