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Orinoco diners have feasted on Arepas and other Andean and Caribbean-influenced family recipes since 2006, when Andres Branger opened his South End restaurant as a homage to his roots and upbringing at his family’s cattle ranch in the llanos plains region of Venezuela. For Andres, creating Orinoco was the fulfillment of a dream to create a cozy, casual, affordable place that everyone could call home. Opening kitchens in Brookline Village in 2008 and Harvard Square in 2012 were approached with the same passion -- and friends and diners in all three neighborhoods immediately feel the love and lore behind Orinoco.
Even as a 10-year-old, growing up on a working ranch meant breakfast at 5:00 a.m., typically consisting of Perico (scrambled eggs with sofrito), arepas, chicharron (pork rind), grilled steak, chicken, and assorted fruits including mango, guayaba (guava), and lechoza (papaya). “Eat, eat’” his father would sternly advise Andres and his three brothers, “We don’t know when the work will end and when we’ll get to eat again.” This early memory lives on in Orinoco's generous plates.
Andres came to Boston in 1979 to attend Boston University where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1984. He obtained his MBA in 1986. He fell in love with the greater Boston area and decided to make it his adopted home, becoming a United States citizen in 1995. After working in financial marketing for many years, it became clear that he needed to merge his Venezuelan roots with his Boston life. The vision that became Orinoco goes back to his college years and trips that he’d taken back home to introduce his American friends to Venezuela. Everyone always came back talking wistfully about the delicious arepas and the wonderful and numerous taguaritas they had spent time at.
In 2003, Andres decided to jump into the restaurant business head first with the support of his dear friend, Martha – also a native Venezuelan. He laughs recalling his mother’s initial reaction, “What sensible person leaves a job at a fine bank to open a restaurant?”
Mom finally came around (they always do) and Andres is fond of saying that “it took a village to open Orinoco.” With the love and help of friends and villagers, from refining the concept to hand stripping tin ceiling tiles to donated chairs and plates, Orinoco was born.
“I am there!” was Martha’s immediate reply when Andres approached her with the idea of opening a true Venezuelan taguarita in Boston. After much brainstorming, Martha and Andres threw their first “Arepa Tasting Party” for a select group of friends in 1995. Amazingly, It was held at a friend’s home on Shawmut Avenue, right across the street from Orinoco’s current South End location. The group comprised the first hands-on-arepas focus group.
Martha patted the cornmeal dough into small patties and filled each with traditional arepa fillings. A zesty aroma filled the apartment as plates were served -- and the first critics were wowed! From then on, it was only a matter of time.
Martha, a Caracas native, coincidentally moved to Boston at the same time as Andres, also to attend Boston University. While working as a full-time financial executive, she played a key role in the challenging early stages of creating and opening our first two kitchens. Countless hours were spent reviewing, analyzing, projecting and refining plans as well as scraping and painting ceilings and walls. With the opening of our Harvard Square kitchen, Martha is now a full-time Orinoco leader and is thrilled to be living la vida arepa every day!
Martica, as she’s affectionately called, has an infectious energy. She grew up in a family where music provided a constant backdrop. Any gathering, from a dinner to a party, was an excuse to turn up the music and dance. She brings that spark to Orinoco. In the dining room, she’s been known to get up and grab a friend, server, or total stranger, and start dancing. Merengue, salsa, or disco, she’s an Orinoco star attraction.
Carlos began his culinary journey at an early age, literally pulling at his grandmother’s apron to help. At 14, he started working with his first culinary mentor, Chef Franz Conde in the kitchen of Seasons in Caracas. Still in his teens, he worked as an apprentice for some of the most revered chefs in the capital. In 1994, Carlos was granted a full scholarship to study in the U.S. and earn a degree in Culinary Arts.
After returning to Caracas, Carlos ran a consulting company that opened new restaurants in the city. He also consulted for leading companies including Nestle Latin America, McCormick, and Coca-Cola, and helped established three culinary Schools: The Venezuelan Center for Gastronomical Studies, La Casserole du Chef, and The High Educational Institute for the Culinary Arts.
Carlos moved to Miami in 2001 to become a private Chef de Cuisine. He soon met his second culinary mentor-- chef Douglas Rodriguez, the renowned Cuban chef and the father of Nuevo Latino cuisine, working as Sous Chef at his famous OLA Miami restaurant.
In 2003, Andres contacted Carlos via family to go over his concept idea, and they were soon discussing how to best develop the not-yet-named restaurant’s menu. It did not take long for Carlos to begin dreaming about the excitement of the concept and the collaboration soon took hold. Andres and Carlos began visiting Latin restaurants in Miami, New York and Chicago to gain first-hand experience and insight. Carlos moved to Boston in 2004 and joined Andres and his friends in building Orinoco, literally from the ground up.
While working tirelessly in the open kitchen at Orinoco South End, Carlos’s artistry was quickly noticed. Beyond the accolades and numerous honors he has received from Orinoco guests and critics, his artistry has also been recognized by academia, having been awarded an honorary Master Degree in Culinary Science from Northeastern University in 2007. Like all great chefs, Carlos is continuously innovating, improving and expanding his creations to delight and surprise his guests – on each and every visit.
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