Junior Borges never planned to become a chef. If twenty years ago you had asked the now forty-year-old Brazilian what occupation he intended to pursue, he probably would have said dietitian. “Food was a big part of my life,” he admits, but back then, in his country, cooking wasn’t seen as a worthwhile career path. “Medicine, law, engineering—that meant success,” he says. He studied nutrition, thinking he could channel his love of food into a job advising clients on healthy eating. But it didn’t satisfy him, and he ultimately dropped out of school. At loose ends, he decided in 1999 to take a long vacation and visit his sister, who was living in the city of dreams: New York.
He ended up getting a work permit—he’s now a U.S. citizen—but he still felt directionless. Then one day he was riding the subway with his mom, who had moved to New York to live with his sister. As the train lurched along, she pointed to an ad for a cooking school and said, “You love to eat and you’re always in the kitchen. Why don’t you do that?” The proverbial light bulb switched on. In the restaurant-obsessed United States, cooking could be a profession.
From that moment, Borges had a purpose. He started learning English and studying everything he could find on cooking and dining. “I would go to this big bookstore in Union Square and sit cross-legged on the floor and read cookbooks,” he remembers. He couldn’t afford culinary school, so he watched chefs with television shows. “Emeril Live and Molto Mario were my favorites,” he says. Kitchen scientist Alton Brown was Borges’s go-to for technique.
After he honed his chops, he persuaded an upscale restaurant to let him work for free, then moved on to paying jobs. One of his biggest thrills came when the late Anthony Bourdain (at that time the host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations) visited Diner, in Brooklyn, a popular restaurant where Borges was working. “He was out back, smoking a cigarette,” says Borges, “and I just went up to him and asked, ‘Do you think this is a good place? What do you really think, now that there are no cameras?’ He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’re in the right place at the right time.’ ”
Awards & Press
- James Beard Award