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10 Questions | Martin Rivera, Avow

From server to chef: Napan 'fell in love with food'

Martin Rivera, Avow

Martin Rivera, Avow

Martin Rivera got his start in the food industry at age 19, working as a server.

He was immediately hooked.

“It was like a big family,” Rivera said. “It was a lot of fun as well.”

Eventually, “I realized the culinary part was more interesting to me,” than being a server.

While working in a gastropub in Winters, the restaurant’s chef took him under his wing “and taught me everything he knew.”

“I just fell in love with food. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It became an obsession.”

Today, Rivera is executive chef at Avow, located at 813 Main St. in downtown Napa.

1. What was your childhood ambition?

To be an astronaut. I used to follow the stars all the time.

2. What’s the worst job you ever had?

Me and my brother were piano movers in San Francisco. A family member owned the piano business. We were just helping them out.

We used to carry these grand pianos up five-story spiral staircases. It was so stressful and you’re carrying this insanely heavy piano. It was crazy.

3. What’s your favorite menu item at Avow?

I think my favorite menu item right now is the trout tartar. We cure Mt. Lassen trout in pomegranate molasses and citrus (served with) a sesame pumpkin puree with some chilies.

4. What is the biggest challenge your industry has faced?

As of late the hardest hit we’ve taken has been from staffing or lack thereof. It seems no one is interested in working for their dollar anymore. It’s insane right now.

Our industry took a dive at the beginning of COVID due to closures and now we’re still struggling to stay afloat just to get enough staff to open our doors on a day-to-day basis.

5. What’s on your to-do list?

Everything. But I really want to skydive, seems cliché but it scares the hell out of me and it’s one thing I’d like to do before I go.

6. Who do you most admire in the business world?

There are so many chefs that inspire me in the culinary world, it’s hard to choose one. But if I had to pick, it would be Alex Atala, simply due to his take on sustainability.

7. If you could change one thing about the restaurant industry, what would it be?

The notion that the kitchen should make less money than any given bartender or server. I think that mold needs to be broken and staff should make the money they put into their work. There’s no reason that a bartender can come and work 4 hours and make more money than a line cook that has to put in overtime.

8. What’s your advice to someone who wants to become an executive chef?

I would say to focus on mentors more than anything. Learning standards and meeting the right people and surrounding yourself with people that motivate you and are as ambitious as you are. Stay teachable. But mostly stay humble. Keep your ego out of it so you can learn.

9. What’s something people might be surprised to know about you?

I used to be the singer of a metal band (in San Diego). It was called City In Lights.

10. Which other Napa County business person would you like to see featured in 10 Questions?

Phil Moratin, Allen Brothers. Phil is the former chef de cuisine at Angèle in Napa but has taken on a new role as a rep for Allen Brothers but is taking “sales rep” to a new level. He’s working closely with chefs to get them quality products and goes the extra mile to make sure that you are getting what you’re paying for. He’s taken chefs on tours of the Flannery Beef dry-aging process and has a wealth of knowledge of the industry and is willing to share with anyone that needs it.

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