Sometimes it's the smallest decisions that have the biggest impact on your life. When Lower East Side chef Isaac Correa agreed to travel to Moscow to help open a Western-style restaurant, he had no idea his two-week business trip would turn into a life-changing 20-year journey in which he would start a family, open a successful chain of restaurants and master his trade alongside chefs from all over the world.
Now living in Sarasota, Correa opened a similar restaurant, Baker & Wife, last month, and he hopes to bring his globally inspired creations to the Gulf Coast. We sat down with Correa to talk travel, cooking and growing up immersed in the culinary world.
How did you discover your passion for food?
My parents were from Puerto Rico, and my mom had a bed and breakfast place, so she was always cooking. It fascinated me. Everyone says their mom's cooking is the best, and it's true, but it was funny, because she didn't know how to cook small batches — they were always these huge portions.
She was clever, too. We didn't have the money to eat at all the different restaurants, so she'd go to the different markets and buy ingredients to make different types of food. One night would be authentic Chinese food, then Italian night or Spanish. So I don't know if you always get to pick what you're going to do; I think sometimes it picks you.
When did you start to pursue cooking seriously?
My brother helped me get my first gig as a pizza boy. When he moved on to work in fine dining establishments, he took me with him. I got to work in some really nice places.
So after high school, I was working doing pizzas, and one of the big chefs at the restaurant told me I had a good eye for this stuff. He said he'd give me a shot to come work in the kitchen, but if it didn't work out, my old job would be gone. I accepted the challenge, and ended up working with him for four years. He took me everywhere.
Eventually, he was recruited by a company looking to open Western-style restaurants in Moscow, and he said he'd only go if he could bring me. So I went, and he never showed up. What was supposed to be two weeks in Moscow turned into 20 years. I stayed by myself and learned a new language, got married and opened up a small restaurant that eventually grew into 15 restaurants, called Correa. We were the first to do comfort food in Moscow, and we found our niche. It was a hell of a ride.
How did you end up in Sarasota?
Me and my son, who was playing soccer, were traveling back to Moscow and we saw a kid with an IMG sweatshirt, and we found out about IMG and that it was here, and we ended up moving here a year-and-a-half ago. It's nice here; it's very relaxing, but I'm still a city boy, so I'm adjusting.
How did Baker & Wife come about?
I thought I'd try to do something similar to what I did in Moscow. I hope to be a place where anyone can come and find something they enjoy.
Tell me about your approach to the menu.
The idea behind the food is to keep everything as simple as possible. It's fresh, clean and light. We don't have anything too heavy. We like to say we're globally inspired but locally crafted.
How did your experiences abroad influence you as a chef?
A lot of people don't think so, but Moscow has really become a food place. And it's so diverse. Working in a melting pot like Moscow really influenced me and helped me grow as a chef. I worked with chefs from all over the world — French, Italian, Spanish. It helped me become much more open to new ideas.
How do you hope to stand out in Sarasota?
There are so many great restaurants here. Hopefully we can find our niche, and the quality of our food and service will keep people coming back. I know it's hard to make everybody happy — but we're going to try.
Baker & Wife — 2157 Siesta Drive | 960-1765