Life in the Kitchen: Puente chef/owner Luis Vasquez
By Natalie K. Pollock
“Puente” in Spanish means bridge. Luis and Kerry Vasquez picked the name for their new American-Latino pub on the corner of South Main Street and New Britain Avenue in Unionville because it is adjacent to the town’s historic bridge. But more than that, the name reflects the couple’s commitment to connecting with the greater community.
The new tenants of the space bought the former Taprock business and opened Puente on June 14, after a few cosmetic touches of their own, like hanging Kerry Vasquez’s painting of a red Flamboyan tree to welcome guests at the entrance. She used her artistic eye to select fabric for reupholstering chairs, new paint colors and other small decorating projects. They both did all the work themselves in just three weeks. Although the exterior of the building looks much the same, the interior sparkles with a large circular bar and lighting that draws the eye, and the new concept offers comfortable seating options.
The couple recently moved to Canton with their two sons, ages 10 and 12, where her father and stepmother have been living. Kerry always loved the neighborhood and wanted to raise her children there. Now the commute to their business is very short.
Kerry splits her days between the restaurant, where she focuses on keeping the operation running smoothly and creating new cocktail concoctions. She has experience working the front of restaurant as a server and bartender. The other half of her day is devoted to their children and two dogs. She has also written and illustrated a children’s book which she looks forward to getting published.
Both husband and wife have each worked in the restaurant business for many years. But soon after they got together, they began sharing the dream of owning their own restaurant someday.
Luis began learning about cooking at age eight at the side of his two grandmothers, one Spanish and one Puerto Rican. Over time he learned that Puerto Rican cuisine has regional differences and there is a European influence in Spanish methods, but there is also a lot of crossover between the two. Puente’s menu reflects those lessons. And Kerry has integrated the menu with New England tastes, like the burgers and mac and cheese.
When Luis announced to his father that he wanted to work as a chef, he faced some resistance. So he enlisted in the Navy, where he served on active duty for seven years. He was last stationed in Puerto Rico at the Roosevelt Rose Base and attended culinary school at night. He soon began working in kitchens around the island and then as the sous chef at the Puerto Del Ray Marina.
When he inquired at the culinary institute if there were any other positions available, he was sent to work at the Governor’s Residence in the city of San Juan, where he began as a cook and then rose to sous chef. He took a year off and took a job at Scoozi Trattoria & Wine Bar in New Haven, where he and Kerry met. They realized they both shared a passion and creativity for food and moved back to Puerto Rico together.
Their first son was born there when Luis returned to serve as the executive chef at the Governor’s residence, cooking for the family for four years in their three homes on the island. He earned a reputation for imbuing his dishes with creative new twists.
When they returned to Connecticut, Luis was presented with an opportunity to serve as the executive chef for Michael Jordan’s high-end Mexican restaurant Sol Toro at the Mohegan Sun Casino. Meanwhile Kerry worked as a server at Apricot’s restaurant in Farmington until its closure.
The Vasquez’s two boys spend time with them at Puente. The younger one in particular enjoys being involved.
Puente’s menu reflects the range of the chef’s talents and interests in cooking, and the owners believe diners will be curious enough to come in and sample both the American and Latino options.
Q. Luis, how long have you working in the industry?
A. I have worked in the industry for 23 years.
Q. What is your most popular dish at Puente?
A. The Papi Chulo Plate is the most popular. I am trying to replicate the “paisa” plate from Columbia, with sirloin steak, grilled sausage, pork rinds, rice and beans, plantains, fried egg, and a pico de gallo garnish. It is a large plate of food.
Q. What is your personal favorite dish that the restaurant offers?
A. Lucy’s Plate Licking Chicken and Sausage Rice. Lucy was my mother. It’s made with sofrito, tomatoes, achiote, chicken thighs and Italian sausage.
Q. What do your sons like to eat at the restaurant?
A. I am trying to have fun with food. I make them my grandmother’s chicken pot pie croquets with smoked ham and leeks because that’s their favorite.
Q. What is your secret ingredient?
A. My heart. Some chefs think they know everything, but no one does. It feels good to be in a kitchen where I can cook with my heart and not have to follow a standardized recipe. Cooking has been good to me, but it can be hard. Now I cook what I love to cook. I can do a great barbecue and good fish.
Q. What is the one cooking technique that everyone should know?
A. Everyone should know how to make rice. People also don’t know about butchering, like grinding meat for example. I worked with the butcher at Kane’s Market for a while.
Q. If you could take any celebrity chef out to dinner, who would it be and where would you take them?
A. I would invite Jose Andres (World Central Kitchen). He had a restaurant in San Juan called Mi Casita Miramar, so Puerto Rico is personal for him.
Q. Do you have a favorite cookbook or online series?
A. I like Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Store,” and “Taco Chronicles,” a series on Netflix.
Q. What herb or spice best describes your personality?
A. (Kerry Vasquez replied for her husband) Saffron. You just need a pinch. (Luis added) A little bit lasts a long time.
Q. What do you like to cook at home for guests?
A. Paella. People overthink it. You just need a pan, short grain rice, pimenton, saffron, good stock, and a good source of heat. We are planning to offer Paella on the Patio sometime in the fall with sangria. I want to keep a connection with people. You can’t fake it in a restaurant. You have to execute so people keep coming back. VL
Puente American-Latino Pub is located at 81 South Main Street in Unionville. For reservations call 860-404-2074.