Greenpoint resident find calling in cooking

Robert Valle, a Greenpoint native, found his life’s calling in cooking.

By Mattthew Fischetti

mfischetti@queensledger.com

Robert Valle knows you need the right ingredients to make something special.

He first started flipping burgers at 17-years-old and from there worked his way up every position in the kitchen, from busboy to sous chef, and from the hole-in-the-walls to Michelin starred eateries, to eventually designing his own menus as an executive chef at noted restaurants like Diner in Williamsburg.

But he didn’t always have the right ones of his own. 

Valle, 31, grew up in Greenpoint in a poor immigrant family. He didn’t have options for school. And still living in poverty wasn’t an option. So Valle, in his young teens and early twenties, got involved in gangs and selling drugs. 

“Being a gang member and a drug dealer, you cause a lot of misery,” Valle said. “I wanted to rebrand myself in a way where I changed what I was in the past. Take all the bad that I’ve done, move forward and figure out how to only bring good from the acts that I commit and not feel bad, because of the past that I lived.”

Valle chose to devote his life to food and make becoming a chef his life’s work. It was mostly because of that fact that despite whatever was going on in his home – kids going crazy, parents being overworked and tired – the dinner table was where everyone would “shut up,” enjoy their food and be happy.

Valle doesn’t like the term “New American”–the cooking lingo for upscale restaurants that do new takes on classic dishes. He prefers to call it New York-style inspired. From the elote carts to the hole-in-the-wall Polish joint he grew up eating in the slice of north Brooklyn he calls home, to the Uzbeki or Taiwanese places he now visits–it’s all inspiration. 

“All these meals have inspired my food. I feel like with food that’s the only way that you can be inspired. By eating all these different dishes and like exploring the world around you without actually having to travel,” Valle said.

Valle takes his New York Style cuisine seriously. After being introduced to farm-to-table cooking at One Stop Beer Shop, Valle has not turned his back. Seeing the level of care that went into the food there, from picking out every garnish to the creation of the final project, is what got Valle serious about cooking and permanently giving up his drug-dealing past. 

While it can create challenges to make traditional dishes from around the world by shopping at the Greenpoint market or from Empire state farmers, Valle says that it also pushes him to think about his dishes in interesting ways by figuring out to work with what he has. 

“It [seeing farmers talk about their produce] made me start to see that that was the route that we have to go. Providing for the people within your community instead of buying stuff from Mexico and supporting like, Dole and all these conglomerate producers. There’s plenty of hard-working Americans who are in our own state that produce fabulous products and need our business,” Valle said. 

Currently, Valle is working as a private chef while talking to some friends about potentially working full-time again at a restaurant. On April 5, he will take over the menu at Rolo’s in Ridgewood, and is creating a menu heavily inspired by his Guatemalan roots. 

Whenever Valle’s family would visit him in the states, his extended family would bring a suitcase full of treats. The first thing he would devour every time was fried chicken from Pollo Compero – or as Valle calls it “G.F.C. baby”, Guatemalan fried chicken. And it is going to be his signature dish for his one-night takeover of Rolo’s.

He’s tried cooking it a few times for his personal friends but this will be the first time he will be cooking it professionally – as the spices needed are hard to source from Guatemala. 

The menu will also feature side dishes including several different types of ceviche inspired from different Latin American countries; a grilled corn dish with lime mayo; a pickled relish with corn, hot chili, carrots, cilantro and feta cheese;plátanos maduros; a slaw; mashed potatoes; and even a flan for dessert. 

While Valle is staving away at the Queens restaurant, he won’t forget his Brooklyn Roots. He doesnt ever. Especially while cooking. Because on the inner palm of his left hand is a tattoo of a hard eight – the four and four dice roll – to remind himself that nothing good in life comes without hard work. Nothing worth celebrating, at least. 

Valle always had the ingredients. It just took him a while to find out the right way to cook them. 

UMEC on strike for nearly 11 months

UMEC workers striking outside of their workplace

By Matthew Fischetti

mfischetti@queensledger.com

 

The workers at United Metro Energy Corporation (UMEC), one of the largest energy producers in the city, have been on strike for nearly 11 months.

They have been standing outside their Greenpoint workplace every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. since April 19, 2021. Throughout the heat, throughout the rain, throughout the cold winter months and throughout the pandemic; they have been fighting for better wages, better healthcare and for a better workplace.

Ivan Areizaga, who has been working at UMEC for over five years, said that he is on strike but is not looking for a ‘handout.’ He just wants to be paid what he and his co-workers deserve. In his five years of employment, the only days he missed were when his mother passed away. He returned to work three days later.

“We dedicate ourselves to work to be loyal. But the bosses and owners are not loyal to us,” Areizaga told The Greenpoint Star.

A few months into the strike, John Catsimatidis, the billionaire CEO of Red Apple Group, sent a letter to some of the striking workers that they would be “permanently replaced.” Striking workers said they were paid $26.78, which is $10 less than the industry average. When the replacement workers were hired they had a starting wage between $30 and $32.

In an interview with The Greenpoint Star, Catsimatidis said that the figure was an “unfair extrapolation” and represented an “apprentice wage.” Paystubs from April 2021 reveal that terminal operators were paid $26.78 per hour.

Castimatidis also claimed that between February 2019 and April 2021 that the union had never met with management and blamed COVID-19.

Demos Demopoulos, the principal officer of Local 553, refuted those allegations and provided several dates from his calendar of virtual bargaining sessions that were held.

Castimatidis and the Red Apple Group did not respond to requests for a follow-up interview.

Local Teamsters 553, the union representing UMEC workers, has three open cases for unfair labor practices against their employer, according to the National Labor Review Board’s case search. The cases include claims of the company refusing to bargain in good faith, coercive statements and discriminating against union employees.

Areizaga, a father of four, said that UMEC’s inability to come to the bargaining table has put a significant financial strain on his family. One of Areizaga’s sons is type-one diabetic, and was unable to get his medication due to losing health benefits.

“I just thank God nothing bad happened,” Areizaga said.

Andre Soleyn, the strike captain and father of three daughters, echoed the financial strain the strike has placed on his family.

“We have to literally sit down and budget every penny that I could use. There’s nothing extra, I have to budget down to how many trips I can take to the grocery in a week. And that’s very exhausting,” Soleyn said. “It’s hard for me to look in their eyes sometimes and say, ‘Okay, we can’t – because they don’t ask for anything extra. They ask for the bare necessities.’”

Striking workers had six months of unemployment but have been relying on a GoFundMe fund ever since. To date, the fund has raised $13,786.

Union members on strike also expressed concern about the safety of UMEC hiring what they say are unqualified workers to handle the dangerous and technical work of operating the facility.

“I’m not running some kind of Mickey Mouse operation,” Catsimatidis said on the claims that the workers weren’t properly trained or licensed to operate the facility.

“They [workers on strike] know how difficult it can be to obtain those certificates of fitness from the fire department, because they are specific to the terminal. And it takes time and effort to study and be taught. So there’s no way that in the amount of time that he fired these replacements that they were having, you know, had all the proper qualifications,” Demopoulos said.

“We’re willing to fight now more than ever. Because look at all of the other strikes that have been going on like John Deere, Warrior Met Coal, Columbia teachers [referring to the graduate student union], and so forth… just to name a few,” Soleyn said. “All of that is part of that labor movement that we’re a part of. Saying enough is enough. We need to be paid what we are worth. We put our lives on the line, we did everything necessary to keep this place open while they were at home.”

 

 

Gonzalez runs for new Senate district

By Matthew Fischetti

mfischetti@queensledger.com

Kristen Gonzalez is running in the the Senate district that covers Greenpoint and parts of Queens

As a working-class girl from Elmhurst who commuted to middle school on the Upper East Side, Kristen Gonzalez developed an early political consciousness.

Even though she was in the same city, she realized she lived in two different worlds. At her Roosevelt Avenue station in Queens, she saw lines of immigrants waiting to get free breakfast from a Catholic charity. 

When she got off the subway at 86th Street in Manhattan, she saw lines of businessmen in fancy suits and coats grabbing their morning Starbucks. 

Even though Gonzalez is only 26 years old, she already has an impressive background in politics. At Columbia University, she was president of the local College Democrats chapter where she got involved in Get Out The Vote campaigns. 

From there she worked at the City Council writing policy recommendations through the Young Women’s Initiative, but felt like she didn’t see the needle moving. So during what would have been her senior year, she dropped out to work in Washington as a Latino Engagement intern for the Obama administration and then in Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. 

While she says the experience was informative, it also made her realize the change she wanted to make wouldn’t be found in the confines of City Hall or in the Capitol Rotunda, but rather, “it was in the working-class communities that raised me back in Queens.”

Less than 24 hours after the new State Senate district maps were released, Gonzalez declared as a candidate for District 17, which includes areas of Woodhaven, Maspeth, Long Island City, Glendale, Ridgewood and Greenpoint. 

She was first approached by the Democratic Socialists of America to run for office in December. Gonzalez thought it was a real opportunity to build a larger socialist movement in Albany.

“Next week, the strategy is to start down in southern parts of the district and, and really try to build on the movements we’ve seen with campaigns like Felicia Singh to turn up more folks in the Punjabi, Bangladeshi, and Guyanese communities,” she said. “Then coming back up to really engage and build a base of more Latino working-class families, as well.”

Gonzalez has assembled over 20 veteran progressive politicos who worked on campaigns for Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Councilwoman Tiffany Cabán.

Gonzalez’s top three priorities are passing single-payer health care, building publicly owned renewable energy, and passing good cause eviction and ending subsidies for luxury developments.

She first got involved with DSA in 2018, organizing their tech action working group, rallying support for privacy bills like the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act to force the NYPD to be more transparent about the types of surveillance technology the department uses.

When asked about Mayor Eric Adams’s push to make New York City a hub for cryptocurrency, Gonzalez rolled her eyes.

“It’s a replication of the issue where the city moves forward in a way that benefits the very wealthy who are invested in things like crypto, but without thinking about those who are behind who just don’t have basic access to the internet,” Gonzalez said. 

A recent report from the state comptroller’s office found that over one million New Yorkers lack access to quality broadband services. As a member of the tech action working group, Gonzalez helped create the Internet For All campaign, a 46-page blueprint on how to achieve municipal ownership of broadband utilities.

Gonzalez has already raised over $23,000, and her Twitter account had such a quick influx of support and followers, the social media service put her account under review for “suspicious activity”.

“I could not be more grateful and just humbled by the support that we saw in this last week,” Gonzalez said. “We believe this is the best campaign for the district because we are representative of it.”

Restler looks to hit the ground running

Lincoln Restler is one of the newly elected NYC council members. Can he pull off his progressive agenda in an Adams administration?

By Matthew Fischetti

mfischetti@queensledger.com

 

Lincoln Restler has big dreams for North Brooklyn. 

The freshman councilman for the 33rd District won a crowded Democratic Primary on an ambitious agenda of making the district the first to be carbon neutral in the city, reallocating part of the NYPD budget to create a new public safety agency of social workers and mental health care providers, and preventing the overdevelopment of the Brooklyn waterfront. 

But can he pull it off? 

The 37-year-old councilman may be a freshman in the City Council, but he is far from new to New York City politics. 

Restler first got involved in politics during the 2008 primary for Barack Obama. Inspired by the success of Obama, Restler looked to make the movement more than a moment but a real coalition. 

He helped found, and served for one year as vice president, of the New Kings Democrats, a progressive reform-minded organization that has challenged the Brooklyn Democratic machine. 

At only 26 years old, Restler won his first election in 2010 as a district leader in a successful rebuke against disgraced Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman Vito Lopez’s preferred candidate, Warren Cohn. 

Even though district leaders are unpaid positions with very limited powers, Restler’s upset generated buzzy media coverage. 

After nearly 12 years, a few stints in city government and working for former Mayor Bill de Blasio, Restler still sees himself as the same outsider trying to reform New York City politics. 

Restler may have his work cut out for him under Mayor Eric Adams, a fellow native son of Brooklyn but also a product of the old school machine politics Restler has fought against. 

“I’m committed to pushing for ethical government, for our city to be as ethical as it can possibly be,” Restler said in a recent interview. “And my experience challenging the Brooklyn machine molded me to feel like you have to speak truth to power, you have to call out corruption directly to affect change, and you never have a hard time sleeping when you do the right thing.” 

More recently, Adams has made waves for two controversial appointments: Philip Banks, a former NYPD Chief and un-indicted co-conspirator in a federal police corruption case, as Deputy Mayor of Public Safety, and appointing his younger brother, Bernard Adams, as Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD. 

 

When asked about the appointments, Restler chose his words carefully. 

“I’m concerned any time a family member is appointed to a senior position or a position of power,” said Restler. “I look forward to understanding how they plan to structure the appointment of the mayor’s brother. I’m concerned about the appointment.” 

In regards to Banks’ appointment, Restler said “there are a series of open questions that still need to be answered regarding the investigations relating to Mr. Banks.” 

While Restler’s progressive bonafides and ambitious agenda may be in contrast with the person now sitting in Gracie Mansion, Restler sees opportunities to work with the Mayor to deliver for the residents of North Brooklyn. 

“My goal is to work with the mayor and his team, to work with the speaker and her team, to work with my colleagues in the council to get sh*t done and solve problems and make sure that the most pressing issues in our community are being addressed,” he said. “But I was elected by the people of the 33rd Council District, and it’s my job to faithfully represent their values and their priorities. 

“Sometimes that’s going to be in agreement with the mayor, sometimes that’s going to be a disagreement with the Mayor,” he added. “And that’s okay. We can disagree without getting into a nuclear war. I’m not going to shy away from my beliefs.” 

Specifically, Restler referenced Adams intent to reinstate solitary confinement as his public statements about how council members have no right to question the 22-year veteran of the NYPD. 

“Solitary confinement is torture, and we cannot allow it in New York City jails,” Restler said. “No matter what the mayor’s perspective on that is, I’m going to rally my colleagues in the council to push that legislation forward with a veto-proof majority.” 

Restler said the three biggest problems he wants to address are tackling the affordability crisis in his district, protecting the Brooklyn waterfront from the effects of climate change, and “making our community safer through intelligent, compassionate policies that don’t rely on the police to solve every problem.” 

Even though Restler has just been a Councilman for a little over a week, he has been busy on those issues. 

On December 27, the city announced $75 million for Bushwick Inlet Park, a project Restler has been working with local officials behind the scenes months before his inauguration. 

After a recent anti-Semitic assault in Bay Ridge, Restler canvassed Brooklyn neighborhoods with Councilman Chi Ossé, providing information on how to defuse and 

intervene in hate crimes as a bystander. 

Restler told the Star the first bill he is going to introduce will be repealing Option C of the 421(A) Program, a tax break that developers can qualify for providing affordably housing in new projects. 

Under Option C, affordable housing is defined at up to 130 percent of the average median income for the area. 

“The 421(A) program allows for developers in New York City to get massive tax breaks for building, quote unquote, affordable housing for a single adult making $108,000 a year,” Restler said. “Why are we possibly subsidizing, quote unquote, affordable housing for single adults earning triple digits? It doesn’t make sense.” 

When asked how he would define success when his first term is up, Restler said it would be “if neighbors in our district have more confidence that government can help them solve real problems.” 

“About 15 years ago, there were two massive rezonings in the 33rd Council District, on the waterfront and in downtown Brooklyn, and they have led to massive new developments,” Reslter said. “They have contributed to significant displacement of longtime residents and amounted to a set of broken promises.

“Fifteen years later, I am angry about the promised park spaces, the promised schools, the investments that were supposed to come to accommodate a growing community,” he added. “And I am laser focused on making sure that those broken promises get remedied and that we hold the city accountable.”

Fill the Form for Events, Advertisement or Business Listing