Art of Food's Meet The Chef: Joyce Rivera, Chef at Atlantic Grill


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How did you get started in the culinary world?

I was actually a musician, I played viola, but I had a friend who was working in a fine dining restaurant in Baltimore, who told me there was an open position for a pantry cook. I was 18 at the time, and just out of high school trying to find my way in the world. I had always been working in the culinary industry, doing odd jobs as a hostess, dishwasher, carry out girl—but I had never gotten the chance to be a line cook. So I was like sure, I'll give that a shot. I fell completely in love with it: the push of the line, the comradery, everything. Within a few months I had dropped out of music school and went to culinary school.

That's a big change.

My music theory teacher said: “If it's something that you want to do for the rest of your life, you're going to want to learn everything about it. You're never going to want to stop learning.” And those words just kind of stuck with me.

Within a week, I switched gears and went to culinary school at Baltimore International College. I was there for about a semester until I realized I was actually learning way more on the job than I was in culinary school, and basically just decided that I was going to learn everything through working in restaurants, so I left culinary school and embarked on this new journey.

I was a sous chef within a year, and learned so many techniques from so many different people, way more than I would have sitting in a classroom. I wanted to physically just do it.

Are you into art at all?

There's a huge art scene out in Baltimore—my sister is an artist—so I'm very much into it. Salvadore Dali is a favorite of mine. Anything abstract.

When we're designing plates in the back, I'm always telling the guys: “Make it a mess! Take the sauce and throw it on there.” I don't want to do the day-to-day schmear, I want something new, something different, and in cooking you can do that. Not only with the food and the flavors, but with the look of the plates.

Favorite dish to prepare?

Making pastas. I grew up in my grandmother's kitchen. I was never allowed to touch anything, but I always watched. She's very traditional, Northern Italian, and it was always about the pasta, never the sauce.

The guys here always try to show me how to use a pasta maker. I've never been able to use one, I still have to just make it by hand with a rolling pin. It's how she showed me.

What's your cooking style?

I actually have a huge Mexican culinary background that I just fell into. I came here from Dos Caminos, where I was the executive sous chef, and before that I was one of the executive chefs at Rosa Mexicano.

But from that experience, I developed this concept. In world cuisine, everything is everything: a dumpling is a perogie is an empanada. It's all just called something different. With that, you can construct it, deconstruct it, and call it different things however you turn it around.

I've always had such a hard time just naming things. You can create something and make it look any which way you want it to. But what do you call it at the end of the day? I feel like everyone just has this need to name it, type it into something, put it into a box, so they can relate to it and put it in their mouth and understand it more. But I don't like that. I want to bend those rules. And we do that with our dishes—sometimes you don't really know what it is that you're eating, but it tastes amazing and looks great too. Our style here is very eclectic, but there's still something for everyone.

How long have you been in New York?

About 14 years now. Something as a kid always told me that I belonged in New York, and that I just needed to be here.

To find out more or to buy tickets to Art of Food 2017, go to artoffoodny.com.

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