photo courtesy The Palm Restaurant Group
Francisco “Kiko” Ojeda started in professional kitchens as a dishwasher and hasn’t taken his eyes off the sink. More than 35 years later, Ojeda is now the executive chef at The Palm Las Vegas and still sees dishwashers as potential chefs and remains an inspiration for those starting at the lowest rung of the ladder. He started washing dishes at 15, after moving to Los Angeles from Mexico in 1981. Ojeda has been with The Palm Restaurant Group his whole career, in Las Vegas since 1996, attributing his loyalty to his happiness. Daily fresh seafood and fresh beef every three days are Ojeda’s keys to strong items out of the kitchen, including the nearly unbeatable value of the restaurant’s $22 Power Lunches.
What Mexican influence did you bring with you?
It’s always in my mind to work hard; they taught me that and to respect people. Those are the things I’ll never forget. I brought some recipes from my mom and many times when I’m coming up with our specials, I do with those recipes.
In all your years how have things changed?
What I learned was a lot of things change. The recipes change a lot, but not a lot of presentation. I focus on tradition—just make it right and with flavor. I don’t worry as much about presentation; I do worry about not putting good flavor. That’s something I’ve learned here since I started. The Strip is focused way too much on presentation. I will never forget this. Everything we use is fresh. I don’t use anything frozen. Fresh, fresh, fresh and consistency. That’s my key.
What traits did you bring with you from dishwashing?
I started as a dishwasher in 1983 in West Hollywood Palm Restaurant and only did it a few weeks. Working a lot with chefs, they saw that I washed and looked at what they were doing. I learned everything little by little. Then I moved to a prep cook, then line cook. Then doing all the stations, broilers, expo, everything. I become a chef and it was really easy to do after learning from the bottom. I still do it all. I still do dishes when I have to.
You coach baseball; how is that similar to running a kitchen?
Coaching a baseball team and being a chef at a restaurant, they’re very similar things. You have to keep on top of baseball players and in the kitchen it’s always important to be on top of the workers and make sure they’re doing things right and on time. That’s why I say I’m very happy here and I’m doing both things very thing well.
How do you stay up in customer’s minds?
If you’re in this town you want everything to be as high quality as possible. That way, you have no problem. And I’m always there to teach our guys the right way to cook. Like I say, the quality of the food and the order is the key: to make sure we serve the best steak to the customer at the right temps. Everything is simple if you’re on top of it. That’s just from the experience I have. All of the years I’ve been doing this, I never went to school; it’s coming from the bottom.
Why do people come back to The Palm?
If you maintain the customer is maintained, and you don’t have to worry about anything else. If you came in and the steaks were high quality and fresh, you should have no problem. Las Vegas is moving a lot of new dishes, new presentations, but every time a customer comes in to The Palm, they come back because they know what we’re doing here is consistent and fresh.
When you’re not in The Palm kitchen, where are you eating?
Sometimes I cook at home, usually when I have a family member coming to the house and they want to try something new from me. I’ll make a pasta dish or I’ll make good steaks on the grill. So everyone is happy all the time. I like to eat when my wife cooks for me and sometimes I’ll go to a Mexican restaurant and try what they have. I go out almost every Sunday or Monday and that way I can compare what they are serving with what we’re serving here.