Simon Criollo: Mastering the culinary arts under a Michelin Star

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Simon Criollo remembers working long shifts at Scuotto’s, a family-owned Italian restaurant in Sunrise where he washed piles of dishes — the job left him exhausted and with painful burns.

That was three years ago. Since then, he has channeled the external pressures and obstacles from Scuotto’s towards forging a culinary path he hopes will lead to him becoming a chef.

“Working at the Italian restaurant gave me the strength every chef needs,” he said. “Working under pressure made me discover the resilience required by every chef to persevere in this industry.”  

Criollo, 23, now works at Elcielo, a Latin American cuisine restaurant famous for being one of the first in Miami to earn a Michelin star in 2022. Though his family discouraged him from dropping out of Broward College to pursue his dreams, his current job at the restaurant as a chef de partie has lit a passion in him he believes will never be extinguished.

“I remember making empanadas with my mom, Gloria, in the warmth of my childhood kitchen,” Criollo said. “Those moments were more than just cooking lessons. We were creating memories together.”

Criollo was born and raised in Miami to Colombian parents who introduced him to the values of their home country’s culture and traditions. Growing up, he was very close to his grandmother, Margarita, who taught him the recipes of her homeland’s traditional dishes. 

“She poured love and dedication into every dish,” he said. 

He couldn’t wait to savor his grandmother’s mouthwatering arepas, bandeja paisa, and buñuelos. Despite his best efforts to replicate his grandmother’s recipes, Criollo admitted that they never quite matched up.

“Even the simplest dish she made tasted extraordinary,” Criollo recalled.

Against the backdrop of Miami’s diverse cultural tapestry, Criollo’s unique story reveals determination and resilience. 

In 2018, he took on his first job at Scuotto’s, a charming family-owned restaurant managed by Joseph Scuotto. At the young age of 17, he began his journey by washing dishes, gradually making his way up to becoming a cook. 

That path, however, was not without challenges. Criollo endured numerous physical injuries, including second-degree burns from the scorching oven and sizzling pans. The daily pressures imposed by his superiors and colleagues added to the difficulty. Nevertheless, Criollo remained fearless.

He graduated from Waldorf High School in 2018 and enrolled at Broward College in 2019 to study International Business before dropping out a year later.

“From a young age, Simon showed great creativity and dedication to cooking. It was no surprise when he left school to pursue his passion,” said his mother, Gloria Criollo. “Despite my concerns, I fully supported him, knowing that discouraging him would only hold him back. I believe that as long as one follows their dreams, anything is possible.”

Criollo was hesitant about what his next step would be, so he chose to dedicate more time to refining his culinary skills.  

Mateo Restrepo, Criollo’s cousin, has played a huge role in his life. Criollo and Restrepo are both only children and were raised as brothers, their bond strengthened in the absence of siblings.

“I remember when Simon was working at Scuotto’s and he was making deliveries one day,”  Restrepo said. “He called me and told me he was on his way to my house. Next thing you know he was delivering a pizza he made for me from scratch. The pizza was a mess, it had the shape of an egg, melted cheese everywhere, and tons of pepperoni, and tomato sauce coming out of the box; the fact that he took the time to bake the pizza for me and deliver it made my day.” 

Criollo’s favorite chef has always been Juan Manuel Barrientos, a Colombian entrepreneur who has founded 13 businesses, including Elcielo Miami.

Barrientos opened his first Elcielo restaurant in Medellín in 2006. Due to budget constraints, he made do using a hot dog cart that he removed the wheels from as a makeshift kitchen.

Despite this, visitors were greatly impressed by the restaurant’s cuisine which uniquely blended traditional Colombian flavors with modern cooking techniques. Eager customers frequently endure three-day-long waitlists just to try the innovative and delicious dishes. The restaurant was such a success that he established a second one in Bogotá in 2011. Four years later, the first branch outside of Colombia was established; Elcielo Miami was born.

Criollo admired Barrientos’ story so much, he wanted to be part of his team and applied to work at Elcielo Miami in 2022. A few weeks later, he received an email, leading to a job interview with Barrientos, nicknamed Juanma, where he was then offered a position.

“Juanma is a true role model,” Criollo said. “He found his way through the food industry, which is not easy, and created the most extraordinary restaurant chain in Latin America.”

“I worked about 16 hours while I was in my training period,” Criollo said. “I found myself rushing to add the finishing touches to a dish I was tasked to decorate, however, I ended up creating a mess. With that mistake, I discovered the patience required to craft something truly extraordinary.”

Criollo is currently working closely with Barrientos and other chefs to enhance his skills and master every aspect of the kitchen. He is also crafting his own dishes from scratch, giving them unique names, and refining them to debut on an upcoming menu launch.

Take his newest dessert, the murrapo calado. It is a small muffin made out of murrapo, a small banana cultivated in Colombia; pecorino foam; grated foie gras and canelé with a shot of aguardiente, Colombia’s most famous alcoholic drink.

“I started working on a sketch to gather my ideas on what ingredients I wanted to use for my next dish, and I came up with the idea of adding Colombian unique and traditional flavors like the murrapo and the aguardiente,” said Criolla. “I wasn’t hesitant about mixing these two ingredients because I feel like aguardiente goes with everything.”  

Criollo also volunteers with the Toy Run Foundation, a charity that collects gifts and delivers them via motorcycle all across America. He also travels to Medellín to help people in need. Criollo’s goal is to establish a foundation in Miami and Colombia that provides food and toys for children, offers free cooking lessons, and empowers individuals to start their own businesses.

“My cousin has always cared for others more than for himself, and that shows how amazing of a human being he is,” said Restrepo.

Criollo dreams of opening a restaurant, either in Miami or Washington, D.C. He is determined to create a vibrant dining destination that reflects his creativity and love for food. His next steps involve carefully planning and researching locations, improving menu concepts, and finding investors or partners who share his vision. 

“I’m driven by the magic of food, creating experiences that leave a lasting impact,” said Criollo. “Every dish, ingredient, and detail in my restaurant will tell a story, inspire and connect us all.”

Gabriela Flores is a junior majoring in Digital Journalism and Broadcasting with a minor certificate in International Relations. She wishes to pursue a career in the film industry and work for the United Nations.

Daniela Morales is a junior at Florida International University majoring in Digital Broadcasting. After graduating, her goal is to work for a prestigious news channel and travel all around the world to cover news and stories.