The Don (or Possibly the Mom) Of Valencia

The following is an excerpt from a profile I wrote on Michael Young, the owner of Valencia Luncheria in Norwalk, CT.

“My father was murdered when I was nineteen. It’s an unsolved homicide,” states Michael Young, owner of Valencia Luncheria, plainly. However, after research, no account of a Michael Young Sr. could be found in the death records during the year of his supposed demise in Miami, FL, or Long Island, NY, the two places he claimed his father had lived.

Part I

 It was just after noon when I met with Michael Young. He sat waiting for me at a table with his back turned as I entered Bodega Taco Bar in Darien, CT. My eyes were immediately drawn to the neat line of brightly colored Jarritos Mexican sodas sitting along the window sill. The exceptionally sunny day made their colors appear only brighter in contrast to the somewhat dimly lit restaurant.

Young is a man of medium build and medium height with a goatee of medium length. He’s 42 years old and outfitted in a pair of sneakers, T-shirt, and jeans, with a knit cap hiding his mop of dark hair. He walks as if he’s straddling some invisible horse, and when he opens his mouth he could not sound less like a businessman.

“Yeah, I was twenty when I stopped selling and started working at Two Boots (Pizzeria),” he says. It wasn’t until he moved to Connecticut from Long Island, NY, when his career as a head chef began to take off. Living in Trumbull and working at Ocean Drive in South Norwalk, he had a great relationship with his boss Mario Fontana, who also used to be the owner of the restaurant Habana. However, as the restaurants became more successful, Michael Young began to see less and less of Fontana and he “thought very little of Mario’s management staff.”

He was the head chef of a thriving restaurant but he couldn’t stand the thought of being unhappy under the supervision of incompetent managers. Young quit his job at Ocean Drive in June 2003 at “a risky time,” with a 4 year-old son, Zachary, at home and his wife pregnant. But he was miserable, and told Mario that “I would paint houses if I had to.” Then he thought about it. “No, I would do anything but paint houses,” he recalls with a smile.

Just then, a young woman with auburn hair brings us two glasses of water with no ice. He thanks her and gives her a high five as she turns to walk away. Young’s presence is easygoing at the restaurant as he acknowledges that he’s “the guy that the staff can talk to,” more so than the other two owners, Fontana and Luis Chavez. He continues, “I was confident I could open my own place.”

Nabil El Mazri was his man. A native of Venezuela and baseball hat enthusiast took Young to New York City to try authentic arepas and empanadas. Although the story that Young often tells customers and the press, that he went to Venezuela and learned how to make beach food by starting as a dishwasher, is popular, it isn’t true. “It just sounded better,” admits Young when asked why he later used the story when Valencia Luncheria, was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Valencia Luncheria opened its doors on Halloween 2003. In his first year of business, Young worked 361 days, taking off only for Christmas and the birth of his daughter, Josie. He made back his comparatively low capital investment of $60,000 in 90 days. “When a Walmart opens, it usually takes three or four years for them to make back their capital investment,” he says, “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is what changed everything.”

According to the New York Times, with a high Zagat rating and television publicity, the restaurant’s business more than doubled in two years with lines of more than 100 people long at times. “There were times we had to close,” said Young, whose restaurant sat 24 at small tables. “We had to close for an hour and a half and get our heads back together.”

Part II

Young has always been somewhat of an entrepreneur, even as a boy. One of his earliest memories was of “finding out where money came from. I would take it out of my mother’s purse and go and buy ice cream. As soon as I heard those bells coming, I’d come running.”

His parents divorced when he was 8 and he moved into his grandparent’s house with his mother, Teresa, and his two younger siblings, Steven and Tracy.

Young loved his mother but always saw her as poor and this was his motivation to constantly try to find ways of making money.

“If you had to be 12 to have a paper route, I lied when I was 8. If you had to be 16 to work as a landscaper, I lied when I was 12,” he says. “I got facial hair early.”

Throughout junior high, Young had a paper route, cut lawns, and fellow students already owed him money at school.

He bought packs of gum for seven cents and sold them for 35 cents, “a 500 percent markup,” but he was caught by the principal. He quickly moved on to black light posters. He would walk through the halls with a duffle bag full of them, and by the time he was in eighth grade he was “rolling money into money and buying my own clothes.” Then one day he caught wind that his poster supplier was making good money selling pipes and bongs. He wanted in.

“Pot, coke, mescaline, and acid was the stuff I sold and used,” he explains.

Mr. Young’s attitude changes as he describes his years at Berner High School in Massapequa, New York. He graduated in 1987, incidentally, the same year the school closed. Young becomes more animated and it appears he may truly miss the thrill of those days. He speaks confidently as he talks of his experience as a dealer, as well as how he never dated a girl who wasn’t older than him. His stories are delivered steadily, but the subject matter is outlandish. He says he carried a pistol, “a 380, and I never shot it, but I was shot at one time when I was trying to kidnap this kid who owed me money.”

During sophomore year, his mother had enough and she handed him a Board of Cooperative Education Services catalog and told him to pick something. BOCES was a trade school that students attended in the morning, returning to their high schools for the rest of the afternoon. Young was “never very studious,” but he listened to his mother and chose cooking. It would later turn out that his BOCES would be the only formal training he’d receive in cooking.

In January of his senior year, he moved out of his grandparent’s house and got an apartment with his girlfriend with the money he earned selling drugs. It would be almost two years before he’d stop selling drugs and start working at Two Boots.

Today if you met Young you’d probably have a tough time guessing the rougher side of his past. He still carries himself with an air of arrogance, but the edge has completely disappeared, if it was ever there at all.

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