The Beginnings of Humans Of The Kitchen

From being an immigrant frying chicken wings in a sports bar to creating HOTK.

Hey everyone! Welcome to Substack, our newsletter, where we control our content without relying on a social media platform. Before we jump in, I’d like to introduce myself.

It’s been a four-year journey; perhaps you’ve caught me on a podcast or stumbled upon one of my articles. But you might be curious about who the hell is behind “Humans of the Kitchen.”

I’m Beto Ortiz, a Colombian immigrant who set foot in Miami, USA, 14 years ago at 18. I left Colombia behind because I was a bit of a wild kid. I felt misunderstood, which caused my family quite a bit of trouble. I was a classic problematic Punk Rocker, constantly questioning everything and getting into fights. Colombia and Latin America, back then, were places full of classism and judgment. People sized you up based on appearances and actions, which didn’t end well for me. I found myself in a police station for vague reasons, primarily because of my looks. On another occasion, I was stabbed near my spine, and a good friend spent weeks recovering in the hospital. I spent years blaming Latin America, my culture, and everything else. But in the end, it was all my fault. If you wish to bring about change, wisdom is essential. Being entirely opposed to everything won’t make people hear you. Yet, you know, I don’t regret those experiences. Embracing punk culture enabled me to perceive life and society from an entirely different angle, shaping the person I am today.

My father passed away just a month before I came into this world, so my early days were spent in the kitchen alongside my mom or my nanny, helping prep things or getting ready to host. My mom was renowned for throwing unforgettable gatherings with friends and family. My earliest memory of food is of me near a mill with my nanny munching on the raw “masa” for arepas. Since then, the kitchen has been a place of comfort for me.

When I arrived in the US, I had to start from zero, taking on responsibilities and figuring things out. I began missing the flavors of my homeland, so I turned to my mother for recipes and started cooking myself. Food became my home, yet also my escape. My first job as an immigrant happened to be in a kitchen, frying wings at a sports bar in Miami. It was mainly a one-person show – prepping, frying, washing dishes – you name it. Surprisingly, I discovered I loved it; it grounded me. That’s when the realization hit me: I wanted to explore the culinary world but with a focus on Italian cuisine. A trip to Italy with my culinary school sealed the deal; the culture captivated me. I hopped between different Italian restaurants in Miami until I climbed the ladder to become a sous chef at one. Given my interest in photography, I often captured the chaos and beauty of our lively kitchen; it was a joy to be surrounded by stories from people worldwide. The exchange of culture and knowledge fueled my desire to wake up each day and step into the kitchen.

Then came a pivotal moment. My mentor Andrea, the Chef I worked under, gave me one piece of advice that stuck with me. He recognized something different in me beyond my cooking skills and encouraged me to explore my other talents. As time passed, the Chef decided to retire and venture into a bed-and-breakfast business in Italy. Faced with the prospect of inheriting such a significant role alongside another cook, I stood at a crossroads. While I held immense respect for the cook’s journey to become a Chef, I questioned whether that path was mine and whether I was prepared to step into that role. So, after dedicating six years to the culinary world, I decided to step back and began assisting friends with their restaurant ventures – brainstorming menu concepts, refining design elements, capturing photography; you name it. I even teamed up with a fellow culinary schoolmate to establish a boutique agency offering digital marketing, consulting, photography, and logo design services. We even came close to launching a Pasta-focused restaurant with his family. Yet, once again, I was uncertain if that was my path.

Then, the world mourned the loss of Anthony Bourdain, a genuine icon. I greatly admired him. What drew me to him wasn’t just his status as a rebel chef who shattered television norms but his dedication to shedding light on the unsung heroes, those who often fade into the background – the unnoticed ones and those rarely discussed. Anthony Bourdain became a voice for those who were voiceless, and that aspect deeply resonated with me.

When he passed away, it hit me hard. Who’s going to fill his shoes now? Who will talk about politics in food shows, culture, and the uncomfortable but down-to-earth topics? I was convinced that no one could replace him at all, but I knew I had a responsibility to keep his legacy alive in some form. So, I approached my culinary school partner Michael Kelsey, who happened to be a talented writer, and another friend, a professional photographer Julian Buitrago. I said, “Folks, I have this idea and am determined to bring it to life.” Without their unwavering support, this project would have materialized during those initial two years.

I brainstormed countless times to come up with a captivating name on Instagram. I explored various storytelling initiatives and nonprofit organizations, which led me to discover “Humans of New York.” While impressive, I aspired for something more encompassing. Journalism wasn’t my forte; I considered myself a creative storyteller and a community builder. I aimed to forge a community, orchestrate events, and establish a nonprofit entity. That’s when it clicked, “Why not ‘Humans of the Kitchen’? Is that name already claimed?” A swift Google search and a peek at the URL, and there it was, available for the taking! I entertained the thought of changing it down the road, but for the moment, I thought, “Let’s get this rolling.

Being immersed in the kitchen environment, I had the natural ability to capture those crucial moments. Admittedly, I’m not the world’s most exceptional photographer – I don’t even professionally identify as one – but I am good at capturing those symbolic moments of the kitchen. The response was astounding when we shared our first “Dishwasher” story! Our industry friends were all on board. Chefs wanted us to showcase their teams, unlike the press or the internet, which often is not part of their agenda. We realized we were on to something.

As the second year rolled around, our horizons broadened, and we began sharing narratives extending beyond the confines of Miami. To uphold the essence of our name, I embarked on a self-funded travel experience, capturing stories in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Italy – places where I encountered talents, connected with families, and reconciled with my homeland. These travels gave me a fresh perspective on the world, and I reveled in it. It became crystal clear – this was my true calling. Roaming the planet, and documenting captivating kitchen stories, was where my heart lay.

By the third year, it was evident that our endeavor required more than merely sharing photographs. It transcended photography and any personal egos. Our mission was forging connections with cooks across the globe, amplifying their stories. I initiated collaborations with other photographers and established a submission form on our website, inviting cooks to share their tales and images, ensuring proper credit.

Interview Form

We also contacted reporters and photographers worldwide – from Canada and Venezuela to Europe and Asia. This morphed our initiative into a community-driven project, uniting like-minded souls who shared our passion for the kitchen and photography.

Become a HOTK Reporter

You see, it’s not just about taking pictures of a perfectly grilled cheese sandwich; it’s about the people behind that sandwich, the stories that make it unique.

As we approach the fifth year of “Humans of the Kitchen,” our motivation has multiplied. Our goal remains at the forefront: to shine a light on the inspiring and often overlooked kitchen tales and organizations dedicated to enhancing the well-being of the food industry workers. All our progress would not have been possible without the inspiration and remarkable work of other chefs, organizations, and friends.

We aim to expand our channel through our Substack by providing a captivating glimpse into the lives of the humans who shape and influence the culinary world and beyond. We aim to build a community-driven platform inviting others to contribute their ideas, recipes, and unique perspectives. This outlet provides a window through which we explore various topics, including food, travel, industry policies, and beyond—giving a voice to the voiceless and unifying the industry worldwide.

Life is too short only to have a version of ourselves. So, Fuck it! HOTK 2.0 is coming in hot. We’re stoked about this new chapter and can’t wait to see where this next step in our journey leads us. Thank you for joining our Substack newsletter – we’re confident you’ll thoroughly enjoy the content we have in store for you.