Chef Yun Fuentes always dreamed of opening a restaurant that would celebrate his Puerto Rican culture and family legacy. His vision: to give others a taste of the recipes he learned from his abuelo Juan “Johnny” Fuentes, who was affectionately called “Bolo.”
Fuentes’ dream became a reality last April when he opened Bolo, a Latin American and Caribbean cuisine restaurant and rum bar on Sansom Street in Center City.
The restaurant is a tribute to his grandfather, who was also a chef and worked at the San Geronimo Hilton Hotel in San Juan. Its location in the heart of Rittenhouse Square is no accident.
“I wanted to make a restaurant that represented our culture and traditions in the middle of where the best restaurants are,” Fuentes told Billy Penn. “Bolo would not be the same if it were in another space.”
Fuentes is currently one of the most recognized chefs in the city, as Bolo racked up accolades from Philly food critics and international travel publications. But the road to get there took work.
“Philadelphia welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “I came here with a backpack, and look where I am now.”
After four years in the kitchens of top New York restaurants such as Patria and El Zócalo, Fuentes made the decision to move to Philly 12 years ago. He updated his resume, packed a suitcase with his best knives and recipes, and started hunting for a job. His dad, who lived in Camden, would come in to accompany him on the search.
When Fuentes first saw the Old City restaurant Amada, owned by renowned Ecuadorian American chef José Garcés, he had a good feeling “I was walking along,” he recalled, “and suddenly, I saw this place that caught my attention, and I told my dad, this is it!”
Just days later, Fuentes was part of Amada’s work team, and within a year, had added another position in the kitchen at sister restaurants Tinto and Village Whiskey, across town in Rittenhouse. It was there that he connected personally with Garcés. The former Iron Chef visited the kitchen while Fuentes was on the grill, he said, and they chatted and shared stories the entire shift. A week later, Fuentes was promoted to sous chef, and eventually chef de cuisine.
His next gig landed him as executive chef at Stephen Starr’s Alma de Cuba. It was there he fulfilled another of his dreams: working with the “godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine” Douglas Rodríguez. Although he had previously worked at Rodríguez’s New York restaurant Patria, Fuentes had never met him in person.
“Douglas was an inspiration to me,” Fuentes said. “He made me see the things I had learned from [my grandfather] Bolo. I felt like I had found my purpose.”
Fuentes next became culinary director at Milkboy, a restaurant-slash-music venue in Washington Square West. Co-owners Jamie Lokoff and Tommy Joyner would become his future business partners at Bolo.
Magic pancakes and life-changing mayonnaise
Born Yun Josué Fuentes Morales, the future chef’s connection with food as a way to build community began in his Abuela Ada’s beauty parlor at the back of her house in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.
While the clients waited in a cozy marquesina surrounded by music and plants, their chauffeurs and husbands had no problem hanging out there while their hair was done, Cuba libre cocktails with key limes were served, and Abuelo Bolo would go to the kitchen to prepare piscolabis snacks: sorullos, bacalaitos, pastelillos, and coffee.
Those three piscolabis are now on the menu at Bolo in Philadelphia.
Fuentes had moved in with his grandparents after his 2-year-old brother was diagnosed with leukemia. The large community of support through treatment and recovery also influenced the warm atmosphere he seeks to present at his new restaurant.
“Now that I’m a little older, I realize it wasn’t just my grandparents. Many people participated in my upbringing because I needed it,” said the 45-year-old chef. “I’m also grateful because they put up with my mischievousness when I was little.”
In addition to making snacks for salon clients, Abuelo Bolo would take time to sit young Fuentes on the kitchen counter to teach him how to flip a pancake in the air. In the child’s eyes, that was an act of magic.
At 14, Fuentes got his first job at a new McDonald’s in Puerto Rico after getting an affidavit that allowed him to work legally despite being so young. As the only employee who could speak English, he served as translator between his bosses and co-workers, he said, in addition to preparing the food for birthday parties.
Fuentes continued to work in the restaurant industry while pursuing a college degree in telecommunications at Sagrado Corazón University. At a deli in Old San Juan, he tasted foie gras for the first time and encountered more varieties of hams and cheeses than he’d ever imagined. As line cook at the Parrot Club restaurant he came across his first artichokes.
His love of comics also provided a lesson. One day, the chef at the Parrot Club observed him drawing cartoons and told him, “All those drawings you do on paper, you can do on the plate. But you must know what those colors taste like. If you want to learn how to cook, you’ll know how to show me.”
Fuentes had an idea of how to do it: As soon as he received his first check, he bought a professional knife. Considering that proof enough, the chef taught him how to make a vinaigrette and mayonnaise — a life-changing event.
“It never occurred to me that you could make your own mayonnaise,” Fuentes said. “That changed the course of my life.”
After graduating college, Fuentes realized that he had more experience in the kitchen than in telecommunications, so he decided to continue his passion in fine dining, with a goal to give Caribbean and Latin American food the respect it deserved.
“It is a privilege for me to say that I turned cooking into my profession,” he said.
What does Fuentes envision in his and Bolo’s future? He hopes to continue collaborating with Latin American chefs and bartenders, using the restaurant to showcase their work, like at a recent Latinx Industry Night. His mission, he says, is to make Bolo a home for everyone, like his beloved grandfather’s home was for him.
“Just as I have enjoyed seeing Bolo materialize, I would like others to have the same opportunity to open their own doors,” Fuentes said. “It’s my turn to see them shine.”