Leonardo Cabrera: A (thoroughly) Modern Mixture
Some men react to their mid-life crisis by buying a red Corvette. Others freak out and get hair plugs or liposuction. Me? I opened restaurants. Though most of those (ad)ventures ended successfully, I still shudder when I think of how many red Corvettes I could have bought. In hindsight, probably should have gone with the lipo.
I’m here to tell you that restauranting is one of the most relentless businesses you can get yourself into. But to some, it just comes naturally and they make it look easy. One of those special people is local resident and restaurateur, Leonardo Cabrera.
Leo was born in Mexico City, but his family moved to Delaware when he was very young. He attended high school in Georgetown, and earned his associate degree in biotechnology from Delaware Tech; even completing an internship in marine studies. Though English is his second language (you’d never know it), young Leo excelled in chemistry, molecular biology, and pretty much anything scientific—so much so that he soon earned his B.S. degree in cellular/molecular biology from Salisbury University.
His go-to stress reliever was food. In fact, he loved to cook it as much as he loved to eat it. As his cooking skills expanded, so did his waistline. When he topped 250 pounds, his knowledge of body chemistry gave him no choice but to deal with his ever-widening shadow. So in order to tide him over while he looked for a job in the technology industries (not a very fertile market here at the beach), he took fitness classes; applying his scientific disposition to exercise and healthy eating. He was so happy with the results that he went ahead and earned his teaching certification in various exercise disciplines, none the least of which is the well-known RPM cycling program.
You go where the jobs are, and Leo ended up as a server at an upscale tapas bar in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. That’s where he met Gladys Fernandez, now the proprietor of Cilantro restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue. Though he was still teaching exercise programs in Virginia, Leo returned to school to earn his master’s degree. While teaching fitness and human anatomy/physiology labs at Salisbury University, he eventually graduated in May of this year with his M.S. in applied biology.
Though discussions regarding a partnership in Cilantro never came to fruition, Leo continued to hone his food-service skills at Crystal, La Tonalteca, Cloud 9, and the long-gone Lamp Post restaurant (now Crabby Dick’s). While in school for his bachelor’s degree, he had worked for Yolanda Pineda at Mariachi restaurant on Wilmington Avenue. He and Yolanda became good friends, and he helped her in any way he could. At the same time he was learning that most jobs for which he was degree-qualified involved research. “The research environment just wasn’t for me,” Leo says. “I’m an ‘all over the place’ kind of guy, and most of my friends were in the restaurant business.” In fact, it was at Mariachi where he met the guy who was to become a very special friend, Steve Rhone.
After spotting Steve at Mariachi, Cabrera quietly manipulated a meeting through friends, and they were finally introduced officially at the Blue Moon. Steve is a healthcare administrator at Christiana Hospital in Newark, DE, and their present careers keep the relationship somewhat long-distance. And Leo’s next move would monopolize even more of his time.
He confided to Yolanda that he needed to go out on his own, and the space at 62A Rehoboth Avenue was now vacant after the demise of Tornado Fries. It was a dark and cold mid-December day when Leo first walked in there with the rental agent. “I saw the cooking equipment and the big stainless steel hood, and I knew the place was mine.”
Leo and Steve worked pretty much around the clock to clean, revamp and remodel that space into what is now the new Modern Mixture restaurant. Gone are the vending machines and low lighting that greeted former visitors. Festive green walls reflect halogen spots that sparkle onto black tabletops, chair rails and trim. “I’ve done a lot of research into healthy alternatives to fast foods. My education in science, my cooking skills, and my experience with weight loss have all contributed to the menu at Modern Mixture.”
That menu says it all, with endless salads (some with crunchy nopalitos), delicious burritos, flautas, quesadillas, and Cuban sandwiches. The “Mixture” part is obvious in the Middle Eastern salads, sandwiches, gyros, and his own creamy-on-the-inside, crispy-on-the-outside falafel. And at the risk of sounding like a commercial, he makes some of the best guacamole in town.
Of course, everything in moderation, including moderation: One of the most popular items on Leo’s menu is homemade fried mac and cheese balls. In spite of all the healthy stuff, he sells more of those crunchy orbs than pretty much anything else.
You can see how it would take a master’s-level molecular biologist, a certified exercise instructor, and a seasoned restaurant maven (and former zaftig guy in his own right) to come up with a nutritious menu that promises to keep everybody happy. Leo Cabrera and his thoroughly Modern Mixture restaurant deliver on that promise.
Bob Yesbek is a Rehoboth Beach resident. Email Bob Yesbek