It’s 9:10 p.m. and 95 degrees on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. High July and these are New York’s famously hot and muggy summer nights, when the tinge of violence, the tides of desire, and the dramas of eight million stories seem to ripple underneath the sidewalk, until the entire city trembles.
Inside a closet-sized Peruvian restaurant on Allen Street called Baby Brasa, it is even more sweltering. Six plump chickens rotate on their spits in a rotisserie oven, and through the glass door one can see rivulets of fat running down their golden skin. Outside the oven, things are only slightly cooler. Six stylish women on high stools eat kale and quinoa, and despite their ladylike mien, from their pores pour perspiration. Rivulets of sweat also run down the golden skin of Franco Noriega, the owner of the restaurant, its chef, and an international supermodel come lately to the kitchen.
Noriega is 27-years-old, 6-foot-1, six-packed—nay, 12-packed—and beautiful. His features seem drawn with the same elegant parsimony of line that mark works of great elegance from the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi to the sketches of Matisse. Eyes, slightly upturned; cheekbones, so high they seem floating; lips like a couch; body like a cannonball. If Instagram is to be believed and faith maintained that not all the cards can be given to one man, he works hard at his physique. But, as even he admits, “I was just lucky.”
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Noriega was but a 14-year-old hobbledehoy when he was discovered in Peru and was still a teenager when he booked his first campaign in New York City. The year was 2007, the brand was D&G, and the photographer was fellow Peruvian Mario Testino. Noriega is on the far left in the image, wearing a tartan dinner jacket, a bowtie, and a very large fur hat. At such a tender age, he has already perfected the most important skill of modeling: looking serious while being dressed like a lunatic.
That campaign was a very big deal for Noriega. “I went straight to the top of my profession,” he says, “without any of the process.”
Like a bell rung or a string plucked, the impact of early success resonates differently within each person it touches, according to their shape, density, and depth of character. For those like Noriega, men born beautiful, some come to believe that the admiration and adulation heaped upon them is their birthright. They feel they are deserving, personally, because they earned it: all the blow, all the bows, the best jobs, the blowjobs, bouncer deference, bottle service, and as much bottled water as the world’s landfills can tolerate—it all belongs to them. Or, like Noriega, they make chicken.
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“Because I hit the top so young, I saw clearly what the ceiling was,” he says, “and it is this: When you’re a model, you get celebrated for being beautiful for nothing you’ve really done. You live this life of getting credit for something you didn’t really work for. That’s not who I am.” So though he continued to exhibit his beautiful form for monetary recompense, to stand, to smile, or more often to glower, all the while managing to manifest vulnerability and desire even as he convinced us that casually lifting up his shirt is causally motivated, Noriega looked for an endeavor in which he personally could claim agency. And that led him to Baby Brasa.
“I grew up in the restaurant world,” says Noriega. “My parents would start a concept, open three or four of them, sell it, keep a small percentage, and start something new.” So when it came time for him to make a reputation on something besides his good looks, it was to the kitchen young Noriega turned.
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In 2014, he enrolled in the International Culinary Center, staged with Daniel Boulud at DBGB, and in Queens at Pio Pio, a Peruvian rotisserie chicken restaurant. Immediately, he took to the egalitarian appeal of the kitchen brigade, which, though far from democratic, values nothing more than efficacy, diligence, and hard work. Being on the line in a kitchen, where one’s fellows are misfits, miscreants, and misanthropes, is the cosmic opposite of modeling. Though Noriega knew he wanted to start a restaurant, it was in Pio Pio, when the smells of his Peruvian childhood descended upon him (along with a heavy awareness of his native country’s sheer calorific calamity), that the idea of Baby Brasa was born. “I wanted to do something with rotisserie chicken but with health in mind,” he says. After all, his six-pack is his 401K. “I didn’t want to ruin it.”
It’s been three weeks since Baby Brasa opened on Allen Street and Noriega hasn’t stopped sweating, or working or arguing with contractors, or moving since. For a man whose bread-and-butter is standing still, this is something new and something thrilling.
But tonight Franco Noriega is in the weeds. His prep guy ghosted, so when he arrived 12 hours ago, he was already behind. He’s behind now and will never catch up. It’s a struggle any chef knows, futile but worthwhile. For success, when it comes and come it shall, will be not on luck or chance but on sweat, endeavor, and all the strength Noriega can muster.
—Styled by Wendell Brown