Jimmy Valdez and Vicky Alt
We Learn By Fire
So, how do we even begin telling our journey … There have been so many twists and turns in our growth that it is hard to tell our story without being a very long book. But we’ll try.
Vicky is from Binghamton and left to Washington DC to grow, see more things, and get into the culinary world. I am originally from El Salvador, so you might be wondering how our paths crossed, how our culinary dream grew, and how it led us to Broome.
I came to America in 2005 to Los Angeles, where I lived with my half-sister. Soon after, I moved to Texas and was doing some construction work with my friends. I was always really hungry when I got home from work and not to mention exhausted. But I didn’t have the luxury to order take out or grab something. So, I told myself, I’m just going to have to learn how to cook. And that is when it all started for me.
Having no idea how to even begin, I called my mother in El Salvador and asked her to teach me, so I learned to cook over FaceTime. After these “cooking lessons,” I finally got the confirmation I was looking for, when my mother said “Your food looks so good. Someday I’m going to really enjoy eating it”. So, this zeal for cooking started brewing, and in 2007 I made my next move to Washington DC. Having no experience in restaurants, except in a bakery back home, I created a pitch to get me in through the doors of an Italian restaurant, “I can make dough, just give me a chance.” I eventually got my first job as a cook, and started my career making pizza.
After my first year in that small Italian restaurant making no money, I asked for a raise. Their response, “No English, no money.” That really set a fire in me. In the next month, I strived to learn every cooking station and ingredient, in order to grow. In my endeavor to learn English, I ended up becoming a more well-rounded line cook, which opened many more doors for me. From that experience, I got to work under great Italian restaurant chefs as a pasta and pizza maker until my big break in 2011, both professionally and personally.
Mike Isabella, one of the most well-known contestants on the show Top Chef, hot on the heels of his new-found fame, was opening his first Italian restaurant called Graffiato. Vicky had already been working with Mike and in fact, she had also been working alongside other Top Chef contestants for a while. So, she got to see what it takes to open up a restaurant, what to do, what to think about, and what problems may arise. With all the buzz, the restaurant was packed and they had run out of pizza in mid service a few times. That is where I came in. My friend recommended me to be the night chef in the dough station given my experience, speed, and hard work. So, when I met with Mike, all I said was “give me a chance,” and he did. I was officially running with the best of the best.
Thanks to our chemistry in the kitchen, my friendship with Vicky would eventually grow into a relationship. We never fought, we had a lot of synergy. And that is what we still love to do, work together, be together, create together. So, after many years working in top Italian and Mediterranean eateries in DC, where both of us grew from line cooks, to sous chefs, and eventually to head chefs, we wanted to live a peaceful life and raise a family, while continuing to pursue our culinary journey.
So, we figured, why not take this knowledge, experience, and vision to Broome and open our own restaurant, Citrea.
While still living in DC, we mapped out our restaurant with a laser focus approach. Vicky’s experience in opening two restaurants really came into play. We worked with the City of Binghamton in finding places, we designed our menu, we created our logo, we got our suppliers lined up, so by the time we moved to Binghamton in August 2014, we were ready to just get busy in the construction. Our doors opened March 4, 2015.
Since then, we have enjoyed sharing our Mediterranean Cuisine including woodfire oven pizzas, small plates creations, and delicious Saturday and Sunday brunches on the waterfront with the people of Broome. We wanted to offer something that was a little different than the usual, while still staying familiar to what the area likes. It has been fun, challenging, and like our typical path, a learning experience.
We joke that we are “jacks of all trades, and masters of none”. We do everything from cooking, running the place, fixing machines, you name it. We’ve learned how to do it all to run a successful restaurant. It is hard work, but it is also a dream come true to see how far we have come.
And if you were wondering if my mother ever tried my food, unfortunately no. She passed away in El Salvador a month after we arrived in Broome to start our new venture. But I’m sure she would be proud to see how those hours teaching me how to cook over the phone, have grown into a deep seeded passion for sharing my love of food everywhere I go.