Chef Roberto Mendoza is set for his big moment.
On Mother’s Day, he opened The Chef Heaven’s Kitchen, at 6023 Albemarle Road. Next week, his restaurant debuts in the annual Taste of the World restaurant showcase. The sold-out event on Oct. 1 will bring busloads of foodies to east Charlotte’s international restaurants, giving those eateries exposure that could lead to a business boost.
Mendoza is looking forward to taking his guests on a “culinary adventure.”
“They will have food from South America, Central America, Mexico, little bit from Europe, and then from here, the United States,” he says.
He’s also excited about sharing his story.
Steak for President Obama
Parts of the 45-year-old chef’s background are displayed near the entrance of his family-style restaurant. Walls are filled with photos, awards, and newspaper clippings in English and Spanish, reflecting the El Salvador-born Mendoza’s experiences cooking for politicians, celebrities and on university campuses.
There’s a photo of him clasping hands with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a Charlotte visit. Clips reflect cooking stints with the Tennessee Titans training camp, as executive chef at Queens University of Charlotte, and for President Barack Obama during Charlotte’s Democratic National Convention. (“Obama is more about meat,” Mendoza says. “The first lady is more like a seafood lady.”)
Mendoza tells the rest of his background:
He grew up largely on his own in San Salvador, making money carrying groceries to cars. He recalls going to bed “so hungry because I didn’t eat all day,” and praying about never suffering hunger again.
During his country’s civil war, he and other students were kidnapped by soldiers who thought they were rebels. He was held for a month before being released. With the help of the Salvation Army, he made his way to Canada, and later California.
He studied English and worked in a restaurant as a pot washer because his supervisor feared he would break the dishes. “I become the best pot washer ever,” Mendoza recalls. One day he ran over to the dishes and asked colleagues to show him what to do.
Then he ran over to the prep line – and asked for help there, too.
He chopped onions and peeled potatoes. And after growing up experiencing hunger, Mendoza fell in love with the feeling of being around food.
He enrolled in school to become a chef. After graduating, he landed work at the upscale Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, then later became executive chef at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Mendoza says that’s when he crossed paths with celebrities and politicians. He was in charge of the Oscar awards and movie-premiere parties. And he cooked for the Prince of Saudi Arabia – and his dinner guest, Bill Clinton – when the prince stayed in the hotel.
In 1998, Mendoza decided to return to San Salvador.
“I open my own restaurant,” Mendoza recalls. “But in 2001, we have two big earthquakes in one month.” Both his restaurant and home were destroyed.
He returned to the U.S., settling in Charlotte through a family connection.
He started washing dishes again, unable to land chef work. Then he learned about an opportunity at Queens, which hired him to run the omelet station in the dining hall. He moved up to executive chef in two months.
Later he moved to UNC Charlotte, then worked all over the country with university dining halls through Compass Group. Along the way Mendoza and his wife, Alba, also launched charitable programs to fight hunger in Charlotte, Gastonia, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
This year, Mendoza invested $84,000 to buy the building for The Chef Heaven’s Kitchen, which is open seven days a week and staffs about 30. The name is inspired by his title, and the opposite of the “Hell’s Kitchen” television show, he says.
Taste of the World typically draws diners from Charlotte and beyond. Last year’s event included foodies from 37 different ZIP codes, according to Therese Bohn, co-chair/neighborhood representative of showcase organizer Charlotte E.A.S.T., which stands for Eastland Area Strategies Team. “We want to make people aware so they come more regularly, which helps with the economic development of the restaurants,” she says.
Mendoza’s guests can expect two greeters at the door, live music inside, and buffet-style choices including South American cerviche, pupusas and tamales from Central America, Molcajete stew from Mexico, pastas from Italy and grilled salmon representing American cuisine.
“I’m very good at doing events, so I’m going to make them feel like kings and queens,” Mendoza says. “I’m ready for it.”