April 27, 2007
From Immigrant to Top Chef, Via the Dishwasher
LIVING THE DREAM
Rodney Murillo, executive chef at Avila, is proof that the American dream is alive and well. He began his career washing dishes. Today, he’s creating them at one of Boston’s hottest restaurants.
A native of Costa Rica, [Rodney Murillo] moved to Boston 14 years ago, at age 18, to learn the restaurant business. He spoke no English. Murillo found work “as low as you can get” — in front of a dishwasher at Davio’s in Cambridge. Today, he oversees Avila’s staff of 20 and its acclaimed pan-Mediterranean menu.
“I always had passion for the food,” says Murillo, who shares executive chef duties with Paul King. “I always knew I could do this.”
Murillo was reaised on farm-fresh, homestyle fare. His parents own a 150-acre coffee and pineapple plantation between the Costa Rican mountains and the Pacific Ocean. He spent much of his youth fishing the tropical waters with his grandfather, an immigrant from Spain.
Meals meant fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices from the family garden and fish he pulled from the sea. “We grew everything on the farm,” he said. “The only thing we went to the store for was toothpaste and paper towels.”
Murillo’s Spanish heritage, Central American upbringing and taste for fresh fare are evident on Avila’s menu. Chickpeas with Spanish chorizo and tomato, a popular side dish, comes right off the dinner table of his youth. Fish dishes are typically served with root vegetables. Salt cod fritters, a Spanish tradition, have become a favorite Avila appetizer.
Back when he was washing dishes, Murillo planned for the future.
“I was learning the language, educating myself about food and learning everything about the kitchen. I traveled a lot. I visited as many restaurants as possible. I had to prove myself to Steve (DiFillippo, the owner of Davio’s and Avila) and to everyone else I worked with.”
They were obviously impressed. Murillo became Davio’s sous chef in 1997, just four years after landing in Boston. Before opening Avila, he staged at kitchens in Philadelphia (Pasion) and New York City (Restaurant Daniel), and also traveled the Mediterranean, looking for inspiration for the Avila menu.
Sounds like a dream job.
Chickpeas with Chorizo and Tomato
- 1/2 oz. chopped red onions
- 1 t. olive oil
- 1/4 oz. finely chopped Spanish chorizo
- 1 c. dry white wine
- 4 oz. canned chickpeas
- 3 oz. chopped plum tomatoes
- 1 t. freshly chopped cilantro
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Saute onions in olive oil until translucent. Add chorizo and cook 1 minute. Add white wine and cook additional 3 minutes. Add chickpeas and tomatoes. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Mix in cilantro, salt and pepper until flavors blend together, about 2 minutes. Serve in small cast-iron pot, preferably as a side to swordfish. Serves 1.
Salt Cod Fritters
For the fritters:
- 1 lb. Salt cod
- 1 c. milk
- 3 lbs. Russet potatoes
- 10 roasted garlic cloves
- 1 c. extra-virgin olive oil
- Pinch paprika
For the batter:
- 1 c. cake flour
- 1/4 c. plus 2 T. cornstarch
- 1 T. baking powder
- 1 1/2 t. kosher salt
- 8 oz. beer
- 3 c. canola oil
Soak salt cod in milk overnight, until tender. Strain and set fish aside. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake potatoes until soft, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cut open potatoes and scoop out flesh. Put potatoes, salt cod and garlic cloves through a food processor, pulsating slowly while adding oil (do not overprocess). Mix in paprika. Form into small 1-oz. balls (about 50). Mix flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt and beer together in a bowl until it forms a batter. Heat canola oil in heavy pot to 375 degrees. Dip salt cod balls in batter and fry in oil until golden.