South End resident Jesus Preciado, 42, was going to become an electrical engineer in Colombia until he determined that he didn’t like electricity — an interesting revelation for a chef (and one that haunted him during a deep-fryer explosion, which we’ll get to later). But now he’s sizzling at Ilona, Kava, and the new Casa Giacomo, a reincarnation of neighborhood favorite Giacomo’s. He oversees the menus at all three South End restaurants, run by Mazí Food Group, but he broke in the hard way: as a dishwasher at John Harvard’s in Cambridge and, later, at Rustic Kitchen.
Tell me about Casa Giacomo. Is it like the old Giacomo’s?
We took it over, and we made it our own. We kept the name because it was here for some 20 years, to honor the place. The atmosphere is ‘80′s-style ambiance, Italian, with music. It’s a little bit dark. We created a wood bar, which would remind you of being in the ‘80s. It’s about a good vibe, really homey, like being in your living room.
What’s the food like?
We’re going to stick to traditional Italian. We’ve been making pastas here. Everything is going to be hand-made. We’re going to try to be that place where you can share a bunch of stuff, small, giving people a little try of pasta instead of having the big bowls of pasta — more like eating in Italy, if you go to an Italian friend’s. Your pasta is basically the beginning, and then you have this beautiful pork or nice piece of steak.
What’s your favorite thing on the menu right now?
I love arancini. That’s my favorite thing on the menu. I love the pasta vongole, with clams, basil, white wine sauce. I love that one. I’m a meaty person; the Bolognese is really good. It’s hard to pick one thing so far.
Let’s talk about you. How did you get here? Did you always know you wanted to cook?
I’m going to try to be quick about that. I’m Colombian. I come from a small town. In my country, they say, men don’t do anything at home. You get home; you sit in a chair and wait for everything to come to you from your wife or kids. I had liked to cook in Colombia, but I never wanted to get into that because I didn’t want my friends or family to say I had different likes. I went to university for [electrical engineering], then I came to the United States, Boston, 21 years ago.
You know, when you’re 20 and you want to see the world? I had some friends in Boston. I was here for two weeks and out of money. I asked one of my friends if he could help me. He said his restaurant, John Harvard’s, was looking for someone to do dishes.
I was expecting to see a kitchen full of women, in my mind. But when I get there, it was full of guys working! It was so interesting. There were 10 people in that kitchen working really fast, trying to put all the food out. Everyone was paying attention to the details of the food. I thought, ‘Wow.’
You’re Colombian. How do you teach yourself to cook other cuisines?
It’s a just love for that. If you love it, it’s easy. It’s just about the flavors. For me especially, it’s what I like to eat. … If you don’t complicate it, you can make a really good dish.
What do you think of the food scene in Boston?
It’s changed the last 10 years. It’s a little bit more diverse. It’s way, way better … People are more open to trying different cuisines. … People are probably traveling more, so they miss the food they’ve tried in different countries, and that’s what makes it better.
How would you describe the South End as a neighborhood to a friend coming in from Colombia?
This neighborhood, for me, is one of the best neighborhoods in the city. People are pretty open-minded. There are people who understand cuisine. There are really friendly neighbors. Everyone knows each other. You say hi to people in the morning.
Some fun questions. Where do you eat when you’re not working?
For Asian, I like to go to Oishii. I like Pammy’s in Cambridge. Their Italian is really good. Oleana is one of my favorite restaurants in the city from 15 years ago, and it’s still one of my best. I like Row 34. I haven’t been there in a while, but it’s a good place for beer and good oysters.
What’s your favorite pizza in the city?
So far, Coppa.
Does Boston have any good Colombian food? What do you eat when you want a taste of home?
I’m pretty picky. So Colombians, we destroy our cuisine! We deep-fry everything. I will do that at home.
What’s your favorite traditional Colombian food?
A soup called ajiaco. It’s a soup with five different types of potatoes. They use a lot of herbs in it. It’s really good. That’s one of the most traditional dishes. It’s really hard to make, but I love it. It’s creamy, really close to clam chowder without the clams. I recommend it to everyone who goes to Colombia.
What’s the biggest disaster you’ve ever had in the kitchen?
When I was starting to work in a kitchen, which was like 16 years ago, I had to clean the deep fryer. So the deep fryer, they have a bucket under it. You open it, you put the hot oil in there so you don’t need to touch it, and you close the bulb. I forgot to close the bulb, I put some water on it, and I made a massive disaster with hot oil and water. There was oil everywhere in the kitchen, and we were about to open. We had to stop the whole crew. There were like seven people in the kitchen trying to clean it up.
Who’s the most exciting person you’ve ever served?
This might be a little bit weird. She’s not famous at all, but an old Greek woman at Kava. My partner told me, if the old ladies come and like your food, you are doing good. But if that person hates it, you are done. I remember one night, we were super busy, and someone said: “Yaya’s here, and she wants to say hi.” She barely spoke English. The server just pointed at me. She came to the kitchen, hugged me, and said, “Good, good, good.” She made my day that night. She was the most important person I had in that restaurant. She knew the cuisine and she loved it.
If you could open any style of restaurant, what would you do?
I love Peruvian cuisine. It’s traditional in a good way. It’s one of the best, for me, in South America … What I like about that cuisine is it’s a mix between South American, Spain, African, and also Asian cuisine. So that’s the only country in South America [where] we have the influence from Asian cuisine, which is really, really good. And most of the food in Peru is that way. They use a lot of ceviche, which is basically crudo-style. They have the influence of noodles, the only country in South America. But they mix those flavorings. They’re really good.
You started as a dishwasher and worked your way up. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be a chef? How do you break in?
For someone who really loves this, they can do it without school. You have to be patient. Being in a kitchen is a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of stress. Don’t let the kitchen take your life. Make a balance from the beginning.
How do you do that?
It is hard. The kitchen needs you, but your life needs you, too. You need your friends. You need people around you. Be patient and try to make that balance.
Well, that’s just it: Chefs spend so many hours in the kitchen. How do you stay physically fit without getting back problems? How do you stay in shape?
Exercise. Basically running around. In summer, I like to bike around. In winter, I try to do weights, a little bit of cardio, because your body starts to catch up with you. Exercise is one of the best things. I have an Apple Watch. I walk between 18,000 to 22,000 steps. So you basically burn a lot of calories. If you have two or three beers, it’s not going to count.
What’s your favorite binge-watch?
Oh, I’m not a TV person. Usually when I get home, I just relax. I usually call my family. [I only watch] when I’m tired and can’t go to sleep.
And what puts you to sleep?
Interview has been edited and condensed.