A Tale of Steel and Grit: The Ascent of Chef Ricky Estrellado

It’s high time we revisit the life and times of Nobu NYC’s Pinoy culinary master from our archives

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The culinary world has lost another gem in Chef Ricky Estrellado. The news broke last Tuesday and we are still in the process of picking up the pieces of our heartfelt shock and grief. And so, we think it’s high time to pay tribute and raise our glasses to a man that definitely made us proud. Without further ado, let’s take one last look at his memories of cold days in New York to the unforgiving heat of a Michelin-starred kitchen, and his wayward adventures that led him up the culinary ladder.

An excerpt from Breakfast Magazine’s December-January 2016’s issue

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The Estrellado Family. From left to right: Linda (Mother), Ricky, Roxanne, Randy, RJ, Rudy (Father).

The world has moved on, but before it did, there was General Rudy, Ricky’s father. A military man—shirts pressed, haircut precise, disciplined…the microcosm of everyone who believed in tough love. Ricky was different: a rebel—rock lover, school hater, drifter, whose one mainstay and discipline throughout was food. But back then, food didn’t necessarily mean career. After seeing some expat chefs in hotels however, the possibility dawned on Ricky and his mind was set.

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After graduating at the top of his class at the New York Restaurant School, Chef Ricky poses with his instructor (Chef Lorrie Reynoso) and his visiting mother and sister (Linda and Roxanne).

With no time to waste, he told General Rudy of his plans. To test his son’s mettle, the father sends his son to cook at Goodah. And Ricky made sure to ruthlessly clock in the hours every day, until his mom and dad finally saw steel in him. He then got the opportunity of a lifetime to study abroad at the New York Restaurant School. In 1994, he finished first of his class and the rest, as they say, is history.

In his frenzy to prove himself, others started to take notice, too. During his stint at Montrachet, owner Drew Nieporent brought Ricky to a new team and his partner, Nobu, who was then just a man about to open his new restaurant. Working at the very first Nobu in the world was hard. It was exciting learning from actual chefs, really like an extension of an actual school. Imagine countless hours skinning vegetables, burning hairs from fingers, with bits of crying interlaced in between. Regardless of the initial struggles, he made a name for himself in the kitchen by doing things no one else wanted to do. Ricky quickly outshined his co-workers and learned more about the industry. After years of hard work and perseverance, Ricky became Chef Ricky, Nobu’s Chef de Cuisine.

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Chef Ricky at the Jackson Hole Food & Wine Festival

Truth be told, however, being an executive chef for Nobu NY and Nobu Next Door is not as glamorous as it sounds. His day now consists of a lot of paperwork and management. Chef Ricky starts the day by talking to sous chefs and the managers, finding out how everything is and if there are any problems that need to be addressed. Not everyday is the same. Sometimes Chef Ricky goes to meetings, sometimes he makes new specials, and sometimes he goes to an offsite catering. On special occasions, he even travels to represent Nobu, and those are Ricky’s favorites. But most days, he would walk from cook to cook to see how they are doing and to do some quality checks on the food.

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When Chef Ricky visited Nobu Hotel Manila to serve as guest chef, he had the opportunity to bring his family.

With the average life expectancy of restaurants in NYC being quite low, Nobu staying alive for twenty years as of this writing is no mean feat, a testament to show that they are pretty good at what they do. For Chef Ricky, it’s a testament that anyone, even a rebel, can succeed with hard work, tough love, and passion. “ Cooking is not for everyone. It is not enough that you love to cook and eat. It is not as glamorous as you see on TV. The hours are long and the pay sucks. But if you are willing to grind it out, the rewards are endless.”

It’s hard to believe that we were just face to face with this all-around talent two years ago. True enough, his contributions to uplifting the ingenuity of the Pinoy in the kitchen is a notable feat. Rest easy, Chef Ricky. You will be missed.