Carlos Raba, Chef and Co-Owner of Clavel, has quite an interesting story. And it’s one I wasn’t expecting at all.
Carlos was born in Sinaloa, Mexico and raised in Culiacán, Mexico. When Carlos’ Mom was pregnant with him, his family was robbed at gunpoint, and Carlos’ father was shot and killed. So, sadly, he never knew his father. When he told me that, I just stopped writing and looked up at my friend. Wow. His mother was a very outspoken newspaper columnist who covered politics in Mexico, and they eventually sought asylum in the US (DC suburbs) when Carlos was 17.
In addition to cooking amazing traditional Mexican food, Carlos worked in grocery store management for many years with Whole Foods and Giant and even sold shoes at Nordstrom. And he is also a pretty serious competitor in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Most importantly, he is a devoted husband to his wife Claudia and young children Lucas and Camila.
We sat down at R. House for a chat about food, life, and Baltimore.
Was food a big part of your upbringing? How did you get into cooking?
Yes, for sure. We lived on a compound with all of my mom’s five sisters and their families. We’d grill out a lot, and I loved making a big breakfast on Sunday for everyone. Pretty much every Sunday started at the market in the morning, getting fresh fish and shrimp for ceviche, meats for the grill, vegetables and more. Each of the aunts in the family had a different specialty. Like, my Aunt Esther made cochinita with bitter oranges, and Aunt Susannah made the tortillas. My grandmother taught them how to do much of the cooking. The men usually ran the grill. Also, my uncle had a restaurant, and that’s where I learned to make tortillas by hand. We’d make carne asada, barbacoa, ceviche, and tons more. All of our moms would drop us off at my uncle’s place, and we all helped to cook. The kitchen ladies took care of us during the day – we were lucky to get to taste everything they made. So, life in a restaurant has always felt natural for me.
Later, when I was about 19 I was working at Whole Foods in Gaithersburg, and the assistant manager called out. They asked if I could help and I said, sure. (Smiles big.) I could clean and filet fish, and I also knew the business side from college. Then I started managing different departments, eventually learning the entire business model. I traveled to other Whole Foods locations encouraging the staff to learn more, to be better. Then, I got bored, and they asked if I wanted to learn more about cheese and I said yes. I loved it! I could be creative, work with customers, help them. As a cheesemonger and a store manager, I’d go and open new Whole Foods stores, but I mainly still was focused on cheese. Then, I got recruited by Giant Food and worked for them for five years. I flipped stores and made them profitable. Then it just started feeling too corporate for me. I was ready to be creative again. And I knew I could do something else.
How would you describe Clavel?
Our focus is clear: serve simple, traditional food, good drinks and have fun. Like, our communal tables in the middle of the dining room. We love them. They definitely help with our casual vibe. We want everyone to feel comfortable and at home at Clavel. I hope that they do.
How do you and Lane (Co-Owner, Lane Harlan) collaborate?
Constantly. On both food and drink. We have long discussions, share ideas, take trips, brainstorm a lot. If we do something, whether it’s a dish or an event or whatever, it has to be something we love. Food is meant to be shared, and the experience enjoyed. We really believe that. When we travel, we come back with pages and pages of notes. We go back to them and build things out from there. We know each other so well and balance each other out. Lane and I are literally family – we have nieces together. Our talents are very different – we are both artists, but in different ways. We’re both really visual thinkers, energetic and passionate! Our minds are always racing and some things come out of three or four conversations. Also, we collaborate constantly with our kitchen and bar staff – they are part of everything. We respect everyone’s skills – you should never underestimate that someone could teach you something. That’s so important. I mean just look at our team. For example, Adela was literally raised on a farm in the jungle in Peru. The jungle! I just knew there was something I really liked about her…and Raquel, her hard-working hands. She is so high energy, so charismatic. She is willing to work all the time. And, look at Concepción, who worked in kitchens all over Baltimore for the last 15 years. He was always hired to work with meats, to replicate other chefs’ work. No one really let him cook his food. Now he is creating his own dishes at Clavel. Like the chicken mole taco with queso fresco. That’s all him. We have the best people.
How do you balance home and work?
Well, there is no balance without my wife, Claudia. I don’t say it enough. She supports my crazy life. She keeps me going, I love my life so much. I get to make people happy. People love our food and the things we create. With Claudia’s support, that makes it all possible. I am so happy. Good energy makes life a lot better, you know?
What are some of your favorite restaurants in the city?
Ekiben for sure. My wife craved their food the entire time she was pregnant. Always loved Cafe Cito, so I’m definitely a fan of Dave’s new spot, Ground & Griddled. My son Lucas loves the dumplings at Sticky Rice, so that works out well for Claudia and me to have sushi and beer! I’m also a total ice cream freak, so The Charmery for sure. The best.
Lots of kids get to choose the meal on their birthday…anything they want (to a point, suppose…) What would be your ‘birthday meal’ now? What did you ask for when you were a kid?
When I was a kid, definitely Mexican spaghetti! (Laughs) And Mexican wedding cookies and bread pudding. I also always loved shrimp ceviche – the one at Clavel is the same as when I was six years old. Now? Ha! I think probably my version of my grandmother’s Mexican spaghetti! It’s basically ground beef, mushrooms, poblanos, homemade tomato sauce, crema fresca, cheese, spaghetti noodles. And, I also love to have tres leches cake.
What are some of your things to make at home?
I’m passionate about breakfast. I love it. I’m up early – up and at ‘em. I love making breakfast. I also really love eating cereal with my kid, we like stuff like Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles. Breakfast is the best. You gather around the table and start the day.
What do you love about Baltimore?
It’s a laid back city, but still a city. The pace is slightly slower than bigger cities. I mean, yes, we have struggles, every city does. But we also have a huge cultural community, we are proud of our history and there is so much potential here. There is so much culinary talent here – oh, and the Orioles! They’re the best! It’s also a great place for us to raise our kids. I love that our kids will grow up here. It’s important to stay good, stay humble. It all matters.