The son of and grandson of butchers, Manny Valdes grew up watching his father lovingly prepare Cuban sandwiches at his inner-city bodegas.
"My grandfather and my dad were always the best cooks in the family," Valdes recalls. "They were big fishermen in Cuba, and hunters, and we were always preparing feasts in our backyard of one form or another."
Valdes, now the CEO of Chicago-based Frontera Foods, which supplies gourmet salsas to more than half of U.S. grocery stores, says his father's influence on his food-focused career path has been profound: "I don't think I could have ever done anything else. When you grow up making a big paella, roasting a pig on a pit almost every other week, you can't help but get into that business. You get bit by that bug pretty quickly."
Still, there were a few professional detours along the way. Valdes' immigrant parents wanted him have a stable job, so he studied computer science at Illinois State and worked as a technology consultant for almost seven years. Longing to return to the food biz, he went to Northwestern's business school, where he hatched a plan for a packaged-food line based on the foods he'd eaten — and loved — at Chicago chef
In 1994, while working in marketing at Kraft, Valdes finally mustered the courage to introduce himself to Bayless and pitch the packaged-foods line. The men talked for a year before launching Frontera in 1996.
"At times it's surreal, because you can remember seeing the very first jar of salsa being produced, and now you go to the same facility and see hundreds and hundreds of jars coming out," says Valdes, 49, who lives with his wife, Conchita, and their two daughters in Wilmette. "You have to sort of close your eyes and open them and say, 'Wow! This has really turned into something.'"
(The following is an edited transcript.)
Q: What's your greatest attribute or fault?
A: I would say they're the same: ADD. I have an ability to really think and visualize multiple things and just sort of balance a lot of different projects in my head simultaneously. But, at the same time, when you run an organization with a lot of different people, that sort of approach can sometimes lose some focus.
Q: What's your greatest possession?
A: That's pretty easy. If you can call it a possession, I would say my kids. I just love being with them and seeing them grow up over the years has been wonderful.
Q: What's the best lesson you learned from your father or mother?
A: Persistence: I never saw my dad ever give up on anything. He always used to say, 'You never know how something's going to turn out unless you jump in.' He always said, 'Jump into the river. It will just move and you'll make decisions as you go. Never be hesitant.'
Q: What's the secret of success?
A: Not to be afraid of failure.
Q: What's your favorite food?
A: That's kind of like asking if I have a favorite child. (He added later, in an email exchange: "I've always commented to friends that I can live on bread, cheese, and beer. Pretty basic, but absolutely delicious.")
Q: What did you want to be at age 13?
A: I either wanted to be an oceanographer, because I loved the ocean, or a lawyer.
Q: Why a lawyer?
A: It just seemed like a very professional thing to do. I was enamored with doing good and wearing a suit and being part of that professional group: doctors, lawyers, accountants. I think that was sort of a practical (choice), whereas an oceanographer was much more a love for the ocean and what it represented.
Q: Which side gets cheated more often, the personal or the professional?
A: Really, I don't sacrifice either one. If I have a dinner party at my house, it's an extension of what I'm doing. It's, "We tried these new recipes at work and I'm going to invite a few friends and show them what we made." Or if we're opening a new restaurant in San Francisco, is that work, really? Or if I'm scouting a trip with Rick Bayless in Mexico, is that work, really? It just seems like I have a perfect hobby.