As one of many Hispanics in the hospitality industry, he hopes to inspire the next generation of leaders.
“I like to help others move forward in their careers,” said the 32-year-old chef who came to Fort Worth in January of this year.
Toro Toro opened its Fort Worth location in the lobby of the Worthington Renaissance hotel in downtown in November 2019. It is part of Denver-based Richard Sandoval Hospitality group founded by Mexican-born chef/restaurateur Richard Sandoval. Sandoval operates over 50 restaurant concepts around the globe. U.S. restaurants are located in 10 states and the District of Columbia and internationally in seven countries, including Costa Rica, Mexico, Nevis, Qatar, Serbia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Toro Toro integrates Mexican and Peruvian cuisines with offerings such as Amarillo ceviche, a double-barreled Texas pork chop and pan-seared red snapper. The restaurant was recently awarded a best brunch in Fort Worth award.
Worthington general manager Drew Hayden said Esparza is not just a talented chef in the kitchen.
“What makes Chef Jonathan special is his ability to lead and create a team,” Hayden said. “Chef Jonathan has been able to build a kitchen team, in the midst of a pandemic, that is tenacious, synergetic and dedicated to serving great food. This is what I am thankful for and why I am so proud of him.”
Esparza’s path to leadership took a few twists and turns, but it eventually led him to Fort Worth.
Esparza initially saw himself as a doctor when he was growing up in Puerto Vallarta. He took a test in high school that showed he had an aptitude for a medical degree, so he took the test to enter medical school.
“My counselor said I should have a position with a white coat,” Esparza said.
But his scores were just a few points shy of getting into medical school.
Meanwhile, he began working at a restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where his uncle was employed. There, he got to observe how a kitchen worked and ask questions of the chefs.
Upon his return to Puerto Vallarta, he saw a private school for gastronomy, Universidad Tecnologica de Bahia de Banderas, as he and his mother walked to the beach.
“My mom says, ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school. There’s kind of a boom right now?’ That was 2009, and so I applied,” he said.
Esparza excelled in the ‘knife skills’ course. He carved chocolate, butter, fruits, ice and vegetables. At the end of each quarter, the students would have to create an entire restaurant from scratch and in the capsule class, he would participate as executive chef or general manager, and this is where he started to really hone in on his team building and communications skills.
“I was always good at math, which is handy for doing things like being executive chef or general manager, so I did well,” he said.
He also got a test in leadership when he was chosen to be a group leader.
“I don’t know why, but I’m good at talking to people, whether it’s about something good or bad, but the members of our group always elected me leader,” he said.
The final test was served in a room that was outfitted as an actual kitchen. Then, they gave Esparza his uniform, including a white coat, and tools.
“I realized it was something similar to being a doctor with the white coat, like the test I took in high school,” he said. “At the end of the day, we both treat people, right? Only in different ways.”
Esparza also got plenty of time with some high-level chefs and he was able to intern for them.
Among them were French Chef Thierry Blouet, who owns Café Des Artistes and a 40-seat tasting room called Auteur Kitchen, and Chef Javier Plascencia in Baja, California, where Esparza learned about the Baja regional cuisine.
For two years, in between his posts in Riviera Maya and at Café des Artistes, he worked alongside old school and new school chefs from Mexico City for major events, including the Global Economic Forum, for two different Mexican presidents, and lavish weddings.
“Those were big, big events with hundreds of – and at times more than a thousand – clients and a lot of high-profile people,” he said. “You learned a lot fast, and we got some great compliments.”
Esparza eventually married and moved to Santa Fe, where he worked at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado.
Although Esparza had been born in California, he was raised in Mexico and did not speak English well. He knew he would have to learn to work in U.S.. He did, primarily by watching English films with no Spanish subtitles.
“Marvel superhero movies were the best,” he said. “The dialogue was fairly basic, and so I could follow it really well. I learned by watching superheroes, but it worked. I’m thankful those movies were popular. I had a lot of choices to watch.”
He began at the Four Seasons as cook No. 3 and he was promoted to cook No. 2 in 90 days, and he proceeded to advance two more levels within six months to reach the position of junior chef.
Esparza was hand selected by the hotel’s executive chef to become part of the hotel task force sent to open and train teams at other properties such as the Four Seasons Palm Beach with Four Seasons Hotels President Christian Clerc.
“You learn a lot by doing that, finding what a person is good at and challenging them to do better,” he said.
It was in Santa Fe that Esparza met Sandoval, who recruited him for the Fort Worth restaurant. Fort Worth’s cattle roots are perfect for Esparza as he and his family lived for many years on a cattle ranch.
“Jonathan will offer his unique sense of creativity to Toro Toro’s menus and our seasonal programming and events,” Sandoval said when Esparza was named to the position.
It has been a challenge, coming on board following a pandemic that hit the restaurant industry particularly hard, Esparza said.
“It was like building from the ground up,” he said.
Espara also had to learn the style of Nikkei, a type of Japanese cuisine mixed with Peruvian influences to create some of the restaurant’s Pan Latin recipes. The concept’s focus on tequila and mezcal is also perfect for Esparza as he grew up in the region where tequila is made.
Esparza had barely settled in Fort Worth when he and a crew from Toro Toro, including founder Sandoval, participated in the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival’s Tacos + Tequila event.
“I loved doing that,” he said. “For our employees, they got to get an immediate response from the attendees and that’s great for them, because they are often in the back and don’t get the feedback. It created a sense of purpose in what we’re doing.”
It was also popular with attendees.
“I did my duck taco, and everybody loved them,” he said. “It was a little different, but I asked people to give it a try, and they liked it.”
They were supposed to end at 8 p.m., but demand was so great they kept serving tacos until 10 p.m.
“It got people talking about us and helped put us on the map and the guys that were serving the tacos, they were talking about it for days,” he said.
Esparza said he and Toro Toro are just getting started.
“We haven’t been here a year yet,” he said. “People will hear more about us.”
Jonathan Esparza bio:
Birthplace: San Diego, California
Moved to Fort Worth: 2022
Family: wife, Janette. and son, 5; and daughter, 3.
Education: Culinary degree from Universidad Tegnologica de Bahia de Banderas, Nayarit.
Work experience: Chef at Four Season in Santa Fe; head chef at convention center at Puerto Vallarta
Volunteer experience: Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival
First job: His first job was working at a restaurant.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: ”For me, it’s about sharing what I’ve been doing. If you are down or starting out, I would like to help you move up and do more. That’s what I told my guys, even my sous chef: If you’re going to be in my spot, I can show you. I can train you. I can show you everything that I know.”
Best advice ever received: “I don’t know if it’s advice exactly, but the general manager here at the Worthington (Drew Hayden) he’s a very busy guy, but he always makes time to come here and asks everyone how their day is, how their kids are, how their families are doing. That’s great. It sets a great example and makes people want to work here. I think it’s great, and I try to do that.”
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.