It takes bravery to open a restaurant. But many who take that leap of faith — pouring money, body, and soul into their business — will tell you that there's no other way they would rather spend their time. Those who take the time to cook and serve people have an intense passion they just can't ignore.
For many who are of foreign descent, though, it goes well beyond a passion. Cooking is a way to tell their story, to connect with their homeland, or to keep the memories of their family alive.
There's a great cultural diversity in the Rochester food world. There are countless restaurants in the area serving dishes special to the four corners of the Earth. Some shops are opened by new residents of the U.S., some run by American-born citizens taking up their family's palettes. But almost always, patrons will find a story behind the dish.
CITY spoke with seven restaurateurs and chefs to learn more about what brought them to Rochester, and why they decided to share their culture through food.
687 Monroe Avenue|
Sunday through Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Memories of pork belly buns were enough to make Tony Ko choke up, sending him off to grab a bottle of water and a breath of air. "When I was in school, if I did well, my mother would give them to us...children's treats," Ko says, a wistful look on his face.
Simple Chinese street food, like the pork belly buns his mother gave him, and noodles are Han Noodle Bar's business.
The Chinese restaurant was the result of trial and error. Ko previously owned an Asian fusion restaurant, but trying to make Chinese, Japanese, and Thai food under the same roof left no room for perfection, he says. In 2010, Ko and his business partner regrouped and decided to do something different and simple. Han Noodle opened the following year. "One thing we know, we can make noodles," Ko says. "We still do simple Chinese food, no 'fusion.'"
Tony Ko was born in Shanghai and came to the U.S. to study computer programming at RIT, much to his parents delight. But after 10 years in corporate America, he decided to pursue his passion for cooking.
Simplicity is Han Noodle Bar's motto. Ko says they recently stopped using canned vegetables and now they only use fresh ingredients, like baby corn or bamboo, to add to the health and taste of their food. Unlike many Chinese restaurants, Han Noodle trying not to Americanize their foods by adding oil and sugar; instead, Ko wants to create new "flavor profiles" for Chinese food. Recently, Han Noodle offered the taste of more exotic ingredients, like king oyster mushrooms. Ko says it gives customers a chance to try items usually only available at high end restaurants in smaller, more affordable dishes and it "keeps our daily passion for cooking alive."— BY ANTOINETTE ENA JOHNSON
1859 Penfield Road, Penfield|
Monday through Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday: 11 a.m. to midnight; Closed on Sunday.
Itacate is a family operation. Jose Abarca runs the restaurant with his wife, and with a little "supervision" from his 83-year-old mother. Natives of Mexico — Jose hails from Acapulco and his wife is from the northern city of Monterrey — the family prepares sauces, salsas, soups, and meats that fall within their traditional expectations.
"These are family recipes on the menu; the stuff we grew up eating," Abarca says. "The chile relleno my mom made, exactly the way my mom made it back home. My father was a fishing aficionado. Every time he came back with seafood from his trips, we made a big pot of ceviche and had family and friends over. His ceviche was seasoned with oregano, tomato, ketchup, beer, and orange and we still do it that way."
Before opening Itacate, Abarca was working in the hospitality industry and was sponsored to come to Rochester to work for Hyatt. After shifting jobs and waiting for the right opportunity, the family opened a gas station location (4179 Buffalo Road, North Chili) to test the waters. Following some positive reviews, Jose began working at Itacate full time in Penfield.
"We want to give our clientele a sampling of how diverse our cuisine is," Abarca says. "We have dishes from the North, the Pacific, the Gulf, the Yucatan peninsula, Central Mexico, and dishes that are pervasive throughout. We want to give people an idea of what we ate back home when we were growing up in Mexico."— BY CHRIS LINDSTROM
309 University Avenue|
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 11a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
"The only thing I can do is food," says Jake Pham with a laugh. Pham opened Whatta-Cuisine — his second restaurant venture — in January. His first was a Vietnamese sandwich shop, Whatta-Bahn Mi, on Monroe Avenue, which opened in 2011. He closed the sandwich shop at the end of 2013 and moved to a larger location on University Avenue to accommodate a growing customer base. The new location also allows Pham to expand his menu.
"I have a lot of things on my mind — bigger menu — bigger and better," Pham explains.
Pham came to Rochester from Vietnam with his parents when he was 8 years old — his accent is barely detectable. His mother taught him traditional Vietnamese recipes at the age of 12 and he never stopped cooking. "I was never good in school, the only thing I'm really good at is cooking," Pham says.
He left Rochester at 18 to travel and cook across the U.S., primarily working at Japanese restaurants, where he learned to prepare one of his favorite foods: sushi. After working for a variety of chefs across the country, Pham returned home to Rochester to be closer to his parents and open a place of his own. "I'd been working for other people the whole time I was away and I wanted to see what I could do on my own," Pham says. "No matter where I went, I always came back to Rochester."— BY KATIE LIBBY
439 Monroe Avenue|
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Voula Katsetos-Stratton grew up in Brighton and studied studio art at Nazareth College, but after graduation, found the form of creativity which best suited her.
"As soon as I started cooking in my early 20's, I realized that was the best way for me to express being an artist," she says. "And it just kind of clicked. I love plating things, I love presenting things that are appealing to the eye."
She opened Voula's Greek Sweets, a cozy little Monroe Avenue staple, in February 2012.
Katsetos-Stratton returned to Rochester in 2011 after five years in New York City, where she experienced interesting, modern takes on traditional, home-style, Greek fare, and noticed a significant lack of the same in Rochester. "There are a lot of Greek places that are great, but they offer more of the diner Greek fare," as opposed to what you'd get at a Greek grandma's house, she says.
A child of four Greek grandparents, a Greek father, and a Greek-American mother, there was no take-out in the Katsetos home. "I grew up around cooking, every single night as a kid," she says. "And it's still like that, at my own home. It's just a big part of my family, who I am, it's something very familiar to me. It comforts me. It always did, but especially now, in the last year."
Last fall, Katsetos-Stratton's husband, Matt Stratton, was struck and killed by a car. "Matt and I wanted to be able to have a business that would help us move our lives forward, buy a house, be able to sustain a family, and do something that I love at the same time," Katsetos-Stratton says. "It's still something that I love. I won't ever stop doing it. It's my passion."
Voula's décor is eclectic and home-y, and as warm and welcoming as the owner. What sets the food apart is the meat-free menu, and the love and care that goes into each dish, says Katsetos-Stratton. "Everything in the store is made by hand, from scratch — except the stuffed grape leaves — from the bread every morning, to the pastries ... taste is so important to me."
Katsetos-Stratton says she's enjoyed witnessing other homestyle eateries popping up in Rochester. "I think the city is moving in a really positive direction with hearts opening up, and local business spreading," she says. "Keep it coming! I encourage other people who are thinking about it, if it's really their dream, to go for it."— BY REBECCA RAFFERTY
3259 South Winton Road|
Open every day. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner: 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Sunday and Monday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday.
Mandeep Singh, a soft-spoken, earnest man, passionately explains that his love of food, and desire to cook for others, stretches back to his boyhood in India, when he would help his mother in her kitchen. "Cooking is in my blood," Singh says.
Singh, now 52 years old and the owner/head chef at Thali of India, has worked with food for most of his life, beginning as a food inspector in Punjab, India. He left India at age 27. "My opportunities were limited in India and I had family in Germany," he says.
One of Singh's relatives in Germany already worked in an Italian restaurant, opening the door for him to become an assistant chef there. A few years later, he emigrated to the U.S., again for greater opportunity.
After some time spent working in Indian restaurants in Staten Island and Queens, and as head chef at an Indian restaurant in Glastonbury, Connecticut, Singh hoped to be closer to family, many of whom resided in Toronto. In 2001, when a friend told him of an Indian restaurant for sale in Rochester, Singh visited and "fell in love with the community and the location of the restaurant."
Singh is knowledgeable about spices and how to use them, contributing to the quality he finds imperative to maintain. At one time, he owned two other Indian restaurants in the Rochester area and one in Corning, but felt that he couldn't maintain the necessary consistency of his food. He now focuses on Thali — along with providing food to various RIT cafeterias three days a week.
Though hard pressed to pick a specialty, Singh has a soft spot in his heart for the chicken makahni: "It is my own recipe, different than what other Indian restaurants prepare." Singh says he makes a point to give the standard dishes his own touch.
"I cook from the heart," Singh says emphatically. "If I don't like it, nobody will."— BY DAVE BUDGAR
1308 Buffalo Road|
Lunch: Monday through Sunday: 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Sunday through Thursday: 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 4:30 p.m. until close.
For Guiseppe Paciullo, owner and head pizzaiolo (pizza maker) at Fiamma, there is something about the smell and taste of Neopolitan pizza that always reminds him of his childhood in Salerno, Italy.
"Since I was a little kid, I was always captivated by getting to play with fire all day," Paciullo says. He was captivated by cooking, especially the intricate details of creating pizza: the way fire moves, works, and can be controlled, or seeing how pizza dough would puff up.
"Two pizzas can never be the same," Paciullo says. "They can be similar, but the same batch of dough is different at opening than at the end of the day due to fermentation."
Paciullo moved to the U.S. when he was around 21 years old, and spent eight years learning the restaurant business at Roberto's, his uncle's place in New York City. He moved into Neopolitan pizza full time at Zero Otto Nove, a spin-off of Roberto's, and then opened his own well-regarded pizzeria called San Matteo, also in the City.
The move to Rochester was driven by his girlfriend returning to the area to resume school and, in September 2012, Fiamma was born.
"In my family, my father has 11 brothers and sisters," Paciullo says. "Five of them cook and six of them are hairdressers. Basically, I didn't want to be a hairdresser, but I always liked cooking. It's something you have to have in you."— by CHRIS LINDSTROM
1657 Mount Hope Avenue|
Tuesday through Thursday: 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday: 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday: 1:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday: 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
A short, young woman, dressed in black garb and an apron, stands at the bar in the back of Abyssinia Ethiopian restaurant, going over orders. Herut Tekilu, just 20 years old, and her two aunts run the popular restaurant dedicated to authentic Ethiopian cuisine.
The small restaurant, with about 20 tables, reopened earlier this year. In 2000, Tekilu's family had set up on University Avenue. Tekilu returned home after her mother passed away in April. Tekilu, who was away at school in New York City, dropped everything to come home to Rochester to help her aunts. "It was just the right thing to do," she says. "I'm just here to help."
Tekilu gives a lot of the credit for the restaurant's continued success to her two aunts, who shuffle in and out of the kitchen as we chat, bringing by large platters of thick stews, flatbread and vegetables, wafting with the scent of berbere.
"Food in Ethiopia is difficult to describe because a lot of the time they're fasting. Food is something that's kind of sacred," Tekilu says. "In Ethiopia, when we eat, it's a coming together of sorts."
Traditional Ethiopian dining has the food set out before the table on large platters, and shared among everyone.
"We want to bring the people of Rochester something that's authentic," Tekilu says. Many of the ingredients they use at Abyssinia are ones they bring back with them from trips to Ethiopia — spices you can't find in the grocery aisle at Wegmans; a particular kind of flour not found at the public market.
Somehow Tekilu manages to balance working at the restaurant with going to MCC and studying to become a doctor, both dreams she says, her mother had for her. "This isn't my accomplishment, it's my mom's."— BY KATHY LALUK