Executive Chef Juan Martinez brings a world of experience to the JW Marriott, just in time for SXSW 2015.
By Veronica Meewes, photos by Dustin Meyer
If Chef Juan Martinez’s early childhood memories are any indication, his culinary career was written in the stars.
“My favorite area to play when I was growing up in Puerto Rico was on the vines of the passion fruit,” Martinez remembers. “They grow in a vine and it becomes almost like a little cave. And I used to bring little packets of sugar with me in my pocket as a kid. Break them by hand, put a little sugar on, eat them right there and then dump them back!”
With yucca and mango available for picking right in his backyard, Martinez developed an early appreciation for fresh, seasonal and hyper-local produce.
As he began college, his father, a structural engineer, urged him to become an architect, with the hope that they’d open a business together. But Martinez knew that path wasn’t meant for him.
“My mother was very smart,” he recalls. “I always cooked a lot as a kid and she said, ‘You know, maybe you should follow what you love, which is cooking. You always cook with your grandmother. You always cook at the house. So why don’t you try it?’ ”
He enrolled in Florida’s Southeastern Academy of Culinary Arts, earning his certification with straight As, and began cooking at a French restaurant called La Grill.
“I fell in love with the food and the fine-dining aspect of cooking,” describes Martinez, his passion apparent in his intonation.
He decided to enroll in a rigorous program at Johnson & Wales University in Miami, earning his associate degree in just 11 months before eagerly embarking on what was to become quite an action-packed culinary career.
His first role out of school in 1999 was as a manager in training at the Marriott on Canal Street in New Orleans. Later, he opened the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott as an assistant sous chef. After a year and a half, he opened the Woodlands Waterway Marriott and Convention Center as a senior banquet chef. There, he learned much about Texas barbecue, as well as the logistics of catering large-scale events.
The following year, he opened the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes as a senior sous chef in charge of three restaurants. He stayed in that role for two years in what became one of his favorite jobs to date, working under Executive Chef Mark Beaupre.
“It was a very high-end luxury hotel,” Martinez says. “We partnered with the Ritz Carlton because it was all connected and we did very beautiful food, from the restaurants to the catering.”
From there, he accepted a position at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa in Miami as executive sous chef, learning much about European cuisine while working under French chef Jean- Claude Lanchais. After about two years, he decided to take a plunge and accept an interview in China, where he was promptly hired as the executive sous chef at the JW Marriott at Tomorrow Square in Shanghai.
“I fell in love with the city,” he says with a grin. “It was right in the middle of everything…and I was able to learn the culture, learn the business, which is completely different than the States, and learn the Chinese cuisine, which is very different from what most people think here.”
During his time spent in Shanghai, he took the opportunity to travel and eat his way through China, as well as Japan, Thailand and Indonesia. He executed the largest outdoor plated dinner in Shanghai, where more than 3,000 guests were served, and he took on his first role as an executive chef at Shanghai’s brand new Renaissance Hotel.
“That was very critical for me because it was my first hotel as a chef and my first hotel abroad,” he says. “So I learned a lot, and made a lot of mistakes, as well, but it was really a beautiful experience for me.”
When he returned to the States, he decided to take a chef de cuisine position at Primo in the JW Marriott Orlando, cooking under two-time James Beard Award- winning chef Melissa Kelly (Best Chef, Northeast in 1999 and 2013).
“It allowed me to unwind out of the business and really cook, get back to the basics again and get into organic food and preparing the food from scratch all the way until the finished project,” Martinez says. “It really helped me get back into my routine, which is passion for food.”
He did eventually take on another executive chef role at Florida’s Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa, where he oversaw culinary operations at the 12 restaurants on the property. After three years there, he was met with an irresistible opportunity to open the new JW Marriott in downtown Austin. The $300 million hotel, which is the biggest JW Marriott in the country and the second biggest in the entire world, had more than 500,000 room nights contracted through 2021 before it even opened in mid-February. Martinez signed on to oversee operations at the hotel’s three restaurants, as well as the banquet and catering.
“This is a very unique situation because, normally, the chain of command in a hotel is executive chef and executive sous, then sous chef and then chef de partie,” he explains. “Here, they decided to go a little bit different. They want to showcase these restaurants almost as standalone restaurants rather than hotel restaurants. So they allow me to have a better budget. I was able to get three executive chefs [for each restaurant]plus myself on the top, managing them.”
When hiring, Martinez brought on some trusted chefs he’s worked with through the years.
“Most of them are either good friends, or friends of mine are sending them to me,” he explains. One is Chef Gilberto Ramirez, who leads the kitchen at Osteria Pronto, the hotel’s upscale Italian eatery. “He’s been with me for a few years, and I know his capabilities. Amazing, amazing chef.”
He also brought on some highly talented fresh faces, such as Chef Jennifer Etzkin, who will lead the team at Corner. She graduated with honors from the Institute of Culinary Education of New York City, and has worked at such prestigious restaurants as Eleven Madison Park and Atlantic Grill. When Martinez relocated to Austin with his wife and two children at the end of the summer, he and the JW Marriott team immediately set to work, getting their bearings as chefs do, through their taste buds.
“We wanted to get the demographic of Austin, so we went to 20 restaurants in two days,” he says. “We wanted to see what Austinites eat and what they love. And there were so many different flavors and concepts, we decided that we wanted to make sure our food was, above all else, craveable.”
One certainly craveable feature of the luxury hotel is Burger Bar, a fast-casual concept that serves burgers via a window opening onto Congress Avenue. The milkshakes are made extra creamy with a high-milk-fat soft serve in flavors like strawberry shortcake and peanut butter pretzel. And while humble 4-ounce burgers are also available, even the biggest appetite will be satisfied with the Big Bite, which features a double patty, two slices of cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, candied jalapeños, togarashi-seasoned blistered shishito peppers, Burger Bar sauce and jalapeño jam.
On the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, Osteria Pronto specializes in regional Italian cuisine with a delicate, farm-fresh twist.
“Gil [Ramirez] is very refined, and you’ll see it in his food. It’s Italian food but with a lot of sophistication,” Martinez describes. That sense of creativity and commitment to local produce can be seen in dishes like Ramirez’s take on carpaccio: Sushi-grade yellowfin tuna is pounded into a thin circle, drizzled with a trio of citrus juices, then sprinkled with chives, dehydrated olives and heirloom tomatoes. Cucumber blossoms and tatsoi provide colorfully delicious finishing touches.
The open kitchen at Osteria Pronto looks onto an expansive white marble bar and features state-of-the-art equipment, like Rondel induction stovetops for the hotel’s luxe breakfast bar, as well as a customized pizza oven and a case for the house-made gelato.
Corner, which features a large, lively bar area and outdoor seating on Congress Avenue, will showcase regional cuisine, featuring locally sourced meats and produce.
“Jennifer [Etzkin] is very passionate about Mexican flavors and Central American flavors, Texas and Louisiana flavors, spices and chilies, very passionate and you’ll see it,” Martinez says.
Etzkin’s penchant for bold flavors can be seen in her signature guava-glazed Duroc baby back ribs, which are smoked then steamed with apple cider, chicken stock and local beer before they are roasted in the oven and finished with a guava glaze, garlic chips, Maldon sea salt and guajillo chilies. The ribs pair perfectly with bright Corner slaw (watermelon radish, jicama, red cabbage, pickled red onion and cilantro) and her playful take on mac and cheese, made using Goldfish crackers, smoked Gouda and a little gastromolecular flair to simulate the ultra- creamy texture.
While the kitchen team at Osteria Pronto wears chef jackets, black pinstripe aprons and black military caps, the team visible
in Corner’s open-air kitchen is wearing more casual butcher shirts, denim pinstriped aprons and navy bandanas tied around their heads. Look a little closer and you’ll count more than a couple visible tattoos too.
“Everything here is a little more fun,” says Martinez with a smile.
He may be talking about Corner, but the same can be said for Austin, especially now that this chef is in town.