Once a traveling man, Puerto Rican chef puts down roots in Atlanta

Corporate ladder in hotel hospitality leads chef to restaurant ownership in Alpharetta.
Julio Delgado opened Fogón and Lions in Alpharetta in May. (RYAN FLEISHER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Julio Delgado opened Fogón and Lions in Alpharetta in May. (RYAN FLEISHER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

If a single plate of food could represent a life’s journey, then the wood-fired grilled skirt steak with chimichurri, roasted potatoes and roasted piquillo peppers from Fogón and Lions in Alpharetta is chef Julio Delgado’s story told in gastronomic terms.

That papaya-marinated, flame-licked steak carries elements of a childhood in Ponce, Puerto Rico, with his grandfather’s butcher shop an integral part of family life. The chimichurri recipe was created by Oscar Natale, the chef-owner of an Argentinian steakhouse where Delgado worked during high school, starting as a dishwasher. The polished presentation is a reminder of a culinary career shaped by formal French training — including chef mentor Augusto Schreiner of Augusto’s Cuisine in San Juan — and years working at high-end hotel kitchens.

“When you are a chef, you pick up the best of everyone,” said Delgado, 48, sitting at one of the wood tables inside Fogón and Lions where a banner printed with a sepia photo of his butcher grandfather hangs above the receptionist stand behind him.

The scene surrounding his grandfather’s butcher shop was where Delgado wanted to begin his own story. That store sat in the Plaza de Mercado in the center of Ponce. It was the place where his grandmother would take him and his six siblings to shop for produce, buy lottery tickets and always, always get a slice of pizza from a spot called Chedi.

The family didn’t have the money to pay for college, so when Delgado graduated from high school, his mother suggested that he and his brother, Rodney Roybal, take culinary classes during the summer while working at a restaurant to earn enough for college tuition.

By summer’s end, Delgado was hooked. “I said, ‘Mom, you know what? I don’t see myself going to university. I want to finish the program,’” Delgado recounted. “We drove from Ponce to culinary school in San Juan every day for a year.”

Both brothers became professional chefs, gaining experience with veteran chefs and in aspirational kitchens. Roybal continues to work on the island. Delgado chose a different path.

The wood-fired grilled skirt steak with chimichurri, roasted potatoes and roasted piquillo peppers at Fogón and Lions is an homage to chef-owner Julio Delgado's heritage and culinary formation. (RYAN FLEISHER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSITUTION)

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

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Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Ticket off the island

Around 2000, Delgado, who had joined the Ritz-Carlton San Juan two years earlier as sous chef, was ready for a change.

“Puerto Rico has its limitations. I wanted to see more. I wanted to leave the island, see what I could do.”

And there was his family to consider. His 14-hour days amounted to an annual salary of $21,000. Although his wife, Zoribeth, had a job in banking, they were also caring for their infant daughter, Juliebeth. “We were hardly making it. I wanted to improve my career, but also our quality of life,” he said.

In a roundabout way, 9/11 is what ultimately became Delgado’s ticket off the island. After submitting multiple applications to transfer to a different Ritz property, he finally got a chance. “They told me the best we can do for you is to send you to New York for a little bit to open the Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park,” he recalled.

Two months after the 9/11 attacks, he stepped off the plane and onto the streets of New York, his sweater offering little protection from 9-degree weather.

He remembers the three-month stint as intense and exciting. “It was the first big scene happening since 9/11. We were bringing life to lower Manhattan,” he recalled.

Then Delgado received disappointing news. There would be no job to return to in Puerto Rico after the New York property launched. The terrorist attacks had brought tourism in Puerto Rico to a halt.

Chef Julio Delgado with his family, from left, wife Zoribeth and daughters Juliebeth, 27, and Nathalie, 18. (RYAN FLEISHER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSITUTION)

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

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Credit: Ryan Fleisher

‘We’re moving’

Despite a dried-up tourist scene in the Isla del Encanto, there were other opportunities within the Ritz network. Delgado was offered the chance to helm the kitchen at the opening of Reynolds Plantation (since rebranded to Reynolds Lake Oconee) near Greensboro.

“If a corporate chef asks you, you have to say yes or they will never ask you again,” Delgado said. “I called my wife and said, ‘Pack a box. We’re moving to Georgia.’”

Even though he knew the resort’s setting was more removed than Zoribeth would want, he painted a rosy picture over the phone. “When I hung up, I said, ‘I’m so screwed. My wife is going to divorce me.’”

The Delgados are still together after more than 25 years, but his stint at Reynolds Lake Oconee only lasted 18 months. “My wife was going crazy,” he said.

Lake Oconee turned into Orlando. Orlando turned into Atlanta — first at the Ritz in Buckhead, then downtown. Atlanta would have turned into Braselton had daughter Juliebeth not spoken up. She was entering her senior year of high school. Moving to North Georgia so that her dad could be executive chef at Chateau Elan would mean changing schools. Could he at least wait until she graduated?

“When my daughter asked not to move, I realized that I was always thinking career, career, career. It hit me: I need to be family first.”

Instead of packing boxes, he left the Ritz after a 15-year tenure to helm the kitchen at JP Atlanta, the short-lived fine dining restaurant in architect John C. Portman Jr.’s development at 223 Peachtree downtown. The project was wrought with frustration. “I heard how visionary he is. That he wanted to recreate the Midnight Sun restaurant of Atlanta of the 1960s,” Delgado said. “My job was to project that vision. We failed miserably.”

Little by little, staff was laid off. Eventually, Delgado got a pink slip, too.

Next up: executive chef at New Realm Brewing. As he handled the immense volume at the highly trafficked establishment on the Eastside Beltline, he began to dream of opening a restaurant of his own.

A reprint of Julio Delgado's butcher grandfather hangs above the host stand at Fogón and Lions. His grandfather's shop in Ponce, Puerto Rico was an integral part of family life in Ponce, Puerto Rico. (RYAN FLEISHER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

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Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Putting down roots

“I think that 99% of the people who work in hotels want to have their own restaurants because of all the things you have to deal with when you work in a big corporation,” said Delgado.

He’d clocked seven days a week. He’d done 5 a.m. lineups and 11 p.m. recaps. He’d sat through nearly five hours of tea service training. He’d even been the executive chef of a hotel only to learn that he didn’t have the stomach for it. “As the executive chef of a restaurant, you have more control. As the executive chef of a hotel, too much is out of your control,” he said.

While having a restaurant of his own would still mean dealing with many of the same issues as when someone else wrote him a paycheck, he could finish out his career on his own terms. And there would be something tangible to pass down to his daughters. “The day that I pass away, they probably sell it and not have to deal with it, but I want to leave something behind for them.”

When his family relocated to Atlanta in 2008, they chose to live in Alpharetta. It was growing. Why not be part of that? “I gotta find a little corner so I can do my little restaurant,” he told himself.

He found that little corner at Roswell Street and Milton Avenue. Formerly a deli, he would turn it into a pizzeria, making the dough from a sourdough starter he’d been feeding for years and cooking the pies in wood-fired ovens.

That decision raised a few eyebrows and earned him the nickname Puerto Rican Stallion. “A lot of my friends said, ‘What are you doing? You have never worked in a pizzeria before. You’re not Italian.’”

The classically trained chef’s rebuttal: “Refined food or fine dining food doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be well-prepared.”

Chef Anthony Infante (left) works alongside Minnie Olivia Pizzeria owner Julio Delgado. When the pandemic forced restaurants to close their dining rooms in March 2020, Infante agreed to stay and help Delgado weather the crisis. (RYAN FLEISHER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

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Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Delgado considered calling the restaurant Chedi, after the beloved pizzeria of his youth. After reading the historical marker in front of the space and learning that it was once a hotel, he named it in honor of the hotel owners’ daughter, Minnie Olivia, as a tangible connection between the city’s past and present.

Minnie Olivia opened in November 2019. Four months later, the pandemic hit. “It was scary. I thought I could lose everything,” he remembered. His right-hand chef, Anthony Infante, who had worked with him for years at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta, agreed to stick with him. The day they set up a takeout window, they sold 350 pizzas in four hours. “At that moment, I couldn’t be happier that I opened this concept.”

When the opportunity arose to transform a former salon next door into a restaurant, Delgado was all in. Throughout his career, Delgado had prepared food and developed menus that were other chefs’ visions. “This is the first time I am doing something that is me,” he said of the fare at Fogón and Lions.

After nearly 30 years as a chef in various cities in the U.S., including his native Puerto Rico, Julio Delgado has found satisfaction running his own restaurants in Alpharetta. (RYAN FLEISHER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

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Credit: Ryan Fleisher

From the churrasco-style steak to the bright, fresh ceviches to the savory beef empanadas made from a family recipe — the dishes at Fogón and Lions are about Delgado’s roots. But the 6-month-old restaurant is also about planting new roots.

Delgado’s younger daughter, Nathalie, 18, works part-time at Minnie Olivia as she completes her final year at Chattahoochee High School. Zoribeth handles the books for both restaurants and helps manage the pizzeria on weekends.

Alpharetta is home now. Delgado has no desire to climb the corporate culinary ladder or pack a box for the next chef gig. He is content to be like Oscar Natale, owner of the Argentinian steakhouse he admired as a 15-year-old dishwasher.

“You see the beauty of what it is to run a restaurant from the owner’s standpoint. Everybody knows Oscar. It was great to see this gentleman and how he interacted in this humble place, and he was making a living this way.”

And the best part is, “I don’t have to go anywhere,” Delgado said.

Fogón and Lions. 10 Roswell St. Suite 100, Alpharetta; 770-676-9133, Fogónandlions.com.

Minnie Olivia Pizzeria. 10 Roswell St., Suite 120, Alpharetta; 678-691-0051, minnieolivia.com.

Find more stories about metro Atlanta culinarians at ajc.com/culinary-journeys.