A visit to Martino’s Cuban Restaurant in Somerville isn’t just about getting a meal. It’s about sharing space with local celebrity, ex-Marine and world class chef Ronaldo Linares.
Of course, first and foremost, the food’s the thing.
“There are people who’ve been coming for 10 years and they come for the same dish,” he says. “Or people who have heard about a dish and they come to experience it for themselves.”
But Linares’ 2011 appearance on the Food Network show “Chopped” didn’t hurt. He auditioned for the reality show to “see where I stood as a chef,” he says. “It was part of my journey.”
He didn’t win the competition but the positive effects of having been on the show continue to resonate. There’s been a “big time” increase in the number of customers and the steady stream of “Chopped” fans has not only grown the restaurant and cemented its reputation, but helped Linares grow as his own brand.
Ask Linares what his earliest food memory is, and he might need a minute to think. The Colombian-born chef has a richer culinary memory bank to draw on than the average person. You can almost see him flipping through pages of memories and then, finally, he finds it.
“Ah!” he says. “That would have to be sitting around the fire on my aunt’s land in the mountains of Medellín. The family would get together and make this big stew and we’d add the ingredients—the meat, the potatoes, the corn, everything—while we sat there and talked, waiting for the stew to cook.”
Linares was about six, he recalls, and while the scents of the fire and bubbling stew remain palpable, as does the taste, the most indelible part of that memory is how he felt. Sitting around the fire, surrounded by the love of family members who enjoyed telling stories and having a good time together, what Linares remembers most are feelings of joy and belonging. “It was a good, special moment,” he says, “and I always remember that.”
Those feelings of joy and belonging—of savoring not just food, but life itself—are the same ones he wants to impart to visitors who come to eat at his family’s restaurant in Somerville. Martino’s, which his Cuban-born father opened nearly 25 years ago, is now a New Jersey institution. People come for the food, certainly, but just as often, they come for the warm hospitality and fun-loving atmosphere that characterize the family-owned and run business.
“We have people who come for the experience,” Linares confirms. “My father’s there, he’s dancing, he’s getting the ladies up on their feet to salsa.” The effect, he says, is “a Cuban vibe” that’s infectious.
He’s too modest to say so—he doesn’t want to neglect the roles his father and brother, especially, play in the restaurant’s success–but people also come because of him. Linares, who was a sergeant and food service specialist in the U.S. Marines, went on to study at the Institute for Culinary Education in Manhattan. That diverse background—the ability to cook for thousands (he served 6,000 Marines daily) and the classical culinary training—prepared him to cope with almost any food service situation, including taking the reins—or the ladle—at Martino’s.
He suspects he’ll always have a hand in the family business—how could he not?—but Linares also has aspirations that extend beyond its walls, and those can be traced back to “Chopped,” too. He wants to build upon his recognition to develop his profile as a chef-author-speaker, and his primary focus right now is on developing the concept for his own TV show, one that blends two of his favorite things: food and travel. He sees himself going places, but one gets the sense he’ll never be too far from Somerville and the family who put him on this path.