Chef Ronaldo Linares: From Colombia to Somerville

By Briana Vannozzi

Chef Ronaldo Linares likes to tell people he was born in the kitchen.

“I actaully spend a lot of time during the day peeling onions, making empanadas. Then at nighttime I would go around and pick up bottles of beer and bottles of liquor and I was like 5 or 6 years old so I got an early exposure to this lifestyle,” he said.

His family — who started Martino’s Cuban Restaurant in Somerville, N.J. 24 years ago — first owned a restaurant/nightclub in Medellin, Colombia. It was there a spark ignited.

“I feel like it’s been in my DNA, watching my mom, watching my dad, watching just people in general coming to this country and make something out of themselves, especially the Latino community. We are huge,” he said.

The half-Cuban, half-Colombian former marine is the executive chef at this popular eatery. He’s written a book, appeared on prime time cooking shows and later this month, he’ll be awarded culinary person of the year by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. And did we mention, he’s just 35.

He credits his parents. Father Martino Linares at 89 years young is still the heart of the restaurant, for influencing his passion and palate.

“We left because of the Colombian cartel wars, because of Pablo Escobar. We were seeing a lot of deaths. I saw a lot of people get killed and all that stuff. We came here to start all over again. No one else could work. We were too young. My brother was 16. He would work a night at the YMCA and I would go there, he would sneak us in to finish the job quicker so he wouldn’t stay late. My father, 63 years old, had to start all over again and from their $15,000, a hope and a dream, 24 years later we have the best Cuban restaurant in New Jersey and I would say in New York,” he said.

“He brings a lot of energy and healthy cooking which generally Hispanic dishes aren’t very healthy. And diabetes is very prevalent in the Hispanic community so we partnered with him and we just formed a great relationship and really tried to mentor and help him like we do to all our members,” said Carlos Medina, Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey chairman.

Working to perfect each dish, always remembering his roots and the hard work it took to get here. Ronaldo spent his American childhood printing menus, riding his bike around the neighborhood and dropping them off. It was a tough start and one that’s driven his entrepreneurial spirit.

“We came here, one-bedroom apartment, eight people in that apartment. The bedroom we slept in was the size of my dining room I have now. And I say that not to boast but to show the hard work. Again, hard work comes into play where you can get to,” Ronaldo said.

That message he says is the most important of all.