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A Chef’s Journey From Cheesecake Factory To Slovenia

A trial by fire in a chain kitchen led to fine dining roles and an omnivorous approach to cuisine.

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Kamal Hoyte is executive chef at Pekarna restaurant in New York, which opened in December 2020. Along with owner Dean O’Neill, Hoyte is planning to gradually introduce more Slovenian cuisine to the menu as they’re allowed to make use of the restaurant’s massive 6,500-square-foot space.

I grew up in St. Vincent, in the Caribbean. I moved to the United States in 2004 to live with my mom. In the process of becoming independent from my parents, I decided to get a job. The first job I got was a dishwasher at a small restaurant in Bergenfield, New Jersey, called Mrs. O’s Cafe. I was very observant. I knew I wanted to do something more, though at that point I didn’t know I wanted to get into cooking.

I went on to work at the Cheesecake Factory in 2006. The kitchen at the Cheesecake Factory has a big Iine, with 20 or 25 cooks. It’s crazy. You come home from that shift, and you’re thinking, “Shit, I don’t want to go back to that again.” But something pushes you—”You know what? Go back and do it.” I ended up being there for like two or three years. It worked out fine, and that experience really pushed me to get into culinary school. That’s when I became very passionate about the culinary field.

I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in 2007 and graduated in 2010. My aspiration prior to coming to the U.S. was to become an architect, because I have a strong art background. I draw things naturally. But I ended up in restaurants.

After the CIA, I came back to Manhattan. My first experience was at Daniel. I got a job as a chef de partie, which is basically a line cook. I worked there for a year. I got very good experience because I was very much interested in French food, the presentations and the flavors and all that stuff, because French cooking is very classical.

Then I went to work at Oceana, a seafood restaurant. I’ve always had a passion for fish because I grew up on the coast in the Caribbean. Combining different flavors from different parts of the world—that was a great experience, working with Chef Ben Pollinger. He taught me a lot about seafood. He was very good to me. He asked me for feedback on some of the dishes at the restaurant, even though I was a line cook.

I got my first executive chef experience at City Diner in New Jersey. I did an independent catering gig for somebody, and they gave my name to the Giakoumatos brothers who owned it, and they reached out to me. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I took a chance because I wanted to be a chef. I always wanted to grow. It wasn’t a fine-dining restaurant, but the opportunity helped. I became more confident. We helped each other, and it’s still running.

The bar at Pekarna. Photo: Courtesy Pekarna.

Then I decided to go back to the city. I worked at Guastavino’s as the sous chef. It was a very good concept in the details and the presentation and the style. Everything was fresh. The chef was named John Stevenson. He was a young chef, but he was very hands-on in his style. He didn’t have a big ego. He was very humble. A lot of chefs in the kitchen, when they’re overwhelmed they get very angry. But I believe that once you know what you’re doing, if you try to keep calm under pressure and lead by example, you will be successful. Things are going to happen in the kitchen that you’re not expecting, but you try to maneuver and find creative ways to solve problems.

After Guastavino’s, I worked for Mastro’s Steakhouse. That’s a very fast-paced environment. You’ve got to always think on the spot and be very observant. I never did so much steak in my life. We did 300 to 600 covers a week. There’s a certain kind of planning, a job flow that you follow when you come in. Check the stock, check the orders, make sure you have enough stuff for the night, check with the cooks to make sure they’re prepped up and ready. It’s very systematic. Check the walk-ins, making sure everything is labeled and dated. I learned a lot from there. They also had seafood. That part I liked most, and seafood has become my signature.

I met Dean O’Neill a few years ago. He had a restaurant on the East Side called Infirmary, and he wanted help revamping it. I wasn’t the chef—I was just helping out. A few days a week, I would go and help him a bit at the restaurant and try different stuff. We built a relationship over the years and became friends.

Recently we decided to do Pekarna, a Slovenian-American restaurant. The idea behind Pekarna is that we are trying to develop Slovenian wines. The cuisine itself is only 10 percent Slovenian. We haven’t put most of the Slovenian dishes on the menu yet because I’m trying to minimize costs and cut down the menus during the pandemic. As we expand and grow, I’ll expand those menus. It’s not going to be too much more than what I have right now. I want to just give people a taste.

I’m very open-minded. I believe that once you respect culture, and you are able to collaborate and yield, there are endless possibilities. That’s what I learned working at all these places. I’ve been like that since I was at the Cheesecake Factory.

When me and Dean came up with the idea for Pekarna, we worked together on everything. It’s just two of us running the restaurant. He’s upstairs, and I’m downstairs. I know my abilities from the things I’ve done. I feel this is the way to spread my wings and do what I have to do. I set no boundaries. I consider myself ambitious. I’m always adventurous—to open a restaurant during a pandemic is crazy.

We’re ready to open up for inside dining. I might close on Monday and open Tuesday, or close only on Sunday. We’ll adjust as we go along. Because there’s not much outdoor seating right now, we only do sliders and fries. It’s working pretty well. The idea is to just keep the restaurant afloat, just keep it going until things get back to normal. I’m not making anything from it.

I’m thinking about going seasonal with the menu. We have two floors, so downstairs we’re going to have private events. There will be a different team for the different rooms. I’ve already created different types of menus to reflect the ambiance. I’m definitely looking forward to doing different stuff. In the next six or seven months, if things go well, we’ll bring a new version of Pekarna over to Slovenia, which is already in process. That’s really something to look forward to.