Aitor was born in California, his father American and mother Spanish. At the age of 3, his family moved to Milan, Italy following Paris, Madrid, and Antwerp where he completed high school. Upon graduation, Aitor attended the University of Colorado to study Biomedical Engineering. He quickly realized that this was not for him and during his year off from school he began his journey to pursue his true passion, food. Growing up in a Spanish household, food was such a huge part of is upcoming and he felt that his decision to transition into a different career was easy. After a year of working in kitchens, Aitor decided to attend The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He received his Associates degree in Culinary Arts and his Bachelors in Business Management with a concentration in Wine and Beverage. After he completed his final semester in Napa Valley, California he decided to jumpstart his career at The Restaurant at Meadowood (TRAM). He told himself he wanted to work just one year at a 3-michelin star restaurant and return to working in a more casual setting but it has been almost three and half years since that statement and he is still loving his time with the team at TRAM. Aitor is currently the Bar & Spirit Manager at The Restaurant at Meadowood and The Charter Oak.
If you could go back in time what advice would you give your younger self when starting in the industry? I think the biggest piece of advice that I would have given myself is to be patient. As a young cook, server, or sommelier, you can feel as if all the work that you are doing is going unnoticed. And when you are working more than 12 hours per day it can be discouraging not seeing growth. I found myself pushing hard and feeling like I was being overlooked by management, like maybe I wasn't doing enough sometimes. When in reality, someone is always watching and it just takes time; Especially in an industry that promotes employees based on experience. No one walks into a restaurant and within the next month is promoted to CDC or head sommelier, it takes time and with hard work it will eventually happen. I have seen young cooks and servers give up because they feel like their work isn't being noticed, when in reality they were next in line for a promotion. Along the same lines, I would have told my younger self to ask questions and not be afraid. Asking your chef or service manager what you need to do to improve or what you need to do to take the next step is ok. Restaurant turnover is high and they want to keep people around so they are willing to help out new people that put in the work.
When you were building your career how limited were your resources? Thankfully, I was very lucky. My parents were very supportive of my career change, from a medical career to the restaurant industry. I do know of many people that were in similar situations, wishing to switch career paths, and did not have the support. For a lot of friends’ families restaurants were seen as a summer job and not a career, so they looked down on their decision and were not supportive at all. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to culinary school which is not a thing many can do since universities are so expensive that it limits the ability for many to go. I think that prior to culinary school getting my foot in the door to a kitchen was very challenging since I had no experience at all. I spent many days walking from restaurant to restaurant handing out a VERY short resume and getting rejected. Having the name of the CIA on my resume has been one of the greatest resources.
Where do you focus your attention day-to-day regarding your business? From when I get in, my focus is improving the cocktails on the menu and service of the bar. I think it is important to always be changing the menu and challenging yourself. If not, I get bored and don’t have an interest in what I’m doing. It also means that you will improve from your mistakes, because, believe me, you make a lot when you are pushing for something new. I want cocktails to change like the kitchen menu does and focus on seasonal ingredients that are available to us in the Napa Valley. The idea is that guests come back to try the new cocktails because they are constantly changing and it's not always the same. I also am constantly changing and evolving the spirit list, looking for not only premium spirits but fun and different expressions. In addition to that, with my girlfriend Regina Guttierez, we began a food and drink blog called NorCal Lifestyle. We focus on creating recipes that are approachable for both beginners and more advanced cooks and drinkers. We try to come up with new cocktail and food recipes once a week and make sure that they are both easy and interesting. This is a challenge since we both work in extremely high hour jobs so finding a balance is something we are trying to figure out
What are key characteristics you look for in applicants when hiring? I think the most important one is excitement and dedication. I have seen people come into the restaurant with years of experience in Michelin restaurants and they last a couple of weeks. On the other hand, I have met young kids with little experience but lots of dedication and excitement that stay for years and grow. Giving people a chance based solely on their resume can be risky and potentially limited. Take my experience for example, I was a 22 year old with little experience asking for a job at a three star restaurant and they gave me a chance. It's also extremely easy to lie about one's experience but much harder to lie about excitement when interviewing.
What change do you want to see in our industry? This could be a question with endless answers, but I think the biggest changes I want to see are more financial help for the industry. If restaurant workers worked in any other industry just based on the hours of work and effort put into the job they would all be making six figures, but that is not the case. Restaurant workers are underpaid and are under appreciated by the general public. This then leads to many becoming burnt out. Employees see low pay and long hours eventually leaving the industry for something better and easier. In addition, after the pandemic, we all saw how vulnerable the industry can be as soon as there are no customers. Since the margins are so small there is no money to stay a float when things close. There needs to be more protections for restaurants, especially when you look at the workforce they make up across the country.
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