The Breadwinner

How Juan Carlos Aparicio baked his way to running a restaurant (that isn’t a bakery).

11 min read
Mx Secret Menu - Breadwinner hero

Juan Carlos Aparicio had never been to France.

It was June of 2008, and the chef had been hired to build a bread program for Parc, restaurateur Stephen Starr's then hotly-anticipated French brasserie slated to open on one of the busiest corners in the city. But he had never even tasted a good baguette. 

"No one ever said, 'This is what the actual baguette has to taste like,'" he recalls. "It was very hard for me to make what I wanted, because the only thing they brought me to taste was from New York. But after four hours, a baguette is old." 

Still, he remembers the moment — after weeks of working alone through the night, overseeing 12-hour ferments, mixing and punching down the dough on a schedule so meticulous and rigorous it was like feeding a room full of fussy newborns, after 2,000 tests tasted and tossed — when he got the recipe perfect. 

Mx Secret Menu Breadwinner baguette illustration

"When you bake it, the baguette has to have a curve," he tells me, motioning his two hands in an upward arc, like a smile. The moment Starr tasted it, he confirmed it was the one.

The baguette is iconic, still in the bread basket at the now-beloved Philly institution more than a decade and a half later. 

Aparicio's two-year stint at Parc is only one chapter in a 30-year career that's zagged from baklava to boule to wood-fired pizza to finally running his own place, El Chingon, an all-day Mexican restaurant. Circuitous as his path has been, the constant throughout has been baking; Aparicio's baguette, in other words, was not a detour to running a Mexican restaurant, but a kind of compass to getting there. 

On a vibrant corner in South Philly, under a striped awning and a string of papel picado, El Chingon is serving up vegan mushroom arabes tacos on fresh sourdough tortillas and cemitas with housemade chorizo piled into rolls he bakes daily from scratch.

It's the culmination of three decades of learning and innovating in other people's kitchens, and now it's his own. 

Aparicio emigrated from Mexico in 1994 when he was 14-years-old. He landed a job washing dishes at Bay Ridge Bakery, a generations-old Greek spot in Brooklyn. It was there he learned to bake — Melomakarona cookies, tiered wedding cakes, filo dough for honey-soaked baklava — though the owner never gave out his recipes. 

"He always carried his metal bowl, so we'll kind of see how much of the flour was in the bowl and try to replicate," Aparicio says. "It helped me develop my senses of watch and learn, of making something without a recipe." 

By the end of his five-year stint in Bay Ridge, Aparicio was running the bakery. He moved to Philadelphia to be closer to his older sister, who had also moved from Mexico, and got a job at Buddakan, Starr's flashy Pan-Asian spot, which had then just opened. Because his English was spotty, he started as a pastry assistant. 

"I already had the skills of being a baker for five years, but I wasn't able to express myself," he says.

Aparicio, who'd already picked up Greek in addition to his native Spanish, learned quickly, both the language and the job. Among other roles, he worked in the front of house running food, making good money, and befriended the executive chef, who taught him skills like how to cut fish and produce. 

Mx Secret Menu Breadwinner - bread illustration 2

It was after eight years at Buddakan that he took the job at Parc, starting on the bread program about a month before it opened to the public. When he perfected the baguette, Starr brought him a whole wheat sourdough boule and asked him to replicate it, and then a loaf of cranberry walnut bread from the chain grocery store Wegmans. (They're also still part of the French restaurant's bread basket.)

In the beginning, Aparicio was handling 2,000 pounds of dough a day, alone. (Nowadays at Parc there's a staff of ten bakers, he says.) After a couple of fulfilling but exhausting years, he left and was hired by Serafina, a New York City-based Italian chain opening in Philly, to run a pizza and pasta program. He spent months in New York training. "Serafina was kind of like my school for Italian [cooking], because they do everything very basic, which is what you want to learn — sauces from scratch, a massive lab making pastas."

But when he came back to start the job, the executive chef had quit right before the restaurant opened, and he was asked to take over. "I had no experience with how to manage, I didn't even know how to make the schedules," he says. He did it, though, and went on after that to work for a local Italian restaurant group, where he spent the next 10 years. 

Since El Chingon opened, the restaurant has been an instant hit, leading many to ask Aparicio why he hasn't started a restaurant earlier. He actually had, in Mexico, around 2003. It was a little cafe in Puebla, where he sold coffee and a few pastries he knew how to make. He spent all of his savings, and less than a year later, a lack of customers led him to close. 

"I was young, I wasn't ready — my mindset, my personality," he says. "To run a business, it takes experience." 

In the fall of 2019, he was finally ready. The owner of the building where his sister and brother-in-law rented an apartment was selling, and Aparicio felt a good energy in the neighborhood, on that corner. He didn't plan to sell cemitas, though. 

"I thought, I gotta do Italian, because that's what I do best," he says. There was surely comfort in cooking familiar cuisine, of course, but also in appealing to the audience. In the South Philly neighborhood, pizza and pasta has historically been a recipe for a successful restaurant.

But instead of opening his Italian concept the pandemic upended the industry. With his family (also his tenants) suddenly out of work, they built a kitchen and began hosting pop-ups on the weekends. He traveled to Mexico to learn how to make a cemita from the source. He bought a recipe, but even though he tested it there, when he got back it didn't work. 

"Bread is a living organism, it adapts itself to the space," he says. "You can have the best recipe in the world. You bring it here and it's not going to work. Because it has to adapt, with the pans, the temperature, the air, everything."

Mx Secret Menu Breadwinner tortillas

A metaphor for Aparicio, perhaps, who wasn't quite ready, but he figured it out. For his cemitas, he adjusted for the local flour that's got less sugar and starch than the flour he was using in Mexico, and perfected the recipe. Like the baguette, but with far fewer attempts. The sesame seed-showered rolls are light and crunchy, and most importantly, they stand up to his fillings. "When you eat it, it doesn't fall apart," he says. "It retains everything." 

The cemitas drew lines out the door, and most of the people who bought them were from Mexico. It prompted Aparicio to rethink his Italian concept.

But in the decades he worked in other people's restaurants, he never cooked the cuisine he grew up eating. So he tapped his sisters for their recipes, many which now form the menu at El Chingon.

It's a perfect mashup of traditional Pueblan dishes and inspiration from an entire culinary career. "A lot of techniques that I use over the years," he says, "I pulled them into the Mexican cuisine."

There are, of course, the cemitas. (Now when Aparicio's family comes to visit, they take his sandwiches back to Mexico.) There's also the rabbit tostada, and an array of tacos on sourdough tortillas, made using the same starter he first used to forge that Parc baguette years ago. 

He recently got a call from someone visiting Philly, ordering 50 of the tortillas to go. The customer was from California, a place with a flourishing Mexican food scene of its own, but they planned to cart his sourdough tortillas back across the country. 

"Nobody else makes them," Aparicio says, a proud lilt to his voice. "I made it up."

About Secret Menu

We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant's story can help or inspire another. We're proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.


Regan Stephens
Regan Stephens

Philadelphia-based writer

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