Seasoned for Success: 

The Lessons and Grit Necessary to Eventually Build Nineteen61

Marcos Fernandez was intimately familiar with the rollercoaster of being an acclaimed chef, and had just been let go from his role as the executive chef of the then Lakeland Yacht Club. 

He had just enough money to buy used equipment from a local diner that had closed.

Soon after, his bookkeeper told him he was “outta money.”

And yet, the spirited second-generation Cuban American looked at perceived failures head on and used goodwill and a bevy of character-building experiences to put everything he had into building his dream.

That dream lives on Main Street in downtown Lakeland, a Golden Spoon winning high-end dining establishment that offers Latin food with a flair as bold and unique as Fernandez himself.

Most people know Fernandez as the lively, charitable lead chef and owner of Nineteen61, but the reality is he’s had more real-life roles and plot twists than most hired actors en route to finding stability as a food artist and direction as a businessman. He has also had the unwavering support of his wife, Monica, throughout the journey.

He first took an interest in food when as a young man he was an apprentice for a Dutch woodworker who talked non-stop about his former career as a chef.

A few years later when he was in culinary school, he was eying a sales job at a TV station, but execs saw him fit for on-air and he became an anchor for Telemundo, and later was the host of an award-winning public broadcast show in Denver.

He has been a butcher, gone all-out in honing his Italian accent at pasta-centric establishments small and large, built entire menus and staffs at country clubs, and even worked for free at a restaurant in Peru to hone his Latin cooking acumen. 

“One of my teachers (in culinary school) said, ‘Marcos, you know, you’re going to be great, you’re going to make it.’ And I was like, ‘Why do you say that?’” Fernandez recalled. “(He said), ‘Because you fall on your face and you get back up and do it again. You’re not afraid to fall on your face.’”

When it comes to food, Fernandez is all about creating unforgettable experiences.

As Marcos sat in his Banquet61 cater space with The Lakelander late one evening, executive chef Cory Beckwith popped in with a sizzling plate of conchas a la parmesana—parmesan encrusted scallops—to get the lead chef’s take on an item they had been considering adding to the menu.

“Salt, just a pinch more of salt,” Fernandez said, while trying to recover from the fact the scallop was scalding hot when he popped it in his mouth. “Maybe a little more lime, but it’s cooked perfectly, it plates nice…it’s a great dish.”

Fifteen minutes later, Beckwith returned with a slightly altered variation of the dish. The duo conferred briefly and traded smiles and pleasantries. Less than a week later, conchas a la parmesana was on the menu.

Fernandez first fell in love with Latin food when he ate cow hearts with some sort of unknown but life-changing green sauce from a lady using a makeshift grill on the side of a mountain in Peru.

His experience working at high-end hotels, as well as nationally renown chains like Maggiano’s, provided insight into how important it is for top-notch food and drink to be paired with the right look and feel to be considered an upscale establishment. In 2018, Nineteen61 was named one of America’s 100 Most Romantic Restaurants by Forbes.

It took time to gain the wisdom and to master the meticulous details required to separate himself from the pack as a chef, but Fernandez says he has always had a tireless work ethic. His love for food eventually pushed him to work seven days a week and do crazy things like buy an Astro van just to transport food for a $20,000 catering event he and a buddy once ran in Jacksonville.

Simply put, Fernandez paid his dues and earned his stripes as a chef and he expects the same of others who represent his company.

He said one time at the Lakeland Yacht Club an employee violated his rules by eating in the member dining room while she was on the clock, and he fired her on the spot.

Fernandez acknowledges he has softened a bit over the years—especially as he became a father to his now 12-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter—but he would likely do the same thing today.

You know, if you’re willing to do it when I’m not looking, there’s no integrity,” he said. “And I live and breathe that word.”

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That “won’t stop, can’t stop” attitude and self-proclaimed OCD personality helped carry him through the first couple of years at Nineteen61. In 2015, he took out a $70,000 loan to open Nineteen61 in Dixieland in a building previously occupied by Butterfly Bistro, and he was all in even if his cooking skills outweighed his formal business training.

The restaurant quickly garnered a reputation as one of Lakeland’s best dining experiences, but Fernandez said he was still trying to figure out how to make a healthy income.

“There were a lot of times I didn’t pay myself because we didn’t have any money…it was on and off for the first two years,” he said.

But then at his brother’s urging he started to take the energy usually reserved for cooking and started putting it into business tactics and strategies. He began more closely analyzing food and labor costs and eventually established Banquet61 as a local leader in the catering business.


Fernandez even took “learning lessons” as he likes to call them, such as the brief lifespan in 2018 of D’Lucas, a short-order walk-up Latin style restaurant that lasted about half a year in Dixieland. He said it was a “brilliant concept in a terrible location” and he also didn’t have quite the right team at the right time for it to take off—but it was not in vain.

“So once I found out we’re opening Nineteen61 (in its current location) I took everything from D’Lucas and that’s now my lunch menu,” he said. “It’s profitable…and it was a huge business learning experience.”

His journey has taken him from managing a staff of 10-12 when he first opened Ninenteen61 to now leading a staff of almost 120 between the restaurant, bar and catering. He said he is also excited about opening up the rooftop at his restaurant in the near future.

He’s proud of the success and is just as driven as ever—in fact he said he has a vision to open another location in a spot like Tampa—but he’s also more down-to-earth than his bravado may at times suggest.

As it hit midnight during the interview with The Lakelander, 20-year old chef Vincent Nacimos checked in with Fernandez as he finished closing up shop. 

Nacimos started as a dishwasher at 17 years old, and he said back then “it was a crazy experience” and “very cutthroat” in the kitchen, but over the years he has learned so much from Fernandez, including what it means to be generous.

He shared how he needed foot surgery, but didn’t have the money to pay for it. When Fernandez found out, he reached out to a local doctor, cut a deal and paid for the operation out of his own pocket.

“It’s been a great experience…it’s really all about hard work,” Nacimos said. “When I came here I was just looking to make some money…and (then) I decided I wanna be a chef.”

Fernandez has seen his own hard work pay dividends, both for his reputation and for his bottom line. He has grown his monthly revenue by 650% from when he first opened Ninenteen61, and he’s as hungry as ever to do more.