By Daniel Gatta
“Ding, ding, ding.” The ringing of the bell between rounds, the bright lights, the cheers from the crowd, the adrenaline rush of fighting in the ring – and he gave it all up for a spot in the kitchen.
A few years ago, professional boxer Alan Gotay hung up his gloves to pursue a career in the food industry. On Wednesday, April 19, Gotay’s very own Cuban restaurant, Babalu NY, opened in Huntington.
Towards the end of his boxing career, Gotay enrolled in culinary school and graduated valedictorian of his class. He was determined to make a name for himself and prove he could be a successful chef.
“They say if you can cook in the city then you can cook anywhere,” Gotay said. “I had to answer that question for myself. I’m a very competitive guy and want to compete amongst the best. I went to work for Bobby Flay; I also worked for Giorgio Armani. I worked in New York City for about eight months and I knew that this was something I could do on my own here on Long Island.”
Gotay learned about a location available in Huntington around November of last year. After visiting the space, he decided this would be where he could finally open his own restaurant. He quit his job, secured the space in December, and in just five months, Babalu NY was open for business.
Babalu NY is a Cuban restaurant that serves mainly Cuban and Mediterranean dishes. The walls are painted a vibrant shade of blue and Cuban-themed murals line the interior of the restaurant. Babalu was inspired by Gotay’s Cuban heritage. He wants customers to have a chance to immerse themselves in the culture.
“I’m very proud of my Cuban roots,” Gotay explained. “When I was a kid I fell in love with the tradition and the culture and was always reminded that family is what’s most important in life. I love the vibes, I love the music, and I just enjoy Cuban culture as a whole. It brings people together and that’s what I wanted for this restaurant.”
To many, the transition from boxing to cooking may seem strange. But the ex-boxer sees a lot of parallels between the ring and the kitchen.
“When I’m boxing and in the moment, nothing else matters,” Gotay said. “You’re under pressure, under the fire, and what matters is how you react. When I’m in the kitchen and it’s busy, getting pounded with tickets, nothing else matters in that moment except delivering and rising to the occasion. Getting the food out of the kitchen on time and giving people a great product is what I live for. That’s where I see the similarities and that’s why I love it.”
Restaurants that focus on a certain country’s culture and cuisine can be a great way of passing on cultural knowledge. There has never been an overwhelming Cuban population on Long Island – there are nearly 10,000 Cubans living in Queens and Long Island, according to CubanNewYorkers.com – but several Cuban restaurants owners have noticed a recent uptick in the number of new restaurants in the area.
“You know there’s been a few that have opened up as of late but New York and Long Island have never really been quote-unquote Cuban towns,” Rudy Acosta, owner of Rincon Criollo, a Cuban restaurant in Huntington Station, said. “Long Island is more of a melting pot. For example in Miami, you can find a Cuban restaurant on every block where here it’s more of a mixture of different cuisines. Although as of late I would say there has been an increase in the number of Cuban restaurants popping up in our area.”
Babalu may be new, but Gotay wants his restaurant to be considered one of the best on Long Island. He is determined to provide customers with an authentic dining experience with delicious, quality food.
“There are Cuban restaurants, some in the city and some on Long Island and they sometimes don’t respect the food or the culture,” Gotay explained. “They cut corners and take shortcuts. With this restaurant, I wanted to show people that if you work hard, and you do it right, nothing needs to be complicated. You can serve simple food and with passion and hard work you’ll give people a good product.”
After a soft opening that began on Wednesday, April 19, and ran through Friday, April 21, Babalu NY was open all day for the first time on Saturday, April 22. Babalu NY is officially open for business and they offer a myriad of Cuban dishes for brunch, lunch and dinner.