Not all chefs start out hungry for the job. Some, like the executive chef of Richmond Restaurant Group, Mike Ledesma, come from a part of the professional world that has little in common with cooking.
Ledesma is a former stockbroker — although you can’t tell by looking at him. He arrives for our interview in an apron, and he has the scarred hands of a chef. He’s the son of Filipino immigrants, and his departure from a successful field was puzzling to his parents.
He got his start in the financial world in the booming ’90s — and made a timely exit before the tech bubble burst. “It was too stressful,” he says of those days. “I had to get out.”
Ledesma left for Hawaii and surfed for a few months, figuring out his next move. He’d worked in restaurants when he was younger — that is, when he wasn’t crewing chartered sailboats on the Chesapeake Bay — and missed the hospitality business. It was time to do something completely different, he thought, and give culinary school a try. Big-name chefs were opening outposts of their restaurants in the resorts around Hawaii.
The business world he’d known eased him into his new career. “I traveled to China and the Philippines,” Ledesma says. “I took clients to the nicest of restaurants and developed my palate [in those days].”
After stints in Hawaiian restaurants, Ledesma ended up at the Greenbrier.
“I realized I needed the most experience in the shortest time — 10,000 hours cooking,” he says. “And learning the business.”
Ledesma’s goal was to open his own restaurant. That meant working under different chefs in different places and developing a book of recipes before settling in Baltimore.
Two children and one ended marriage later — his first wife married a stockbroker and ended up with a chef — Ledesma and his second wife moved to Richmond. “We needed to reboot our lives,” he says. “I was playing the long game.”
After arriving here, he opened Richmond Restaurant Group’s Hard Shell at Bellgrade. Ledesma also helped write the menu and open Max’s on Broad, and before long he was injecting new life into the lineup at Patina Grill, now Patina Restaurant and Bar. “I just wanted to cook and use local farms — developing specials from what was good,” he says.
Ledesma has come full circle: He’s back at Richmond Restaurant Group.
When asked about his day, the chef says: “I develop menus and I go where the chef needs help. I go to the four restaurants every day and evaluate the staff.”
He’s been pivotal in the re-branding and reinvention of East Coast Provisions and is planning for West Coast Provisions at the GreenGate development in Glen Allen. A keen business sense that keeps restaurants humming and a flair for salesmanship from his stockbroker years serves him well in Richmond, where the dining scene is red hot and becomes more competitive each day.
At the same time, Ledesma wants to keep things fresh, keep the creative synapses firing, and to that end, he’s teamed up with Kunal Shah of Kabana Rooftop for a series of monthly events called Passport Pop-Up.
“It’s really based on my evolution of experience [as a chef],” he says. The first will focus on traditional Filipino food — the kind he learned how to make from his grandmother.
“Every family [in the Philippines] has their own recipe for dishes,” he says. “These are my family’s, but there can be a million variations.”
Diners can expect eight courses of small plates served family style, with wine pairings. The location remains a secret until shortly before the dinner date, and future events will focus on Hawaiian cuisine, French, Spanish and the Southern fare of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s a busy chef’s idea of leisure.
“I had a lull in my schedule,” Ledesma says. “I thought a pop-up would be fun.”
The first Passport Pop-Up, Destination: Cavite, Philippines, is April 23 from 4-8 p.m. Tickets cost $100 or $180 per couple and include eight courses, plus cocktails and wine. passportpopup.com.