Fine dining is like a Broadway play, Executive Chef Fred Mero believes. Before the curtain rises, or the first seating in this case, the ‘back of the house’ is buzzing. Not rehearsing lines, but busily chopping, slicing, stirring – preparing for the night’s performance of plating a delectably memorable meal for each guest. “Just like a Broadway show, you’ve got to do your absolute best and kill it every night. And then the next day do it even better,” says Mero. While diners don’t customarily applaud this kind of performance, Mero’s stylish blend of classical techniques and legendary creativity could inspire a raucous, ‘Bravo!’
The Broadway comparison comes naturally to this gourmet chef. He’s spent the past three decades building his remarkable restaurant resume in top establishments in and around New York City’s theater district. Now he sets the stage for greatness at the Costa Brava restaurant, the culinary heart of the circa 1888 Casa Monica Resort & Spa.
Well-known in big city circles for his “enlightened menus and fresh perspectives,” Chef Fred was initially recruited by the Kessler Group, owners of the Casa Monica and eleven other iconic boutique hotels nationwide, for the position at “The Mansion” in Savannah. But during his tasting for executives, Chef Fred’s brilliant fish and seafood finesse inspired a change of venue. St. Augustine is where you belong, they agreed.
Remarkably, the relocation from New York City to St. Augustine was culture-shock free for this Ecuadorian-born chef and his wife.
“When they sent me here, I just fell in love with it. It felt familiar. My wife is from Colombia, and it reminds us of Cartagena. With all the history, the seaside, it reminds me of Europe, too,” says Chef Fred.
It’s All About the Menu
Kimberly Wilson, Casa Monica’s General Manager, says they feel very fortunate having Chef Fred lead the food and beverage operations, including catering and special events. “The menu is a true testament to his knowledge of worldly flavors and passion for locally-sourced ingredients,” she says. About that menu, Chef Fred has so many things he wants to do here – risottos, paellas, ceviche and fish, fish, fish. “Here we have such great seafood, shrimp and fish. I love combining fish with fruit, like salmon with a passion fruit or cherries, peaches. It’s all about getting the best, freshest ingredients and focusing on the classics.” But don’t expect the menu to always remain the same. “All things should be kept seasonal. Strawberries are best in spring, so that’s when I’ll use them. Truffles are November and December, not year-round. Don’t mess with Mother Nature. She knows what she’s doing.” The same could be said for Chef Fred.
Chef Fred was born in the coastal town of Guayaquil, Ecuador. In 1970, when he was four, his entire family immigrated to New York. “Naturally, we brought all our traditional South American cooking techniques with us. It gave my upbringing a different perspective. My mother was an excellent cook and made everything from scratch always. My breakfast was ceviche. My box lunch for school was soup or octopus,” he says.
The transition from “just a kid who loves food” to chef-dreams happened in college. He was playing soccer on scholarship at St. Johns University in New York when an injury halted his free ride. To get by, he washed dishes at a restaurant, then worked his way up through every job in the kitchen.
“This was all way before the Food Network on TV. Back then you learned by doing, by watching real chefs,” he says. He loved it all, the team work, the fierce competitive edge, the pride in a job well-done. He then attended the Culinary Arts program at Brooklyn Technical College and New York Restaurant School. He apprenticed at the famous Creole restaurant, ‘Jezebel,’ and learned European techniques at Manhattan’s Harvard Club.
This began an almost 30 year career in NYC where he helped open Tropica and the Trustee’s Dining Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1994 he worked as the sous chef at the Four Seasons restaurant. He was “wildly successful” in helping transform their menus, resulting in glowing three-star reviews.
Chef Fred’s worked with many of the world’s top chefs – Wolfgang Puck, Alfred Portale, Fabio Picchi – just to name-drop a few. A big believer that “travel is knowledge,” Chef Fred hungrily sought new cooking techniques by working with chefs at the finest restaurants in Venice, Northern Italy, Switzerland, France, England and beyond. While executive chef at the Loeb Boathouse Central Park, the NY Magazine food critic described Chef Fred’s octopus carpaccio salad as the “best dish of its kind ever experienced.” That bears repeating: Best. Ever.
But his way with eight-legged creatures was just part of his “surprising and adventurous” flavor creations. He has a knack for reawakening ho-hum menus into dishes that delight even the most sophisticated diners.
Now He’s Here
Now his biggest focus is on challenging, motivating and building his culinary team. With crazy-long, intense shifts, it takes a certain mindset – and stamina – to make it. “It takes commitment. In NYC, teams stay with a chef for 10-15 years. They stay because they like the way things are done and what they’re learning. I’m working on taking us all to the next level,” he says.
“And the Casa Monica is such a gorgeous destination place. I want the whole experience to be a combination of the highest hospitality. I want to make the Costa Brava the best of the best.” He loves that “best of the best” description. He lives it, too.
“Even at home, I get excited to get up and make the best [of the best] pancakes I’ve ever made. It’s just part of me.”
Photos by Rob Futrell