Starting From Scratch
Photo Courtesy of Tropics Grille

Starting From Scratch

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Our Talk with Chef Ricardo of Tropics Grille

By John M. Hayden

When you taste his food, you’ll understand why Ricardo Flores is a Certified Executive Chef. When you hear his story, you’ll understand that he’s also certified awesome. Between appetizers and entrees during our dinner at the Tropics Grille, Chef Ricardo sat down with the OutClique staff and shared his fascinating story. 

His training and education is top notch and extensive. He proudly told us he graduated Summa Cum Laude from Johnson & Wales University, is a Certified Executive Chef by the American Culinary Federation, an accredited certified evaluator, and a Spice gold medal winner four years running. All that helped him land the job as Executive Chef at the Tropics Grille on Wilton Drive. But before he parked on The Drive, he spent some time in prison. Not as an inmate, but as an instructor and mentor. “I used to teach at a prison right here in Pompano. I taught culinary arts and there was an apprenticeship program there,” Chef Ricardo told OutClique.

He’d work with a small class of about 16 students for an intense, six month course, to give them the skills not only to survive in a kitchen, but also to thrive. “They get a certificate that they completed six months. I did that for four years.” A lot of the men inside looked forward to getting out, but had little to look forward to beyond that. Being hired as a convict is tough, especially after years behind bars. “They were convicts. Seven, 12, 15 years.” And like his sauces at Tropics Grille, he had to start from scratch. “These are kids that didn’t have any training. Didn’t know how to make a sauce.” But Chef Ricardo gave them hope by teaching them a skill. If the guys finished the 1,000 hours of training, they got their Serve Safe Food Manager’s license. 

His students are cooking up success well beyond South Florida. “I have kids that are now executive chefs in restaurants and country clubs. They own their own restaurants. They own their own catering company.” The pride in his voice is as strong as his meatballs are flavorful. “So that’s pretty cool. I still keep in touch with them.” There’s one student that really sticks out. “He did seven years for something stupid.” But when most of the world was content to let the guy rot in jail, two people believed in him: his mom, and Chef Ricardo. “His mom used to send him cookbooks. She had to send him two, one for the library and one for him.” That inspired him to keep at it in the commissary kitchen. The man worked so hard, Chef Ricardo says he got him out of jail long enough to enter a cooking competition. “I made a team with him (and another person) and we went to the American Chef’s Competition. I took them and I trained ’em and they came in fourth place, still won a silver medal.” Flores says the competition was tough and close, and the team was within two points of winning it all. 

This man is one of the ones Chef Ricardo keeps tabs on, not only for nostalgia, but also as a way of keeping his eye on the competition! “(He’s) probably better than I am now. He works at a club in Maryland. He’s doing his little blogs, his things on Youtube.”