Discovering the food of Southwest Florida is perhaps the best way to explore and better understand our local neighborhoods, but what about the people behind the dish? We meet Javier Molina to discover the creator of the delicious Mediterranean cuisine of Downtown Naples.
Mediterrano, located on 13th Avenue South, is tucked away just a few blocks from the hustle and bustle of Fifth Avenue. Driving downtown, I pass the high-end, bustling restaurants of Fifth Avenue. Just a few blocks more, there is an apparent change in the atmosphere. As I turn onto 13th avenue south, the environment feels peaceful in comparison to the streets prior.
Nestled between a local design store and gallery, Mediterrano stands in a fresh coat of white paint. Walking up to the store front, I reflect on the times I’ve spent at Mediterrano surrounded by family and friends. However, this time, I am here for a much different reason. Today, I will be meeting the man behind the delicious cuisine that has captivated my soul and that of my family and friends: Chef Javier.
I catch a glimpse of Javier standing in the outside dining room, dressed in a black chef coat. I introduce myself as a strong smile spreads across his face. In this moment, I recognize that Javier is fueled by optimism.
Javier welcomes me into the restaurant. I ask, “Can we take these seats?” signaling towards a quaint table in the corner of the room. He politely agrees. We sit and exchange the usual introductions amid the turquoise blue decor. Javier began his story; reflecting on previous successes, experiences, and influences that brought him to where he is now.
One of the youngest executive chefs in Naples, just shy of 28, Javier is as passionate and down-to-earth as he is talented. A Bronx native and descendant of Puerto Rican heritage, Javier recognizes that his love for cooking was evoked by his family.
I sip my water, allowing a moment to absorb the fact that Javier is only 27. He continued to leave me speechless with his story of how he became the chef he is today and acquired his unique cooking style along the way:
“I don’t take from anybody, I’ve learned from people, don’t get me wrong, but everything I do I’ve learned and I put my flare into it, my style is me.”
Javier tells me what it was like to grow up in a big family. He elaborates on the struggles he and his family have endured and recognizes that those experiences taught him that giving up is not an option:
“My mom raised five boys and a girl, it wasn’t easy, it never will be easy. I battle every day. Yeah, I’m a young chef, but I’m not stopping now.”
Javier’s passion for food and sharing his delicacies with others is undeniable. In between sips of water, we discuss Javier’s definition of success. He explains that while he is the head chef at Mediterrano, he strives to avoid hierarchy in his kitchen. Everyone in the kitchen is family and Javier works hard to maintain this camaraderie:
“If we don’t have that camaraderie, we’re not making these people happy, you know. It’s not possible, it’s not possible at all. If one person in that kitchen is off, the food is going to be off … That’s how I measure my success; if patrons are leaving happy, then I’m as successful as I can be.”
Not only does he bring a strong sense empathy to the kitchen, but also a thorough understanding of the customer. Keeping the importance of consistency in mind is key to Javier’s cooking method. He considers his consistent style a key ingredient to the restaurant’s recipe for success:
“I make sure that I make the food the same way for everybody. That’s the only way to keep people coming back, consistency.”
Despite Mediterrano’s classic, high-end menu, Chef Javier admits that he is more than willing to adapt menu options to the needs of the customer:
“If a twelve-year-old walks in and wants chicken fingers, sure I’ll make it. “Javier adapts to the needs of children’s requests because he believes that he can provide them inspiration, “What if they try my food and then want to become a chef someday, who am I to turn them away?”
For Javier, food and passion are one in the same:
“I put all the love and affection into my food just as I would do to a relationship, or a friendship, or the way that I take care of my parents. I take care of my food the way I do my family.”
Javier takes to the kitchen to show me a glimpse of how Mediterrano’s famous “mother sauce” is made. Each interaction he has with the kitchen staff is genuine and fun-loving. Everyone gravitates towards him and his company is clearly appreciated by all in his presence.
Javier prepares julienne-sliced onions as he graciously explains the origin of the olive oil and vegetables used in the recipe. While he had to keep many of the unique ingredients undisclosed, he walked me through the beginning steps and heated up a freshly made batch to taste. Over J.Cole versus bumping in the background, Javier and I exchange ideas about Anthony Bourdain’s go-to category, death row meals–the last meal you would choose to eat before dying. Javier’s choice would be a plate of his grandmother’s traditional Puerto Rican rice and beans accompanied by pork shoulder stuffed ‘pasteles’.
Javier sets the freshly-simmered sauce on the table where we made our initial interaction.”We’re both young in our industry, it is cool that we can help each other out like this,” Javier says with a smile of relief to which I reply, “It sure is.”