Inside Track: ‘The living American dream’
Nicaraguan native and restaurateur Tony Craig brings cuisine rooted in multicultural heritage to Grand Rapids.
Tony Craig didn’t have much money before starting his Georgina’s restaurants. But he had his mother’s creative spark and a lifetime of fusion cooking experience.
Craig opened Georgina’s in Traverse City five years ago and, in January, opened a second location at 724 Wealthy St. SE in Grand Rapids. Both restaurants are known for their Latin-Asian fare.
Owner/chef Craig was born in Bluefields, Nicaragua — a fishing village — to a half-Chinese mother with Nicaraguan ancestry, who owned a restaurant, and a Cuban father, who was a lobsterman. His uncle, who is full Chinese, also ran an eatery.
The coastal region of Nicaragua in which they lived was immersed in Caribbean, African and Jamaican culture, being cut off by thick rainforest from the Spanish, many of them vaqueros (cowboys), in the north and west.
Craig has Chilean and Spanish cousins and grew up with Italian, Argentinean, Brazilian and Puerto Rican friends.
When he was 8, he and his mother immigrated to the U.S., where he was adopted by an American stepfather. They settled in Tampa, Florida. Craig then moved to Miami after high school.
With such a diverse background, Craig stresses to people that his restaurant concept, Georgina’s — named for the cousin whose “love and belief” helped Craig surmount a rough patch — is not just fusion for novelty’s sake. It’s the real deal.
The food has roots from each place he has lived or from where his friends and family came. He grew up surrounded by adventurous eaters.
“When people say, ‘This is a great gimmick,’ I say, ‘It’s not a gimmick.’ If you were to go to my parents’ house, to my cousins’ house and see us all there, everyone has a story about how they have got the best restaurant that we all have to go to,” Craig said.
Typical gatherings in Miami could see everyone cooking tortillas and Cuban pastries together while mixing Chilean drinks, followed by Chinese dim sum for breakfast the next day, a trip to a Peruvian restaurant to sample ceviche (a seafood dish), the discovery of a Cuban pizza joint — even a drive to Homestead, Florida, to buy Amish baked goods.
“That’s the most beautiful thing about my family,” Craig said. “It isn’t like, ‘Oh hey, I’m hanging out with Luis, he’s Chilean, he’s going to take me to eat Chilean food all the time.’ Yeah, he took me to eat Chilean, and he teaches me the culture. But then he exposes me to others, as he’s been exposed.”
Craig credited his mother’s genius for his own natural aptitude for cooking.
“My mom cooks better than me — like way better than me,” he said.
At 17, Craig got his first restaurant job, at Outback Steakhouse in Tampa. The chain was founded there, but this was only its second location.
“There was a line out the door, and I fell in love with it,” he said. “The hustle and bustle, everyone was so busy, but to me, in my thoughts, it was so slow. I could hear everyone at once.
“Right then and there, I knew what it was that I loved.”
His mom began teaching him to cook when he was a young boy.
“When my mom would teach me at home to cook, I knew I was in love with this thing, but I didn’t know where it was going to lead. Then, once I got into the restaurant business, I knew that’s what it was.”
Craig amassed a résumé of working at chain restaurants, such as Perkins, Macaroni Grill, Chili’s and Applebee’s.
He said people criticize corporate restaurants, but they provided his testing ground.
“It is true, some of them do not put out the best product. But you know what? They’re a corporation for a reason. They teach you how to manage money. They teach you how to manage labor, they teach you how to manage the things that will not bring you fame but will bring you the means to grow your business. A lot of people don’t understand that,” he said.
“If you go to a place like that that does tons of volume, you’ll learn how to handle pressure and how to cook food with pressure. It might not be the best quality food … but it still teaches you something that you need to learn.”
Craig didn’t go to culinary school or earn a college degree. He said his parents, with whom he had a rocky relationship, kicked him out of the house after high school.
“I thought I was going to college,” Craig said, “and my parents were like, ‘Nah, you’re leaving. You’re getting out of the house. Go figure out your own life.’”
He led a “fast life” in subsequent years — partying, drinking and living on the streets — until his cousin, Georgina, gave him an ultimatum.
“When my cousin told me that I couldn’t come around her and her kids because of the way I was living, that made me realize, ‘What would you rather have? Would you rather have someone who loves you in your life, or would you rather have emptiness?’” He chose family.
Craig turned down an offer from a friend in the restaurant business to work in what was then the largest Macaroni Grill in the world, in Puerto Rico, because he knew he would be around the temptations he wanted to quit.
At the same time, he received another invitation.
“I had a friend of mine who married a girl from Traverse City, and we were friends from Florida; we used to cook together,” Craig said. “He calls me up, and he’s like, ‘Man, come up here. Leave that stuff behind. Stop banging your head against the wall.’”
He moved to Traverse City in 2003 at the age of 32.
Over the next decade, Craig transitioned from the corporate food industry into working for small, independently owned restaurants in northern Michigan, including 310 (now Fire Fly), Village Inn in Suttons Bay and a retirement community called Glen Eagle.
His end goal always was to own his own place and be the executive chef. After 10 years, he had saved enough money to make it happen, and Georgina’s was born.
While running the current two locations, Craig is now planning a separate concept in Traverse City that will serve burgers and sushi. He also is working toward opening a bakery in Grand Rapids unrelated to Georgina’s.
He said he has learned a lot in five years and doesn’t take lightly the responsibility of employing nearly 100 people between the two restaurants at peak season.
“It’s tough, but at the same time it’s rewarding, in the sense of, ‘Wow, here I am in life,’ you know?” Craig said.
“I tell people who were born here to look at me really good, and I say, ‘I am the living American dream.’ If you don’t understand that, you’ve taken for granted the fact that you were born here and have such a head start.
“I own my business. Five years ago, I was making $34,000 a year. What else do you want to know?”