Gerber Rodriguez had no formal training to become a chef. His education began in his native El Salvador, where he learned the basics of cooking without having to leave home.
“I grew up just watching my mom,” Rodriguez said. The oldest of seven children, he took his mother’s lead and started cooking for his siblings at an early age, honing his skills by making the traditional foods of his Central American nation.
Rodriguez still cooks for a crowd, but a much-larger one. He worked in the kitchen for a dozen years at Madera’s Mexican Restaurante and Cantina, and after that eatery closed last year he took over the Battery Street space for his own restaurant.
Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Cynthia Nabalitan, opened Esperanza Restaurante on Dec. 1. The restaurant near Burlington’s waterfront melds the most-popular dishes from Madera’s Mexican menu with the flavors of Rodriquez’s homeland as well as those of the Philippines, where Nabalitan is from.
A Mexican/El Salvadorian/Filipino fusion restaurant may sound unusual, and it is. “We’re bringing three different countries here,” Nabalitan said on a recent afternoon as she and Rodriguez served lunch customers at Esperanza. “I think that’s different for Vermont. It’s like, ‘Is that really allowed?’”
That melding, however, makes historical sense. Mexico and El Salvador have obvious Spanish and indigenous influences. The Philippines, while located in Asia and influenced in part by the cuisine of nearby Indonesia, was ruled by Spain for several centuries.
“Oh, we have a lot in common with our food,” said Nabalitan, who met Rodriguez at an English-language class in 2011. “Since then that’s what we do, put both of our countries together.” Merged with the more familiar tastes of Mexico, those influences give Esperanza (the Spanish word for hope) a unique mix of Latin and Asian flavors.
Nabalitan came to Vermont in 2006 because her sister lives in the state. Rodriguez’s path to Burlington was circuitous. He grew up in northern El Salvador, which he said with its mountains, scenic countryside and placid rivers is reminiscent of Vermont, “except for the cold.”
He was born in 1981 during El Salvador’s civil war, which raged until the early 1990s. The strife ruined the nation’s economy, and he came to the United States in search of better opportunities. He knew only a few words of English – “door, window and a few colors,” he said – that he had learned in El Salvador.
He first found those better opportunities in 2000 in Boston, where he worked in a Mexican restaurant. “I started my way from the bottom, doing dishes,” Rodriguez said. He wasn’t satisfied with that, though; he constantly asked cooks about what they were doing and began insinuating himself into food-preparation work.
He moved on to a Mexican restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, and came to Vermont to work at the now-closed La Carreta Mexican restaurant on Shelburne Road. He moved from there to Roque’s, the predecessor of Madera’s, and worked for owners Jim and Jeanette Wood for the better part of 12 years.