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    As a kid in Cuba, Fernando Martinez learned to cook from his mother Yolanda and his grandmother Ella, women who made a weekly family dinner of roast chicken, black beans and rice. “I can still smell that chicken roasting and (remember) the waiting for it and the family together,” Martinez, now in his early-40s, says. “I was always in the kitchen, watching them, and just trying to help all the time.”


    By the time Martinez was 18, he had to quickly figure out a way to make a living because his girlfriend was expecting. In what would be the first in a long career of delicious business ventures, Martinez “would make sandwiches and pizza and go to the airport to sell those. In Cuba, that was illegal — you couldn’t do anything that was private enterprise. So I got in trouble a few times with the police.


    “When I couldn’t go to the airport, people started coming to my house!” Martinez says. “I used to go to the countryside in Cuba and buy pigs, because they were cheaper in the countryside. I would make my own ham and my own bread and buy cheese and stuff like that. It was mainly stuff I made by myself. All house-made.”


    Martinez and his mother started a small, illegal restaurant in their living room. “Tourists started coming in,” Martinez remembers. “That’s when I knew it’s what I wanted to do, to be a chef. Then I got in trouble with the police again. And that’s when I decided to come to the United States and follow my dream.”


    Like many hopeful Cubans before him, Martinez built a raft using inner tubes, rope and wood, and it carried his mother, a few others and him across the Straits of Florida before the Coast Guard picked them up. They spent a year at a refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay before Martinez eventually made it to San Diego. In 1996 he came to Louisville, where he met his now-wife/business partner Cristina. His first job in the area was at Mexican Restaurant called Ernesto’s. Havana Rumba and Mojito Tapas followed not long after.


    Now Martinez — well, the man can’t stop opening restaurants (cousin Yaniel Martinez is also involved). He has Mussel & Burger Bar, Cena, Guaca Mole, El Taco Luchador, the upcoming Artesano Vino Tapas y Mas in Westport Village. He makes everything from breakfast tortas to gourmet burgers to handmade pasta. “We get bored of doing the same thing,” Martinez says. His team plans to open a second Mussel & Burger Bar in Whiskey Row. (“Because of the fire, I’m pretty sure it’s going to take a little bit longer to open, but not much longer. Hopefully winter 2016.”) A still-under-wraps “Southern-style” project will serve fried chicken.


    Martinez isn’t afraid of off-the-beaten-path locations. Mussel & Burger Bar, with the Italian Cena in the basement, is in an easy-to-miss J-town strip mall. Guaca Mole is in a former Applebee’s in Lyndon. “I’m a big believer in: You build it, and they will come,” he says. “Louisville’s not a big city, and if you have good product, good service, people will drive for it.”


     Martinez splits his time between the restaurants, and he says the hardest part of his hectic schedule is learning not to be a perfectionist. “But I think that’s what drives me. That’s part of being successful — being a perfectionist but also learning your limits,” he says. When he cooks for his family (he and his wife have two children), he prefers to keep it simple — roast chicken with black beans and rice for a weekly Sunday meal. “I am always thinking about food. It’s my passion; it’s what I do,” he says. “I go to sleep thinking about food; I wake up thinking about restaurant concepts.


    “Now that they’re allowing people to own their own places (in Cuba), we’re looking into maybe doing something over there with my cousin,” Martinez says. “He has a house over there that we might turn into a restaurant.”

    This article is courtesy of the August issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here.

    Photo by Mickie Winters

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    About Elizabeth Myers

    Big fan of bacon and bourbon, deep fried anything, sweet tea and sweet nothings.

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