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What Cuba has done for me. Part 1

 

When I graduated The Culinary Institute of America, in 1984, all I wanted to do, was to get into a great kitchen and cook!

My parents had an alternative idea. They told me that I needed to get a business education, so I could understand more than just food.

I was pissed, at first, but their suggestion was perfect.

I headed to Miami, to go to Florida International University.

It was an incredible experience. It taught me to look at food, not only as an art, but also as a business.

While I was working at The Grand Bay Hotel, in Coconut grove, and hanging out in different areas of Miami, I immersed myself into The Latin Culture.

I frequented, Calle Ocho (otherwise known as 8th street) for the delicious, "inexpensive" food, to get my shirts from, Ramon Puig Guayaberas and of course, to check out the Latinas and listen to the incredible music of Cuba.

I graduated in 1986 and my mom came down to see me.

We went to http://lacarreta.com/ on 8th street and when the bill came, I paid.

It was such a great feeling  to pay for me and my mom.

This was the beginning of how Cuba altered my life.

Stay tuned for part 2 of what Cuba has done for me.

 

7 years with CZCandPZ1CPZ headshot

Did you ever go to Nells on a Wednesday night to dance to salsa?

 

17 years and 40 days ago, Calle Ocho on the Upper West Side was really in a rhythm.

We were constantly packed and I was so excited to be a part of the restaurant.

We literally timed the opening on the heels of Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martins explosion onto the scene.

There was this young woman, who was moonlighting as a cocktail waitress. By day, she was working in a successful gallery in Soho and at night she handled a packed lounge, with up to 50 people.

I never saw her sweat. She was always in control and always had a beautiful smile.

Her name was Carolyn Pena and I definitely wanted to date her.

We would make small talk from time to time , but she was always busy holding down her station.

One Monday night I asked her what she was doing on Wednesday and she said that she was going to Nells with some friends to dance to Salsa. “I responded, wow, so am i. Hope to see you there!”

When Wednesday came, I was so excited. I went to have dinner by myself in Chelsea and then around 8pm, I started to walk to Nells. I bumped into my old friend Steven Kalt, who now owns and runs, one of the hottest restaurants in LA, Spartina.

I got to Nells around 8pm, the music was blasting and I literally was the only patron there.

*note- who goes to a club at 8pm, DUH!

I stayed till about 10:30 and never saw Carolyn Pena.

The next morning, I was working at Union Pacific. I accessed our payroll and got Carolyn’s home phone number. (Not really a smart way of getting a girls phone number)

At 6am, I left the following message on her voice mail, “Hi, this is Paul David Zweben, from Main Street Restaurant Partners. I was at Nells last night and you never showed up! If you’d like to speak, please call me at 917.653.**49,or 212.223.8832, or 212.721.**20 or email me at pzweben@ms**group.com.” and then I hung up.

I am sure she listened to the message and said, how did he get my home number and man, this guy is crazy.

She finally called me up and I asked her out and she said she was busy that day. Then I asked for another date and she said she was busy and finally I asked for August 16, 1999 and she said yes.

Our first date started at Butterfield 81, where my dear friend Tom Valenti was the chef.

I remember as we sat at the bar, Carolyn excused herself and as she walked away, Tom said in his raspy voice, Dude and his big beautiful smile of his exploded. He said, Paul, you did good.

After drinks at Butterfield 81 we went to Raos for dinner and the rest is history.

I remember sending an email to my partners, Jeff Kadish, Steve Scher and Spencer Rothschild that I was dating Carolyn Pena and that she was the one. Jeff emailed me back and said to fire her.

It was the best firing ever. Carolyn attacked her true passion of selling real estate and she never looked back.

Carolyn, thank you for giving me two beautiful children and a warm, loving home.

I know I am not perfect and I know I live in the Dog House on a regular basis, but I wouldn’t want to be on this journey with anyone else.

Happy 17 year dating anniversary!

 

In 1993 Main Street opened at 446 Columbus Avenue between 81st and 82nd streets. It was an idea conjured up by Steven Scher and Jeff Kadish, two childhood friends.

They hired me as the executive chef and the only way I would even consider taking the job, was to have equity in the business. (Sorry, my parents taught me well!)

Main Street was an instant success on the UWS serving American food, "Family Style."

It was our 1st venture as a restaurant group, and there were many bumps throughout the 5 year operation.

In early 1998 as Main Street was on a downward spin, I went to Cuba to meet a girl that one of my American friends had fallen in love with.

He wanted to marry her and bring her back to the states. I was skeptical, had a few days off, so I headed to Havana Vieja for a few days for approval.

The girl was lovely, but she turned out to be bad news for my friend and eventually married someone with more money than him!

On the 3rd day of being in Havana Vieja, I was relaxing on the Malecon, reading a book and listening to 5 guys play old school salsa.

I had lived in Miami for 2 years while attending Florida International University, and was quite hip to the Latin Culture.

As the music was playing in my ears, an Epiphany erupted!

Let's close Main Street, Open Calle Ocho with great music, great food and great drinks and we will rock!

I headed back to NYC a few days later and told my partners my idea.

Main Street closed 3 weeks later and 5 months later Calle Ocho was born!

It was an immediate success and was a perfect addition to the Upper West Side!

In the last 13 years, we have served well over 1 Million people and we have never lost our passion for making people happy!

The biggest achievement for me and Calle Ocho, was that is where I met my lovely wife, Carolyn, aka Mrs. Z-

Without Calle Ocho- Carolyn would have never made me complete~

 

Stay tuned for the new Calle Ocho Opening on 81st street, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue!

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Paul Zweben, Licensed Associate RE Broker
pzweben@elliman.com
Carolyn Zweben, Licensed Associate RE Broker
czweben@elliman.com
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