Tastemaking: The Best Chef You've Never Heard Of

Among Boston’s pool of marquee chefs, a familiar backstory emerges: the high school job at a diner, the I-was-born-to-do-this moment, the formal training, the midlevel job with Famous Chef X. And then there are cooks who quietly operate behind the scenes, working their way up from prep to sauté station. You’ll rarely hear about them—usually, it’s because they’re too busy getting food out the door.

Even if they’ve never grabbed the limelight, guys like sous chefs Marcos Sanchez of Dante and Reynaldo Herrara of Stella have earned the respect of their peers. But the cream of the crop might well be Simon Restrepo, chef de cuisine at Scampo. His work is as praiseworthy as any celeb chef’s, but his story is even better: As a 16-year-old Colombian immigrant, Restrepo landed a dishwashing job at Lydia Shire’s Biba in 1985 and made his way up from bread dough to salads to the grill. Today, he’s a star player in Shire’s empire. "Simon is as fine a chef as you’ll find," she gushes. "I can’t tell you how great he is."

With Shire’s blessing, Restrepo hopes to open his own place in the next year with help from his seven brothers, who all work in Boston’s restaurant business. Something Spanish in style that will let him use the flavors he loves: cumin and cilantro, sazón and chicharrones. But that means having to step into the spotlight—no easy task. "I’m really shy," Restrepo says. "I’m happy to pose for a picture, but…." He shrugs, then adds, "Most everything I know comes from Lydia." (Indeed, when he was first learning English, she drew pictures of the menu and paired him with other Colombian cooks to translate. "If you learn Lydia’s way to cook, it has to be fast and perfect," he says. "It was hard. I quit three times."

Now, he’s charged with training the next generation. "Simon is creating his own thing," says 51 Lincoln’s Jeff Fournier, who worked with Restrepo at Excelsior during Shire’s reign. "He has great technique, a great work ethic, and he understands how to put out a lot of good food fast. A lot of stories about chefs focus on the creative aspect, but these guys are banging it out every day."