By Julia Lowe
Chef Rodolfo Cuadros, who launched Don Bucio’s Taqueria (2763 N. Milwaukee Ave.) on Feb. 25, once nearly accepted an executive chef position in India.
“Around 2016, the political climate was rough,” Cuadros said. “We were questioning, because of the rhetoric around that time, whether this was a place to be brown. We always saw Chicago as our bubble, but you can only protect your family so much.”
Instead, in August 2019, Cuadros, 39, stayed and opened Amaru, a love letter to Latin American pride and hospitality. Only eight months later, the restaurant closed its doors because of COVID-19. Still, less than a week later, Amaru moved to take-out service — and Cuadros opened Bloom Plant Based Kitchen in 2021, Lil Amaru in Time Out Market in 2022 and Don Bucio’s Taqueria in 2023.
The executive chef-owner’s culinary roots are Colombian. The youngest of four brothers, Cuadros was born in New York but at age 2 moved with his family to Cali, Colombia. He grew up on a farm surrounded by cousins, pigs and women cooking all sorts of traditional cuisine: lechon asado, rellena, morcilla and chorizo.
But when he returned to New York at 13, he began working in kitchens as a dishwasher, which birthed his “love/hate/love” relationship with food. A hot-tempered grill cook didn’t show up for work one day, and Cuadros’ middle-school English earned him a quick promotion to his first cooking position. “It was a marriage of convenience. I could make a buck or two more an hour, and they could communicate with me and try to teach me,” Cuadros said. “But it was also not easy for me at that age.”
At 17, while still in high school, Cuadros had his first son and needed a career to support his new family. He promptly enrolled as a culinary arts student at Johnson & Wales University in Miami, where he befriended chef Douglas Rodriguez — known as the “godfather of Nuevo Latino cooking.”
“I had never worked with Latin American food,” Cuadros said. As a chef at Rodriguez’s restaurant OLA (Of Latin America), he learned his culture’s cuisine could be upscale — and he was sold on becoming a chef.
After about two and a half years at OLA, Cuadros left Miami for Europe. Rodriguez connected him with a job at Deseo (meaning “wish”) in London, where he revamped the entire menu as a 19-year-old. Then, his culinary exploration of Europe began — and although he spent stints of several months each in London, France and Spain, he kept finding Latin American food. “That’s where I realized that Latin American food is much more special than I had given it credit for,” Cuadros said.
After three years traveling Europe, Cuadros returned to Miami to work for Rodriguez again as an executive chef, which kick-started his global culinary tour: Thailand, Cambodia, Peru, Ecuador, New York (under chefs Richard Sandoval and David Burke) and back to Miami again, where he met his wife. The two moved to Chicago, where Cuadros, in 2013, became executive chef at Carnivale in the West Loop. For the next six years, he shaped the menu with his personal touch — and fell in love with Chicago. “It was a city where people supported local and small businesses,” Cuadros said.
But the second half of his tenure at Carnivale took place during the Trump administration, when the country was awash with anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic rhetoric, and he and his family considered leaving the United States. After turning down a handful of international offers, Cuadros and his family abandoned their plan of becoming expats and decided to open a restaurant. And in 2019, Amaru was born, Cuadros’ way of telling the country: “We’re not going anywhere.”
Along with its menu of plantains, oxtail, pumpkin, chimichurri, pork and a host of other Caribbean and South and Central American ingredients, Amaru boasts an extensive rum list, organized by country. Shoving aside the image of Latin American cooking as “big portions and a lot of fried stuff,” Cuadros said, he tried to honor the soul of the cuisine but present it with his own Nuevo Latino twist.
When the pandemic forced Amaru to shut down its dining room, Cuadros pivoted to offering to-go service in the form of Bloom Vegetarian Kitchen, a meatless ghost kitchen that operated out of Amaru’s space. A year later, he rebranded Bloom into a full restaurant, and Bloom Plant Based Kitchen opened its own dining room at 1559 N. Milwaukee Ave., with a uniquely green vision.
Cuadros has had an interest in plant-based cooking for 12 years because of his wife and her family, but he could never invite them to eat at his previous restaurants because of the lack of vegetarian menu options. He set out to achieve that at Bloom.
“I go out of my way to do a lot of things that are more environmentally sound. I don’t like to use the word sustainable so much because it’s kind of an illusion,” Cuadros said. “But I definitely think we are the most sustainable restaurant in the Midwest.”
On top of an entirely plant-based menu, Bloom follows other “environmentally sound” initiatives. Cuadros uses grown-in-house microgreens and even installed a biodigester called ORCA that composts any and all food scraps. He also created a gluten-free menu, a commitment that he calls a way of showing plant-based eating is much more diverse than seitan, a gluten-based meat substitute that he clarifies is “not technically cooking vegetables. You’re eating bread.”
Now, with his third concept in Chicago, Cuadros is integrating his two culinary missions of showcasing Latin American cuisine and opening minds to plant-based eating in Don Bucio’s Taqueria, or DBT. DBT is the brainchild of Cuadros and his former Carnivale sous chef, Gustavo Ocampo. After helping Cuadros open Bloom, Ocampo traveled the country in an RV searching for the best vegan taco. A taco in Oakland, California, was the winner, and Ocampo brought the inspiration back to Chicago to expand Bloom’s two taco recipes into a full standalone vegan Mexican menu.
“I’m excited for all the Hispanic vegans that could never eat their mom’s food again — I’m gonna try to get them back,” Ocampo said.
Cuadros and Ocampo are calling DBT “a Mexican restaurant that just happens to serve vegetables.” This latest venture is another jewel in Cuadros’ crown of sustainable Latin American cuisine.
“It took everyone 10 years to realize what he’s been doing forever,” Ocampo said. “Finally, people are starting to take notice.”
Julia Lowe is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @juliamlowe.