For Chef Erick Medrano, cooking has always been more than a career choice. It’s been an expression of love and gratitude, instilled in him since he was a young boy. Raised in Guatemala, Erick grew up watching his mother and grandmother cook in a wood fire arcilla (clay oven), filling the house with the sweet smell of fresh baked bread and unique family recipes. It would be those memories that would fuel his childhood dream of one day becoming a chef.
Like countless others, Erick would venture to the U.S. with the hopes of a brighter future for himself and his family. Landing in Massachusetts, he would unwittingly a take a fateful stroll down a local street, taking notice of a spot called 224 Boston. He didn’t know what he was seeing; a tiring, former trail blazer restaurant that had welcomed everyone from all backgrounds and served groundbreaking, quality dishes in Dorchester for the first time, (some of which were engineered during Barbara Lynch’s first head chef job in Boston). He was 15 at the time, and vividly recalls that fond first memory of the city. “I asked my cousin if the place was a restaurant, complimenting the space, with no inkling that I would one day, at the age of 27, be the executive chef in that very same location”.
Erick’s path would be an unorthodox one, and humble, landing his first job in America as a dishwasher for Southie’s well known Amrhein’s. With an unwavering ferocity to learn how to cook, Erick offered to barter his time with the chef for informal training, working free shifts for weeks as he developed his skills. He was quickly moved to a paid cooking position running the fry and appetizer stations. It would be a monumental step in his future career.
Yet in his pursuit for growth, Erick knew he’d need to take risks and broaden his experiences, ultimately cooking at some of Boston’s top restaurants including, Franklin Café, Citizens, Sam’s, Trade, Sorriso, Les Zygomates, Lincoln Tavern, Eastern Standard, Barcelona Wine Bar and several others, continuing to build his culinary understanding and learning new techniques. When sharing his impressive resume, it rings not of a brag, but rather as an exercise in gratitude, crediting his accomplishments to the generosity of others.
“I learned from people I consider the best chefs and entrepreneurs I’ve met in my life,” Erick says. He gives praise to mentors like Nick Dixon (Broadway Restaurant Group), Richard Ansara (Tresca), John Pen (Brewr’s Fork), Brian Revelt (Citizens), Jody Adams (Trade), Emilio Garcia (Bareclona) just to name a few, (his list of recognition is as extensive as his appreciation is genuine).
“Working in these great places with so many talented people taught me how important it is to have strong values in the workplace”, says Erick. Born of those adopted values and hard work was the opportunity not only to realize his childhood dream by becoming an executive chef, but a once in a lifetime shot for any chef looking to rise. As new restaurants opened in South Boston and Charlestown by the owner’s restaurant group, there was a vacancy in the chef position at 224 that lingered for several months causing collateral damage to an already declining restaurant in need of selling.
“In Spring of 2018 the decision was made to give Erick Medrano, (former sous chef from Lincoln), and Lanie Donlan, (a South Boston icon), the keys to a 30-year-old Institutional Boston restaurant to invigorate all that 224 had lost, and find new elements it hadn’t found before”, says owner Eric Aulenback.
The results were outstanding; a 40% increase in sales over a two-year period (before covid hit in Spring of 2020).
This success had not come without its challenges. “The place, according to Google and Yelp reviews was in a bad spot,” Erick says, “the consensus was that both the food and the condition of the premises itself had suffered a good ten years of neglect.” Winning the community back would take a team effort in collaboration with front of the house General Manager, Lanie Donlan, and Owner, Eric Aulenback.
Not only did Lanie attract new staff as well as new regulars from South Boston, but according to Aulenback, she created the home away from home atmosphere in an authentic fashion for South Boston and Dorchester residents and families in way that hadn’t been done before. Erick adds, “Lanie brings a critical value to 224 because she doesn’t let any issue detract from her vision and values concerning the restaurant. She’s actually one of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life”.
But none of this would have been possible without Aulenback, says Erick, “he invests in the building and in the people, providing us with the necessary tools and support to help 224 grow”. He refers to a much-needed facelift, including a three-step restoration / redesign of the bar room, restaurant, and outdoor dining area providing better décor, in addition to a brand new floors, ceilings and a full new kitchen.
“All of those changes were inspired by having the right chef in Erick Medrano and Lanie Donlan in FOH”, says Aulenback.
It would actually be Aulenback’s faith in Erick’s tenacity that would contribute to the survival of covid, by giving Erick creative culinary freedom after they had to painfully lay off almost all front of house and half of the kitchen. “Erick’s determination to keep operating during covid was remarkable, admirable, and required innovation and revamping of the entire menu to succeed on a strictly take-out /delivery level”.
Erick adapted quickly, often pivoting from one day to the next with limited staff. His focus became comfort foods, fresh homemade pizzas, DYI food projects, and other inventive items to help keep 224 afloat. To stay positive and maintain high standards with unpretentious ingredients, he would draw inspiration from the women in his life and the memories of family in the kitchen, proving that food does indeed taste better when it is cooked with love.
“Each time I cook, I do so in the spirit of my family,” says Erick. “Imagining this could be a dish I would serve my mother, or my daughters gives an exceptional sentimental value for what I am doing for a living. Personalizing it puts the passion behind the action to the benefit of the client, so that they receive a home felt experience.”
It’s no surprise that Erick’s connection to family that first inspired him is the same fire that continues to drive him. “My daughters and their mom are my engine to keep striving and working hard to be better every day in my career and in my life. They are my inspiration to innovate, to cook with quality, creativity, and integrity.”
With no formal culinary education, Erick’s accomplishments are a testament to promise of the American dream – that even those not born into opportunity can achieve success with a solid work ethic and determination – and he embraces that dream with daily gratitude. “Every day I wake up, I thank God for this life and for such a wonderful opportunity in this city, in this country”, and he leaves no individual unappreciated, adding, “God Bless the customers who have supported us in good times and bad.”
Tireless in his quest for self-improvement, Erick is now pursuing an MBA at Purdue Global University, while cherishing every moment as executive chef of 224, the place that would encapsulate all that Erick holds dear; the importance of family and a passion for cooking. The place with a magical element of home embedded in its very bones, that called to his 15-year-old self on day one of what would become a remarkable journey.