Growing up, children are often admonished for playing with their food. But for Francisco Ixcoy Ajiataz, owner and executive chef of Zest Kitchen and Bar, playing with food inspired him to become one of the area's most noted chefs.
"I like to play with my food," he says. "When I start making one dish, a hundred ideas come into my head. It's my favorite thing to do, and I love what I do."
Born in Totonicapán, Guatemala, Ajiataz's biggest dream, for as long as he can remember, involved moving to the United States and capturing a bit of the American dream. At just 20 years old, Ajiataz realized the first part of his dream when he began working as a prep cook in a Texas restaurant.
Prepping food fanned the tiny flame of his dream and helped him realize that he had a gift to share. Three years later, Ajiataz was an American citizen living in Florida, where he met Tracy McLain, a well-respected chef and owner of Ocean Bistro in Stuart who became Ajiataz's mentor. When the bistro was sold, Ajiataz made such an impression on the new owners, New York chef Dennis Collins and a partner, that he quickly rose to become the head chef.
In May, right in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, Ajiataz opened Zest Kitchen and Bar in St. Lucie West. In order to safely accommodate his customers, he cut seating in half and gave patrons plenty of room to spread out and enjoy his delightful global fare, which ranges from Kobe Beef Sliders and swordfish sandwiches to New Zealand Lamb Chops and Duck Bacon Wrapped Sea Scallops.
The chef's secret ingredient is making sure all of his ingredients are as fresh and creative as his ideas.
"I try not to use anything frozen unless it is absolutely necessary, and I think that because everything is fresh ingredients and everything is homemade here, it makes people happy and want to come back.
"When people come to eat here, they tell their friends about it, and I love that the word of mouth brings people in and they all get to try the food."
For Chef Francisco, the fresh and creative fare served at Zest is a family affair.
"My mom and family help with the cooking and I get to work with family and friends," he says. "Everyone having fun working together just sparks my creativity to mix things up even more."
Ajiataz feels like he is truly living his American dream.
"I never dreamed I would be doing this; it is so much fun."
Restaurant: Zest Kitchen and Bar, St. Lucie West Boulevard, Port St. Lucie
Background/Training: Started as a line cook in Texas and trained under chef Tracy McLain, former owner of Ocean Bistro
Most popular dish: Swordfish sandwich or dinner
Why I like being a chef: "I get to work with family and friends, and I love being creative with food and cooking."