Chef Franklin Becker and Lucero Guittierez. Photo: Deborah Fenker
In the midst of all the closings and bankruptcies of Chelsea restaurants, a glimmer of hope lies in a spectacular new project that has just opened its doors within the Hotel Americano. La Central, a dynamic pan-Latin eatery, has renowned chef Franklin Becker at its helm. But what makes this place fresh, exciting, timely and important is the collaborative initiative that brought it to life.
Becker is no newcomer to New York’s restaurant scene. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he cut his teeth bussing tables in the early ’80s. Recognizing a natural affinity towards what others might regard as the chaos of the kitchen, Becker enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation in ’92, he fell in with some of the best chefs in New York at the time: Charlie Palmer, David Walzog and Bobby Flay. It was Flay who introduced him to the allure of Latin American cuisine.
So when the owners of Hotel Americano (who are from Mexico City) approached him just nine months ago about opening a restaurant in the space, the Latino focus was a no-brainer. Chef Becker took a good look at his kitchen staff — the Peruvians, Ecuadoreans and Salvadorans who were already a part of his team — and found the inspiration for La Central. He asked, “What do YOU cook?” and the effusion of replies become the foundation of the menu.
La Central obviously doesn’t refer to the restaurant’s physical location, which is in the far reaches of West Chelsea on 27th Street, but to Central and South America, including influences from the Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish settlers that populated those territories early on. The diverse kitchen, then, became a unifying instrument for the chef, his staff and its cuisine: a center, if you will, and thus, La Central was born.
Not only have their talents been elevated by cooking dishes with which they are familiar and comfortable, there emerged a tremendous pride of culture in sharing family recipes and regional specialities with the diners who would come to frequent the restaurant, and also among members of the staff. Any cultural differences between them melted, and alongside Chef Becker and even the front of house, they have united as a singular team like few kitchens ever accomplish. The staff calls Becker “Padrino,” which means grandpa, further illustrating the familial bond.
The menu is like a playlist of the staff’s family recipes, sometimes seen through the eyes of chef Becker, and other times, directly adapted from the original. “I’m going to give them credit for what they’re doing.” Lucero Guittierrez, is from Cholula, Puebla, a town known for their moles and sauces, and opens the menu with her namesake Lucero’s Salsas: a spectrum of heat and color, spanning from a mild, bracing curtido, pungent with cloves, to an incendiary puree of chile di arbor that hits you in the back of the throat and just keeps on burning — in the best possible way. This is her first time cooking professionally, and she has even started making making her own tortillas, branching out as she’d never dreamed of before.
La Central’s team is really a team: the cooks note how working here feels different, like they are really fundamental partners, rather than just employees. Carlos Cartagena was born in the U.S., but his Salvadoran and Dominican roots shine through his deep golden pupusas, a vegetarian version stuffed with mushrooms and sweet winter squash. “Everyone in the kitchen is putting their culture into the menu,” he says, and there’s so much “more love and care” as a result.
Marco Castro contributed the leche di Tigre, causa, and chaufa of his native Peru, all “food I used to eat” growing up. Roberto’s Enchiladas (Roberto Martinez is also from Cholula) are another highlight, fresh tortillas stuffed with the tenderest chicken, stewed and salty, smothered in an almost creamy salsa verde and drizzled in crema and a flounce of queso fresco. While it is listed as an appetizer, it’s in no way too skimpy for a main, especially with its depth of flavor. Rounded out with the chips and salsa or one of the innovative side dishes, one could comprise a relatively economical meal. But while La Central is no divey bargain tacqueria, its prices are easily justified by the robust and nuanced flavors that sing from every plate, even if the portions weren’t as generous and filling as they are.
Sometimes we might forget that we’re not the only Americans, that Central and South America share that title with Northerners, and comprise a huge part of our current population as well. Hotel Americano has provided a platform to usher in this inclusiveness, a reminder of the melting pot that we are. Whether it is via pot, skillet or cazuela, dinner at La Central has achieved something beyond just delicious food: it provides an example of how people, how Americans, can cooperate, collaborate, and thrive at their very best. As Marco Castro said, and in every sense, “this is good.”
La Central is located in the Hotel Americano, at 518 West 27th Street. The restaurant is open throughout the day for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Reservations through Open Table.