Southern Proper Hospitality (SPH) COO Alex Curley announced an addition to the Atlanta restaurant group’s leadership team. New corporate chef Juan Rivera is now overseeing menu engineering, kitchen design and the hiring and development of staff for The Southern Gentleman, Gypsy Kitchen, The Big Ketch Saltwater Grill, The Blind Pig Parlour Bar, Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails and Ocean & Acre. Rivera has followed an inspiring career path and is passionate about motivating his culinary teams and creating memorable dining experiences for guests.
“Understanding the culture behind a cuisine and sharing that with guests is what inspires my dishes,” says Rivera, who is skilled in creating Spanish, French, Mexican, Asian and American menus and appreciates the diversity of SPH’s restaurant concepts. “It’s all part of creating these food memories that stick in diners’ minds.”
Rivera most recently served as the senior executive chef for Barcelona Wine Bar for two years, where he oversaw recruiting, menu development and back-of-house operations for four locations. Prior to that, he was the corporate chef trainer for Richard Sandoval Restaurant Group and was responsible for new restaurant openings and leading back-of-house teams. His culinary experience also includes an executive sous chef position at Farmers Restaurant Group and a corporate chef role at Ping Pong Dim Sum in Washington, D.C., where he oversaw two restaurant locations.
Thanks to his fine dining background and his ability to quickly rise through the ranks, Rivera’s attention to detail is incomparable. He began his restaurant career as a dishwasher 12 years ago, capturing the attention of notable chefs who gave him the opportunity to shine. Rivera credits Michel Richard as his mentor and worked as his sous chef at Central Michel Richard in Washington, D.C., from August 2011 to August 2013. He also acknowledges José Andrés for giving him his first line cook job at Jaleo. He now wants to provide his SPH employees with the same education and honest communication he received.
“I’m all about teaching what I know and not keeping any secrets; what helped me to grow in my profession was having mentors that were open with me,” says Rivera of his own mentorship strategies. “I like to give back. If I was able to come to America without knowing the language or the culture and achieve this career, why can’t everyone else do it, too?”
Originally from Honduras and raised in El Salvador, Rivera’s first job upon moving to the United States was at his father’s pizzeria in Frederick, Maryland. “I was put into the restaurant business without knowing I had a passion for it.”
But he learned what it really means to cook from watching his grandmother in the kitchen. “Looking back on my grandmother cooking without recipes and constantly tasting the food made me realize what a cook does.”
Rivera currently lives in Mableton, Georgia, with his wife Rosie and daughter Adriana. When he’s not in the kitchen, he enjoys playing soccer and exploring Atlanta.