Norberto’s journey into the world of culinary arts began quite humbly and naturally in his family home in Columbia. He says, “My mom always cooked when I was growing up. We had a big backyard where my dad grew everything. He grew our own yucca, potatoes, corn, and citrus. When we cooked, it was just a matter of pulling food from the earth, plucking it from a tree, cleaning it, and then cooking it.” Norberto’s mother and father made sure that he and his siblings not only witnessed their ability to transform home-grown produce into highly desirable dishes but that they learned how to do it themselves.
Norberto recalls an unforgettable and funny memory of his childhood when he shares, “When I was five, I actually made dinner for the whole family, but I forgot to use salt. However, my dad was very proud of me. He made everybody eat everything that I had cooked. Cooking was something that my parents taught and encouraged. They believed that if you knew how to cook, you would never starve.”
At the age of sixteen, Norberto Jaramillo moved to the United States where he joined his brothers in New Jersey. Here the future chef’s fledgling career began to take flight. He worked in various hospitality jobs, serving in banquets, weddings, and hotels. In 2005, Norberto brought his warm personality and hospitality experience to St. Augustine where he was hired by the previous owner of La Cocina International Restaurant. “At that time, I served, cooked, and did whatever else needed to be done,” says Norberto, “I never really wanted to be a chef, because all of my brothers are in the industry. They’re all executive chefs. I always ran the front of the house, because I didn’t want to deal with the kitchen.”
However, destiny had different plans. In 2012, Norberto was presented with the opportunity to buy the restaurant from the previous owner and jumped at the chance, “But when I took over I realized, ‘Whoa! I don’t know how to cook! Well, let’s give it a shot, and see where it goes.’ I always enjoyed cooking, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do. But, I must say that I fell in love with cooking when I bought the restaurant!”
Norberto nurtured his natural talent for cooking by spending long days at the restaurant, practicing new techniques, and by blending lessons learned in his parents’ kitchen with a few modern twists. The chef’s undeniable skill and cultivated culinary knowledge are ever so clear with every incredible meal that he now prepares. With each dish, the chef’s artistic heart and mind are on display. His impeccable presentations of edible art rival the most stunning magazine ads.
This level of skill and dedication requires a lot of time and patience. While diners receive a wonderful experience, Norberto sacrifices a lot of time away from his family. However, he is encouraged and fortunate to have a very understanding and caring wife and children. “I put in sixty-five to seventy hours a week at work. Sometimes a lot more, but I enjoy it!” says Norberto, “Sometimes I get home and my wife asks me, ‘How are you?’ And I say, ‘Happily tired.’ And my wife laughs. I can be tired, but I’m happy with it. I’m completely fulfilled.”
Norberto believes there are some specific keys that have led to his becoming a successful chef and a great person. “You have to be passionate about cooking,” he says, “You have to enjoy it, love it! If you’re not passionate about it, you’re going to burn yourself out. There’s a big difference between people who love to cook and those who just wind up cooking because they have to. Both can be really good at it, but one really doesn’t have the heart for cooking. In this field, you have to really love it. You have to be able to serve a hundred people, get a complaint, and still go home happy, because you did the best you could do.” Doing what he loves and being happy with his life is what brings the best out of Norberto Jaramillo. It is what pushes him to create and reinvent the food of his childhood and to constantly improve his craft. This pursuit of knowledge and self-expression saturates the chef’s amazing cuisine.
When asked where he sees himself in ten years, Norberto says, “Probably not cooking as much. I have projects in mind and plans to open other places within two to three years. I love the restaurant world! I just enjoy it. I think it’s in me. So I definitely think in ten years I see myself with two or three restaurants. But I’ll be more in the management and creative side of things.
And they will definitely be here in St. Augustine. I just love St. Augustine! I can retire here. My only regret is that when I moved here eleven years ago that I didn’t do it sooner. I love this town!”
Norberto Jaramillo has found his place in a career that he seemed destined for since his youth. Norberto thrives in a world where his tasty creations and his eye for beauty are appreciated by epicureans from all walks of life. This journey, which through many exhaustive hours of work delivers a perfect dining experience to each guest, brings Norberto comfort. With a big smile on his face, he comments, “As long as I’m happy, that’s all I need. A family with kids enjoying what I do, that’s what makes me happy.”
La Cocina is located at 530 A1A Beach Boulevard. Visit them online at www.lacocinarestaurants.com.
Images by Brian Miller