Mexican immigrant cooks his way to American dream
Luis Arce Mota arrived in New York City in the early 1990s with love in his heart and a burning desire to make it in the City of Dreams.
“I started from the ground up,” says Mota, owner of La Contenta Restaurant, which boasts
fine Mexican with French influences at two Manhattan locations. “As soon as I arrived in New York, I was drawn to the restaurant business because I knew I wouldn’t go hungry, and that workers like me spoke Spanish.”
Beginning as a dishwasher in 1992 for the famous Carmine’s in Time Square, Mota earned $175 a week, which wasn’t much, but was plenty enough to get him started on a path that would lead him to Paris and New York; studying culinary arts, finding love with his wife Lisa, and so many restaurant adventures along the way.
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Mota discusses his odyssey.
Q: You followed your heart to New York City.
Yes! I met my wife Lisa in the early 90s when she traveled to Mexico. She’s from New York and was studying anthropology when I met her while out taking a walk. I asked her in Spanish how she was doing, and she answered me in Spanish. We met, fell in love, and I eventually followed her to New York to get married.
Q: How did you go from dishwasher to chef and owner?
It’s a long story. It took me 10 years to open my first restaurant after I started at Carmine’s as a dishwasher. While I was working at Carmine’s, I got a second job at the French Roast Restaurant, where I started doing salads and other prep work. In 1995, I realized I wanted to cook, but I needed to go to school. So, my wife and I moved to Paris, and I attended the Cordon Bleu in Paris and later on, I also attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
This helped me gain a deeper appreciation for food, but my skills were not complete. So, I returned to the French Roast restaurant to gain line experience. After that, I worked for several different restaurants, doing everything from Asian cooking to trying to make bread and pastry. I worked for many famous Manhattan kitchens under the renowned chefs including Cesar Ramirez, David Bouley, Michael Lomonaco, and Michael Romano.
Q: You had a few challenges after becoming a restaurant owner.
The first restaurant I opened was Café Condesa, which was a very popular and well-reviewed West Village eatery. I had a partner and we ran it out of a tiny space with a very small kitchen containing just an induction stove and a convection oven.
I opened this restaurant in 2006 and we did very well serving a mix of cuisine, from American, French, Mexican and Italian. Three years later, in 2009, I left that restaurant after having some challenges with my partner, and opened Ofrenda, which had a much bigger kitchen. I was able to offer a menu rich in traditional flavors of my heritage. Three years after that, I accepted an offer to return to the French Roast as an executive chef. And after that, my wife and I took a break and did some world travel before I found a partner to help me found La Contenta in 2015.
Q: La Contenta has been a great success. What makes it special?
One of the most important things is having a great partner. My partner and the bartender, Alex Valencia, has a passion for the work, and for mixology, and he’s amazing with the people. I knew he’d be a good candidate to form a partnership with because of his passion and his honesty.
We started with our first location in the Lower East Side in 2015, and in December we opened a second location in Manhattan’s West Village. It’s going great.
Q: What advice do you have for someone dreaming of a career in restaurants?
It’s really hard, because you’re going to dedicate your life to it at the beginning. For a long time, I was working every day. You have to keep trying until you find the formula that works. — Chef Mota chooses Boxerbrand menu covers for his table presentation. Thank you!