What I Do: Carmen Estrada of Balkan Treat Box
As the second oldest in a family of five children, service is deeply ingrained in Carmen Estrada. “I grew up essentially taking care of people, and that’s what inspired that sense of hospitality in me,” she said.
Until recently, Estrada was known for developing the beverage program and working as a manager and sommelier at Farmhaus. Now, the accomplished sommelier is general manager at Balkan Treat Box in Webster Groves. Here’s why this Texas native made the move from fine dining to fast casual.
“My real name is Margarita, but I didn’t know until fifth grade. When I was a baby, my Uncle Carmen was the only person I would not cry with, so they started calling me ‘Little Carmen.’ The little fell off somewhere, but Carmen stayed. Anyway, when the teacher asked if there was any name that hadn’t been called, I raised my hand, and that’s when we figured it out. ... I tried to go by Margarita when I was in New York, but I would never answer to it. Maybe I shouldn't try to change my name in my 30s.”
“My first job was as a carhop at Sonic in the ’90s. I was riding around on skates; it was hilarious. … I did the admin thing for a while and even worked for a massage school, but I started feeling burned out and was trying to think, ‘What do I do next?’ I had always had a passion for food and wine.”
“I packed my bags and moved to New York City with my now ex-husband for a couple years so I could take intensive sommelier training at the International Culinary Center. It’s basically a crash course in wine. Four months, 300 wines – that’s a lot of crying. I was really stressed out because I had just made this huge career move and wasn’t sure if I had done the right thing.”
“This guy comes into the wine shop I was working at in New York and essentially grifted me. He hands me a hundred and some 20s, and next thing you know, the hundred is gone and the 20s ended up being fake. My manager chased him down – I think it was Wall Street – and tackled him, and the guy started screaming, but my manager got that hundred back. It was quite possibly one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”
“Farmhaus was my first real fine dining job. It was kind of amazing to be able to land there when I got back from New York. My ex-husband and I were very into fine dining. For me it was always a matter of, ‘Food is love. Service is love.’ You want to feel comfortable and at home, and we got that at fine dining restaurants.”
“I loved working in fine dining, but it was taxing. I could only do those late nights for so long. At Balkan, we’re only open for lunch, so that helps with my work-life balance. … We will probably be launching a liquor program in January or February. I envision having some really fun, unique wines on the list.”
“If it’s busy, sometimes we have to ask people to leave to make room for the next guests. It takes a lot of tact and a certain personality – a lot of finesse.”
“The local restaurant scene has really evolved. Back in the day, fast-casual was OK but never amazing. There are a lot more fast-casual restaurants that have elevated their food with more fresh-focused and chef-driven cuisine. You don’t have to get dressed up or spend a lot to have a really great meal.”
Lauren Healey is associate editor at Sauce Magazine.
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