It’s no secret that a restaurant is the sum of its parts and that often, those in the ranks don’t receive enough recognition. For this series, we’re on a mission to find the industry’s true unsung heroes.
Ronaldo Munoz, executive chef at the Cherry Cricket in Denver, is a quiet leader. After a stint at Chili’s, Munoz joined the Cricket as a cook in 1999 and worked his way up, impressing everyone in his path with his ever-present smile and work ethic. He’s never one to pull rank and he’s attuned to the little things, like surprising unsuspecting guests with special dishes or stepping in to help when the restaurant is in the weeds. Munoz carries these same qualities—ones that were instilled in him by his grandparents and his mentor—forth in his personal life, too, making sure those around him feel cared for and seen.
DiningOut: Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?
Ronaldo Munoz: I grew up in Guatemala. My childhood was very fun, because I grew up on a farm, taking care of horses and cows and exploring the land.
DO: How and when did you discover cooking and kitchen work?
RM: I discovered my passion for cooking while watching my grandma cook meals for our family. All of her dishes were cooked in a traditional way, with fresh herbs and spices that she grew. I always loved when she cooked chicken soup, roasted chicken, and tamales. I’m lucky because my mom is still cooking those tamales and the chicken soup with my grandma’s original recipes. In Guatemala, tamales are a traditional food for Christmas. I remember that was when the kids were allowed to help in the kitchen and make tamales to share with family and friends.
DO: What was the first dish/item you learned to cook?
RM: When I first moved to the United States, I discovered my passion for cooking and creating food for others. It’s funny to say, but the first dish I learned how to cook here was a burger.
Something I would like to change in the industry is that all workers would have better benefits, because this is a group of workers who don’t have many benefits.
DO: Do you have a mentor?
RM: Yes, chef Lilian Joya. I met her working at Breckenridge Brewery when I was 20 years old. What I learned from her was the perfection of how to cook, and how to always keep improving and learning every day. She also taught me to never give up, even if the times are tough. This is something I always keep in my mind, especially during this pandemic. She reminds me of my grandparents. They were strict and always pushed me to the limits to bring out the best in me.
DO: What would you like to change about the restaurant industry?
RM: Something I would like to change in the industry is that all workers would have better benefits, because this is a group of workers who don’t have many benefits.
DO: How has COVID affected you/your work?
RM: The hardest thing was having to lay off workers that had been working with us for a long time. Also, when the baseball season got cut off, our business [at the location near Coors Field] was affected by 80 percent less sales.
DO: Complete the sentence: “Working in a restaurant is like…”
RM: …if you were a ninja or superhero when you catch a dish on its way to the ground.
Tune into Best Served, a podcast from Jensen Cummings. The Denver chef spent his entire career cooking and owning restaurants, until he realized he could better serve those around him by being a conduit of community. Cummings has since made it his mission to find and champion the industry’s unsung heroes. And help us out by nominating one of yours by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.