CHICAGO — While still living in Ecuador, Paúl Mena was working in tech sales and was absolutely miserable, dreaming of leaving the field he watched many members of his family pursue to follow his own dreams of running a restaurant.
He attended culinary school and spent little time in a kitchen cooking professionally before he found himself in the dining rooms of Chicago’s restaurants. He helped open two of the largest restaurants in the West Loop of the city — Momotaro and Proxi. But in the middle of the pandemic, he moved to Providence and worked at Nick’s on Broadway and the now-shuttered North restaurant — both previously nominated for James Beard awards. In August 2022, he moved back to Chicago to become a partner in The Press Room, a cocktail bar serving tapas in a century-old building that used to be a casket factory and publishing house.
Mena sat down with the Globe recently to talk about the restaurant industry’s inequities, and its direction, comparing the two vastly different food scenes in Providence and Chicago.
Q: Outside of inflation and the pandemic, what was one of the biggest challenges that restaurants faced in Providence?
Mena: The same way Providence’s residents are segregated is also how the restaurant scene is completely segregated. You can find a lot of Jamaican, Vietnamese, and whatever else that’s considered “ethnic” flavored food on the west side of the city and on the outskirts, but not in the heart of its core. I feel like when you think about the restaurant scene in Providence, it’s still very Euro-centric, but overwhelmingly Italian and Portuguese.
Providence has traditionally been known as one of the best cities for Italian food. It’s kept that up. Historically, Portuguese and Italian immigrants were persecuted, segregated, and looked down on. But where things are right now, that’s not the case. These are communities that are white and are serving a lot of white people food made by white chefs. Why aren’t we making more room for the food and chefs that represent the entire city in its core?
A lot of these issues also have to do with who can afford to open a restaurant or receive a bank loan. Do you think there’s a disconnect between current restaurant owners and customers?
Providence’s restaurants are very pricey, particularly the farm-to-table restaurants, compared to the average income. That’s a problem you see everywhere, including here in Chicago; the industry is driven for people who have money. But you can see and feel that more in Providence than you do in Chicago.
Were there any staple spots you felt served the area’s residents?
This might sound cliche, but Olneyville’s New York System. And it’s not even just about the food, but it is nostalgic and beloved for a reason and that’s because of its blue collar touch, while the rest of the dining scene there is so focused on people with expendable incomes.
In between working at North and returning to Chicago, you worked at 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar & Grille in Newport. That has regulars like Judge Judy Sheindlin — who purchased a nearby $9 million estate. What was it like to actually work there?
Newport is a weird, magical, crazy town. People with a ton of money would come in and that’s just a completely different lifestyle that I have ever imagined or seen. But that’s the type of money you see in New England, and specifically in that part of Rhode Island.
Yet, at the same time, it was incredibly surprising to see the amount of immigrant labor that Newport gets. I was never surprised by that here in Chicago, which still has a lot, but it’s never been in the same way that you see people in Newport coming into your restaurant and asking for jobs.
I was lucky enough to be able to communicate with them and create a system where I was able to hire them, which was embraced by my employer [Newport Restaurant Group]. But after I got to know some of these new employees, I was wondering how they could live there in this historic and very rich town. And then I hired three, four, five people who all have the same address and they aren’t family members. Then you get to know them and you realize there are sometimes 25 people in a single house that’s the size of a closet. There’s a lot of those [crowded] homes there, and that’s who is cooking for you in Newport.
Other than where you worked, where did you like to eat in Rhode Island?
Wara Wara. Asian Bakery & Fast Food for the best banh mi and pho by far. Sun & Moon Korean Restaurant in East Providence. El Ninja was one of my most fun dining experiences in the last several years. It’s like a club that’s serving Dominican sushi with a lot of energy. That whole area around Broad Street [in Providence] is always overlooked. Chicago has one of the best Mexican food scenes in the United States, but La Herradura Taqueria Mexicana in Central Falls has one of the best tacos I’ve ever had.
What did you learn while working in Rhode Island that you brought back to Chicago?
If you create a culture in a restaurant where you care about your people and put your employees first, people will stay and work hard for you. You might have to be creative about how your profit margins look in the end, but investing in them is an investment in the business. There’s always space for you to still make money. I really learned that from Newport Restaurant Group [which is 100 percent employee-owned], where profits go right back into the employees and they gave benefits that were the best I’ve ever been offered. There was little turnover; servers there wouldn’t leave because they were making $60,000 just from profits, which didn’t include their salary or tips.
A lot of restaurants in Chicago do not provide health insurance to their people, and the idea has been completely dismissed. It shouldn’t sound like a radical idea to give employees health insurance during and after a global pandemic, but that’s the business world we live in. When I returned to Chicago, I immediately gave all the employees health insurance and started paying hourly employees higher than the average. Creating a more equitable system in this industry shouldn’t be considered radical, it should just be considered the standard.