ICE Grads Team Up to Open NYC Tapas Bar
Fellow Culinary Arts alumni Victor Amarilla and Greg Proechel are back in the kitchen together with a new concept.
After working together at Le Turtle and a few other restaurants, Greg Proechel (Culinary, ‘10) and Victor Amarilla (Culinary, ‘15) are collaborating once again at Debajo, a new Spanish-inspired tapas bar in the MADE Hotel.
Though the duo’s new venture is a hit, it was an unsuccessful restaurant in Times Square that introduced the two chefs. Chef Greg, who was consulting at the establishment, was immediately impressed with the diligent extern. “I noticed that Victor had a very good personality to be around,” Chef Greg says. “He’s very happy and he’s a very hard worker. He has a big motor, which I have as well, and that drew me to him. We basically hit it off.”
That positive first impression was the catalyst for a professional alliance and personal connection that have lasted years, as Chef Greg has continually invited Chef Victor to work alongside him. “Chef Greg became my mentor, which I’m extremely grateful for,” Chef Victor explains. “He became a really good friend of mine. Our relationship really flourished, more than professionally. I love this guy a lot.”
Chef Greg's experience includes positions at Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park and Blanca as well as Graffit, a now-closed Spanish restaurant on the Upper West Side. He initially employed Chef Victor at his Mr. Nilsson pop-up in Long Island City. Chef Victor, who worked in construction and New Jersey kitchens before enrolling at ICE, spent a year as a line cook at Roberta’s in Brooklyn before Chef Greg asked him to join the team at Le Turtle in the East Village. When Chef Greg left to open Ferris, also in the MADE Hotel, Chef Victor assumed the executive chef role at Le Turtle until it closed.
As the pandemic overtook New York, Chef Victor was consulting in hotels and Chef Greg was about to open a new restaurant. He had everything ready to go, from the investors to the concept to the location, right before the shutdown. “Thank goodness I did not sign that lease,” he reflects.
Instead, Chef Greg took some time off and Chef Victor sheltered in New Jersey with his family. By summer, both men were itching to get back into the kitchen. That’s when Chef Greg received a call from Sam Gelin, the founder of the MADE Hotel and his old friend from high school, with an invitation for him to return.
“I never thought I would be back in this space,” Chef Greg says. “I thought my time at the MADE Hotel was completely done, but Sam’s a good friend of mine and I’m very loyal to him and he really needed somebody. It was a very easy option to come back.”
Chef Greg started out on his own with a one-man pop-up called Day Off, where he was able to flex his creativity. His menu evolved from beloved Ferris throwbacks to Japanese influences with Spanish flavors to Southeast Asian plates. When the operation became popular, Chef Victor was the first hire.
In January, chefs Greg and Victor transitioned to a permanent tapas bar concept called Debajo. “I’ve always wanted to open a tapas bar and this was a perfect time because Victor had experience working in Spanish restaurants and he’s from Paraguay,” Chef Greg says, adding that his favorite thing about tapas is trying tons of dishes and curating his ideal bites.
Debajo, however, is not serving traditional Spanish cuisine. While it’s not overly modern, the food is Chef Greg’s unique take on the classics, informed by his training at Graffit, refined with Chef Victor’s help, and crafted with ingredients almost exclusively sourced from Spain and New York. “We want to create new flavor profiles that maybe you didn’t think of and maybe you didn’t know you love,” Chef Greg describes.
Diners can experience the inventive fare, along with Chef Victor’s festive playlist that combines Spanish hits and Mexican rock 'n' roll, both indoors and in the sunken garden on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Hotel guests can get a taste of the menu in the lobby, and delivery is available for those who want to indulge at home. “We knew we needed food that travels well,” Chef Greg says. “That’s one of the biggest things, given the fact that we don’t know what the next couple days, weeks or months will look like.”
Dishes like gambas al ajillo and pancita de cerdo are flavorful and delicious at any time and temperature, making them ideal delivery items, while the carnes and quesos are reserved for in-person dining. “Doing delivery well is very, very, very hard,” Chef Greg admits. “It was completely foreign to me before I started here. My biggest hesitation is that the food is actually arriving the way we intend it to. There are some things that you can control and some things that you can’t.”
Even so, the tight team, which includes one cook, one server and one bartender, is successfully running Debajo, providing food and beverage to the entire hotel and planning to expand with a Day Off-style tasting menu and a guest chef program. “It’s been tough to say the least, but luckily, I’ve had Victor here,” Chef Greg says. “He’s been very helpful and understanding of the situation. We work well together and we get each other. Restaurants come and go, but I know I’m going to be friends with Victor forever.”
Chef Victor completely agrees. “I see him has an older brother,” he says. “I look up to him. He’s always there for me. It’s difficult to find people that have your back no matter what in our industry. Our relationship will be forever, regardless of how many restaurants open and close.” It sounds like a partnership for the ages.
Study Culinary Arts and Rrestaurant & Culinary Management to pursue pop-ups and restaurant openings.