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Managing his own kitchen at Cozumel Grill, home of the many colored tortillas and the peerless margarita, Rob Kudel is like a puppy in its first snowfall: He can't get enough. During the summer he will work 70 to 80 hours a week, no problem. On his days off during slower periods, he'll happily fill in at friends' restaurants. He'd probably sleep in the pantry if he could.

"Somewhere along the line I fell in love with the kitchen, everything about it," says Kudel. "It inspires me to wake up every morning."

Twenty-three short years don't offer many opportunities for life-changing experiences, but Kudel began his journey earlier than most. A native of Brooklyn, he entered the University of Buffalo at 16, majoring in sociology and legal studies for no reason other than he had to major in something. Kudel found academics uninspiring. But not food.

"I'm a big fan of food in general," he says, grinning and patting his ample abdomen. "I've always had an interest in cooking, but I didn't see any future in it."

By his sophomore year he was working full time cooking and managing a snack bar on campus. Kudel finished his degree, but his goose was cooked. He was headed for a career in restaurants. Just when he realized this is unclear.

"It could have been one time when I was scrubbing potatoes in one of my jobs, doing one of my many menial tasks," he says. "For some strange reason this whole feeling -- It's my job! -- came over me and it changed my whole perspective. From then on, even when I'm doing the worst of the worst, I do my best and it makes me happy."

Kudel started at the Cozumel in July 1999, preparing the restaurant's signature enchiladas, quesadillas and evening specials. But working 80-hour weeks under someone else's direction didn't appeal to him, so when the weather cooled and business slowed, he left to take an 8-to-5 saute cook position at Zuzon. Then last May the owners of Cozumel offered him the kitchen manager's job, and they didn't have to ask twice.

"It was incredible!" says Kudel. "All of a sudden I had tons of responsibility. They had put in all new equipment, spent a lot of money. I do the ordering, the inventory, work with the owners developing the menu, prepare the specials. I try and absorb everything like a sponge. We did great business that summer. But last summer it was hard. Next summer we're going to do it again and make everything easy."

Kudel saw flaws and set out to correct them. He changed ingredients here and there, adjusted techniques that didn't work, enhanced the presentation, improved cooking times and quality of ingredients while keeping an eye on costs. "I'm modifying things and putting my own signature on the food," he says. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, just keep things interesting."

Cozumel is a simpatico spot for eating Southwestern. The entrees feature authentic chorizo, a variety of chilies, red beans, and in "Drunken Chicken," more than a touch of tequila. The requisite guacamole and chilies relenos are here, along with some deeply imaginative quesadillas. Take the Donnie Brasco -- fresh shrimp, basil pesto, roasted red pepper and smoked gouda cheese under wraps in a garlic herb tortilla -- delicious (but way too civilized to carry tough-guy FBI-mafia-infiltrator Joe Pistone's undercover name if you ask us). Also very successful are Kudel's vegetable fritters, served over red pepper coulis, and Cajun grilled rock shrimp, which aren't meant to be eaten shell-on, but they're good that way.

Kudel will continue to plot subtle changes in the staples and devise new offerings. But his motto is: Keep It Simple.

"I see a lot of people overdoing it," he says. "The basics are really important, like the proper use of salt and pepper. They enhance everything."

Kudel's dessert tortillas are a prime example of his philosophy of simplicity. He cuts a flour tortilla into wedges, deep-fries them briefly, and while they're still hot, dusts them with cinnamon and powdered sugar. They are devoured within moments.

Not surprisingly, Kudel would love to go to a prestigious cooking school. "If I won the lottery tomorrow I'd be there," he says

And like most people devoted to restaurants, he'd like to own his own some day, but not now. "I'm not done with this restaurant. I don't need a big money job. I have all the basic necessities (including his life's companion, Melissa Salvatore, whom he will marry this July). I couldn't be happier professionally about where I am.

"There's so much to learn, and every day brings a great learning experience."

Vegetables Fritters With Roasted Red Pepper Aioli Sauce


1 egg

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

2 tablespoons green onion or scallions, diced

1 cup assorted diced vegetables. Include green peppers, but anything will do

1 teaspoon baking soda

Mix all ingredients together until they become gooey and pasty. Use an ice cream scoop and drop mixture by spoonfuls in a deep fryer at 350 degrees. Cook for about 4 minutes. Season with salt after frying.

Roasted Red Pepper Aioli Sauce:

2 roasted red peppers

1 cup of mayonnaise

1/4 bunch of cilantro

juice of 1 lemon

Put all ingredients in a blender. Blend. Dip vegetable fritters in sauce or pour sauce around fritters to make it look pretty.

-- Rob Kudel

Cozumel Grill

CUISINE: Southwestern.

ATMOSPHERE: Funky and warm.

SIZE: Forty in winter; twice that in patio weather.

ENDURING FAVORITES: Drunken Chicken, pollo frito, balsamic strip steak, cheese nachos with tri-color chips.

PRICE: Appetizers from $4; quesadillas, enchiladas, fajitas, etc., $6 to $10; entrees and pastas from $11.

LOCATION: 153 Elmwood Ave.

PHONE: 884-3866.

Lois Baker's March Gourmet story will feature Paula Danilowicz and Robert Curreri of Fiddle Heads

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