“I hate sitting at the table,” Franco Noriega says, splayed on a bench outside a barbershop on New York City’s Lower East Side. “If there’s a chef’s counter, I’m always going to take that. It’s the most interesting seat in the restaurant.”
The Peruvian model whose winsome eyes and rock-hard abs have graced campaigns for Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and Cavalli wears an inside-out Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a long, dark apron that just covers his highlighter-orange board shorts this muggy summer day. But you wouldn’t notice that when you’re at the counter of his weeks-old, wildly popular restaurant, Baby Brasa.
“I love being in the kitchen,” Noriega says (his Instagram bio reads simply: “CHEF / @BABYBRASA / NYC” and nothing of modeling, though the pics tell otherwise). “All of the things that I love to eat I’m just putting on the menu. That’s where my inspiration comes from.”
Long before friend-of-a-friend Mario Testino shot Noriega, and D&G subsequently gave him his big break, Noriega was a competitive swimmer—“Rio is one of my favorite cities in the world. It would be nice to go, but we have a restaurant opening, right?” he says with a laugh—and is the son of very entrepreneurial restaurant folks, who built and sold off successful bakery businesses. That left the home cooking to his nanny, Delfina, who is still with the family.
“I remember when she was in a bad mood, she wouldn’t cook,” Noriega says. “She would wait a little bit, do some cleaning, and then she would cook. She said, ‘Everything you cook, your energy goes into the food.’ That’s how I fell in love with the kitchen.”
He went on to study at the International Culinary Center and staged at DBGB, Bar Boulud and, of course, Pio Pio in Queens, NYC’s 22-year-old Peruvian rotisserie chicken chain—all in between modeling, acting and other passion projects (get a taste of Noriega’s style below). And though he’s on shoots in the mornings for one big-name fashion brand after the other, in the midst of expanding Baby Brasa to multiple locations and working on a future TV show, you’ll find Noriega right here in the kitchen from the afternoon until closing, making the food he craves.
“We have this joke in Peru that when a family goes to eat, someone wants Japanese or someone wants to eat ceviche, but no one is fully on board,” Noriega explains. “But when someone says, ‘Let’s eat rotisserie, or pollo a la brasa,’ everyone’s like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
At Baby Brasa, Noriega is very particular about the namesake dish: The chicken must be organic, marinated twice over 48 hours in seven types of chiles shipped straight from Peru, and make you feel good—not bloated.
“Clean, especially being Peruvian, doesn’t mean boring or bland, but delicious,’ Noriega says. “Plus Peruvian food is having a moment, and healthy food, too, so now is just the perfect timing, you know?”
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