When Martin Amaya arrived in the United States from El Salvador in 1994, he started his restaurant career as a dishwasher.
Subsisting on three hours of sleep every night, Amaya worked by day in a bakery, and at night in the demanding kitchen of former Hadley, Mass. restaurant Carmelina’s.
“I was always on time and I was so hungry to learn,” Amaya says. “And Damien DiPaola (then-owner of Carmelina’s in Hadley, Mass.) saw something in me. And over time, he taught me to cook, and I started to make fine-dining food.”
And with hard work and dedication – not to mention a generous helping of good old fashioned entrepreneurial spirit – Amaya rose to the ranks of executive chef at the one-time establishment, before seizing hold of the American Dream with both hands. In 2010, he opened his own restaurant —Alina’s—in South Deerfield, Mass.
Better yet, he wound up relocating the restaurant back to the very spot where Damien DiPaolo taught him all the old Sicilian recipes that helped him earn his restaurant stripes.
“I never looked around Carmelina’s and thought, ‘Someday this will be mine.’ It wasn’t like that. But, when Carmelina’s was sold to new owners in 2007, and closed years later” I saw the opportunity. In 2012, Alina’s Ristorante took up occupancy in its new home in Hadley, Mass., the very spot where Amaya got his start in hospitality.
In this week’s interview with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Amaya explains how hard work and determination led him to succeed beyond his wildest expectations.
Q: How did you go from El Salvador to executive chef and restaurant owner?
When I came to America in 1994, I was only 18, and I had no plans of staying. I came to visit my brother, who lived in Amherst, Mass. My brother had a friend who knew of a bakery that was paying $4.25 an hour for a baker. That was the minimum wage at the time I started. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was a lot more than I could get in El Salvador. So I took the job and I learned everything about baking. Then Damien DiPaola told me he needed a dishwasher at Carmelina’s, and I took that job too.
Q: You had a grueling first few years.
I baked from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then went home to nap so I could work in the evenings washing dishes. Damien saw something in me, I guess, because he started teaching me how to prepare food, starting with salads. I just kept learning, until I was preparing fine-dining meals.
Q: How did you go from working for Carmelina’s to owning your own restaurant?
In 2007, Damien sold Carmelina’s to a new owner, and I decided to leave and try opening my own restaurant.
I opened it in South Deerfield and named it after my daughter, Alina, and ran the restaurant with my wife Maritza Amaya-Branche. It was great. People who used to see me at Carmelina’s followed me to Alina’s. I’d been in the area so long, and only had one job, so I was able to build a following.
When I came back to Hadley in 2012 to take over the old Carmelina’s space, it was incredible.
Q: Do you ever visit El Salvador?
We visit every year. I think it’s important for my daughter Alina to see where she comes from, and to visit my mother, brother and sisters who still live there. My daughter’s 14 now, and she understands that her life here is completely different than how people live in El Salvador.
We see people wearing very old shoes, or who don’t have any shoes at all. My mother and father were farmers before the war started in the 1980s. It was a very hard time. My father wound up dying when I was 2 and my mother and family moved to the city.
My mother is especially proud of what I’ve done, and the life I have in the U.S.
Q: Do you still talk to your old restaurant mentor?
We’re still good friends, but we don’t have as much time together as we used to. When I moved Alina’s Ristorante to Hadley, I remember him saying he was very happy and very proud of me. And the business has been going great. It’s very hard, but I really am living the American Dream! —Alina’s Ristorante chooses Boxerbrand menu covers for its table presentation. Thank you!