Google “Chef Erwin Ramos”. Go ahead, do it. You’ll find a few mentions of his background, many mentions of Ole, and his name listed as a special guest lecturer and chef for classes and events.
That’s all wonderful and gives him an excellent pedigree as a chef. But to get the real Erwin, I headed over to Ole before opening and dug the illustrious chef out of the bowels of his restaurant (no, seriously- I had to find him in the basement, where he was coordinating catering jobs for the day) for an interview. Here are a few stories that I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard:
1.Chef Erwin Ramos is unforgiving of chefs, including himself.
“We’re all egotistical,” he says. “Chefs are prideful people”.
But Chef Ramos seems to be the polar opposite of his harsh ruling. Upon meeting Erwin, you immediately recognize him as a gentle soul- the type of person who you might like to stand around in a kitchen with, leaning against the counters, sipping coffee and talking about philosophy.
I didn’t make that scenario up. Erwin referenced that scene when he was talking about his mentor, Chef George Karousos, who Erwin says is “brilliant. A true professor of food and flavors” but also “difficult. He challenged me and taught me so much.” Erwin says he has a very “father-son” relationship with his mentor, and that it was difficult for Chef Karousos when Erwin left for his own culinary ventures. “It took a few years, but when he saw how well I was doing on my own, he was proud,” Erwin says.
2.Chef Ramos came to this country with enough money for one semester of school. And that’s it.
“I wanted to come to the United States for an education in Hospitality, but my parents didn’t have the money. So I said, “If you can give me money for one semester tuition and room and board, I’ll figure out the rest.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. That determination and ingenuity that surfaced at such a young age in Erwin has served him well throughout his culinary career, and can be credited for Ole’s unique positioning in Cambridge’s food scene.
3.He’s an avid photographer.
I asked Erwin the classic journalist question: “What do you do when you’re not doing what you’re usually doing?” It’s an expected question, to be sure, but the answer showed me just how creative Erwin truly is:
“I’m a photographer. And I like to hike. I go up to the lakes in New Hampshire and go for really long hikes”.
I wasn’t shocked by this answer. The food at Ole is strikingly visual, and presentation is paramount to Chef Ramos. And this nature loving side of Erwin? Not surprising, given that he’s constantly searching for new inspiration: “I’m always looking for new ingredients along with new ways to present food”. A little time in nature not only renews Erwin’s creative energy, but he often picks up ideas for Ole’s menu along the way.
4.Chef Erwin Ramos was fired from the Marriott Group.
Yes, you read that correctly. Erwin always knew he wanted to own his own restaurant. His mother owned her own restaurant in the Philippines, and according to Ramos, she was “everything. Cook, manager- everything.” He cites her as his first inspiration.
But the restaurant world is brutal. “So many restaurants fail,” Erwin says. “I knew I wanted to own my own restaurant, but also knew that I needed to get experience in high quality establishments first. You know, white gloves, the whole thing.”
So after working for Chef Karousos in college, Erwin worked for the Marriott Group, working large events and catering. He learned the ropes, but still knew what his final goal was. “I began making plans to open a restaurant with two other people. It’s a full-time job, trying to open a restaurant. I came in early one day, hoping my manager wouldn’t be there, so that I could use the computer to work on some things for the new business. Of course, he walked in as I had all these windows up on the screen. He was as nice about it as he could be, but said, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to let you go. That’s very much against the rules.’ It was difficult, but it gave me the push I needed to open the restaurant.”
5.Chef Ramos takes inspiration from many places…..
But his muse, first and foremost, is Oaxaca, Mexico.
Erwin often seems a touch tired, which is easy to understand- running a restaurant is a demanding undertaking. But there are a few subjects that Erwin absolutely lights up about, and Oaxaca is one of them: “The markets, the people- everything. It’s a magical place in the middle of Mexico that has been largely untouched by the outside.”
Erwin has big plans for Ole’s relationship with Oaxaca. “I would love to take the staff there on retreat,” he says. “It would be great for them to experience the vibrant spirit that I experienced and loved so much.”
Erwin even uses his passion for photography and his eye for traditional Mexican décor from Oaxaca to line Ole’s walls. When he looks around Ole to point out things that he brought back from the enchanting locale, he eventually shrugged in surrender: “Actually….all of this is from Oaxaca. I send things back every time I go.”
Eventually, Erwin would like to put together a retreat to Oaxaca for some special customers of Ole: “We’d start by going straight to the markets. The colors, the smells, the sounds- it’s all amazing. Then we’d go to a cooking class with local chefs, using the ingredients we picked up. And then after a rest, we’d sample a local restaurant. There are so many wonderful restaurants in Oaxaca. Then the next day….repeat!”
I don’t know about you but- food, friends, cooking lessons and nights out in Mexico? I’m in!