Photography by Tina Sargeant

For chef Marcos Fernandez, it’s about change, adaptation, love, and culture

Marcos Fernandez’s life has been on a steady path: first as a student, then a culinary caterer, and now as executive chef (with a quick stint along the way as a Telemundo news anchor) to bring Latin flavors to the masses. The masses of Lakeland, that is. The former executive chef at Lakeland Yacht and Country Club, Fernandez has been instilling the flavors of the city with his Latin roots and Miami influences long before his first restaurant, Nineteen61, launched a year ago. Today, Nineteen61’s modern Latin cuisine has arrived at an established mode, continuing to awaken taste buds with local, fresh flavors.

The Lakelander: What was the inspiration for naming your restaurant Nineteen61?

Chef Marcos Fernandez: The seed was planted in my early culinary school days when I had gotten hired to run a very small kitchen that had not been used for many months. I was excited but very nervous. I sought the council of my mentor. I asked him a very simple question, “Chef, what should I cook at the restaurant?” His response began my journey, “Stick to what you know and let it grow.”

I spent the next 10 years working at Italian restaurants and French ones, too. I butchered a bit and catered for extra cash. I then got my first executive job at a country club in Jax and that helped me further develop that void I had had for many years, which is the identity of a chef. I was free to cook, but I had to do it without labeling myself as a “Cuban chef.” I dabbled in more Cuban nights, Asian nights, Peruvian Nights, BBQ nights, etc., always sneaking in the Latin flare and pushing the envelope further. Every club I worked at I showcased it differently, taking notes and writing recipes. I traveled to Peru, worked for free at various restaurants, and took classes there too just to learn the culture, the secrets, and the flavors I was in love with. While I was there, I would prepare Cuban food for my wife’s family and for the chefs and cooks at those places.

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Nineteen61 accomplished exactly what I wanted it to. It tells a story without describing one culture; it expresses what we have become. In 1961, my family fled Cuba to escape the perils of Castro. In 2005, my wife left her family to start her own, 2,500 miles away. Both had to Ieave their comforts, friends, material possessions, and the lives they were built on. They had to adapt to the U.S. in culture, foods, differences in resources, etc. So, with all that said, I spent four years in Lakeland, cooking all over town, expressing my love for Latin food and its flavors.

We used local farms one time; other times people asked me for a more Latin flare. As I prepared food and struggled to keep my Cuban heritage at bay, I started inserting flair into it. That showed me how abundant Lakeland was and how there were so many gems right in our backyard.

So, the name became a symbol or question for many who come to the restaurant and ask what it means. It means change, adaptation, love and culture.

“I wanted to bring food to Lakeland that wasn’t here yet and serve it in the most upscale manner possible for my great city and beat the odds.”

— Chef Marcos

TL: How does that inspiration directly impact your menu?

Chef Marcos: Our menu has to be Latin inspired. We can create French food so long as its interpretation is Latin. Like our Foie Gras De Torchon with Green Papaya Jam and Shortbread. We smoke our chicken (a Lakeland staple), but we finish it with cumin and herbs that give it the natural Latin notes.

TL: With your wide-range of experience, why was a modern Latin menu essential for you?

Chef Marcos: When I was trying to find my identity as a chef, I knew it was Latin food. I fell in love with Peruvian food way before I was thinking of becoming a chef. Then I took what I knew best and tried to understand it — Cuban food. I met my wife, and the door to Peru was opened. As I spent time in Peru cooking Cuban food for my wife’s family, I also spent time in Peruvian kitchens cooking to understand their flavors.

TL: Food Revolution has been a major theme throughout the launch of Nineteen61. How do you incorporate this concept into each dish?

Chef Marcos: The Food Revolution is synonymous to the Cuban revolution but in a more positive manner. The idea was to take my experiences as a chef and my family recipes, and all the collaborations of my past chefs and present, and revolutionize the Latin food scene. I wanted to bring food to Lakeland that wasn’t here yet and serve it in the most upscale manner possible for my great city and beat the odds. The idea that Lakelanders drove 45 minutes to Tampa for food was outrageous. So I wrote a business plan that would support our local farms, give you properly raised proteins (mostly), and help make Lakeland a food destination.

“Take a traditional recipe and make it a new one with the same solid bones using modern techniques and time-tested ones, too. The menu reflects this in every dish.”

— Chef Marcos

Take a traditional recipe and make it a new one with the same solid bones using modern techniques and time-tested ones, too. The menu reflects this in every dish. Like the simple filet which is sous vide (a method of treating food by partial cooking followed by vacuum-sealing and chilling) to get a perfect end-to-end doneness with a perfect crust on top too, simply served with a reduced veal stock called a glace, paired with a risotto. Or our chicken dish that comes from a local farm in Haines City (a heritage breed, too) is broken down (deboned and separated), brined, then smoked, then sous vide. It’s basted and served to order, with pickled onions or escabeche (a traditional Peruvian marinade for fish).

TL: How do you hope your food at Nineteen61 impacts the culture of Lakeland?

Chef Marcos: Many Lakelanders have never experienced true Latin food. I’m not speaking about Mexican food made in the U.S., but foods with “pow!” flavors that awaken your taste buds. I want people to have faith in the local restaurants. I want them to know we can give you consistency, quality, and an experience. I want to show them there is more than BBQ and chain restaurants in Lakeland. We have a few local restaurants that are really worth checking out, but we are not as busy as the chains, and that’s a reversal to strive for.

TL: Which dishes on the menu remind you of home or hold sentimental value for you?

Chef Marcos: Definitely the ropa vieja, the vaca frita, the black beans, and the Cuban sandwich. The ropa was a dish my grandmother made often. Although it never tasted the same twice, the ropa was always very good. I can remember a time in Denver when I cooked at Dazzle Jazz bar as a “celebrity” guest chef (the celebrity part was because I worked at Telemundo as a news anchor, which I was terrible at). They asked me to prepare Cuban food. The event was labeled “Cuban Night.” I phoned my grandmother and asked how to make ropa vieja; then I phoned my mother and asked her how to make black beans. I quickly took both recipes and instantly started to modify them to make them my own, I took the elements that I thought were too harsh and toned them down, but I never perfected them until I moved many years later and began working at country clubs. Regardless, the event was a huge success.

The vaca frita is a dish my dad and I always share together when I visit Miami. We always go to the same restaurant, and we both always order the vaca frita. I eat it, and it brings back those few memories of just sharing one-on-one time with him. The black beans is a dish that totally reminds me of Mom. We went back and forth for years on how you never add this and always add that at this moment and, though stubborn at times, I always listened. Of course, I did adapt them a bit, but the heart is still hers.

Ahhhh, the infamous Cubano. This is a dish that I always loved as a child. Every Cuban restaurant says theirs is the best, but they all use the same pork, the same ham, bread, and condiments. Naturally, I had to make this iconic staple item my own. We make ours with pigs raised at Mt Citra Farms in Ocala (just for us.) They are guinea hogs, a unique heritage breed. Their meat is sweeter than most store pigs. It lacks that “pork game flavor,” so we make a sour orange aioli instead of just plain ol’ mustard and mayo. The aioli is a derivative of my dad’s special pork marinade during Christmas. Our ham is only Serrano from Spain, the cheese is Manchego instead of Swiss, and, of course, the pickle for ours is a green tomato that is pickled in-house. This [the Cubano] is definitely one emotional zone for me.

1212 south Florida Avenue
Lakeland, FL 33803