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Man on a Mission

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Octavio Mantilla has found a home in the New Orleans restaurant world.

While New Orleans is home to many top-notch chefs, one of the most beloved celebrity chefs is John Besh. Here in the Crescent City, his restaurants honor New Orleans’ past and shape its culinary path forward, and, nationally, he’s known for his appearances on The Food Network and elsewhere. Behind the public face of Besh Restaurant Group, however, is Octavio Mantilla.

As co-owner and CFO of Besh Restaurant Group, Mantilla may not be as well known as his partner — but he’s just as important to the company’s success. Meanwhile, through his involvement in the Louisiana Restaurant Association, Mantilla plays an essential role in New Orleans’ dining culture.

“I focus on financial and legal issues — and scout out places to open new restaurants — while John focuses on the culinary side,” Mantilla says. “His celebrity helps from a marketing standpoint. When John is on TV, it emphasizes our restaurants and New Orleans itself.”

The Besh Restaurant Group includes established stalwarts like Restaurant August, La Provence, Domenica, Borgne and Lüke — plus newer concepts, like Johnny Sanchez. This latest concept (opening this fall in the CBD) is a Mexican taqueria partnership with friend and fellow celebrity chef, Aarón Sánchez.

Although Mantilla is not a native New Orleanian, he moved here at the age of 14 when his family sought refuge from political troubles in Nicaragua. While in high school, Mantilla began working in restaurants —steadily moving up from bussing and dishwashing to serving and managing. But to him, it was always just a side gig to make extra cash. “I liked restaurants, but I thought I should get a real job,” he says. “I never looked at a restaurant job as a real job.”

It was during college that Mantilla first met Besh (they both worked at a Lakeside Mall restaurant called Terra). “We became friends and dreamed that one day we’d work together, but we ended up going our separate ways,” he says.

After graduating from Tulane University with a computer-science degree, Mantilla found that he didn’t like office life. He went on to the University of New Orleans to earn an MBA and moved to New York to work for a securities firm. He didn’t like that either. Throughout this career tumult, he always ended up working at restaurants.

“Something finally switched in my head,” he says. “I love restaurants. I keep going back to them. So why am I doing anything else?”

He found employment at Caesars Entertainment, the casino company, and opened restaurants all over the country. After many relocations, he and his wife wanted to come back home to New Orleans. Luckily, Caesars assigned him to a new celebrity-chef restaurant to open in Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino. He was surprised when he first met with the chef, and it turned out to be his old friend Besh. They rekindled their friendship while opening Besh Steakhouse.

Mantilla and Besh joined forces and bought August from the owner in 2005. It was a risk for Mantilla, who quit his corporate job, especially when Hurricane Katrina hit just a few months later. “We thought we were going out of business, but we’d go down fighting,” Mantilla says.

Because Besh previously served as a Marine, he and Mantilla were able to enter the locked-down city to provide free food to first responders. While the city’s services remained scarce, other places (like refineries in Chalmette) called on them for food services.

“That experience saved us and laid the foundations of our company,” Mantilla says. “Before it was about awards and recognition. After Katrina, it was about taking care of people and helping them escape the pressures of daily life.”

The Besh Restaurant Group started to grow with the acquisition or development of a varied portfolio of restaurants, including La Provence (traditional French), Domenica (Italian), Borgne (seafood) and Lüke (German brasserie). “For several restaurants, we have chef-partners,” Mantilla says. “We don’t want talented chefs to leave and open up a new space with a bad investor. If you have talent and passion, and you want to open a restaurant, we want to help you.” As such, Domenica and Borgne are both spearheaded by chefs who were nurtured from within the company.

Also indicative of his desire to develop culinary talent and the culture of New Orleans overall, is Mantilla’s membership on the board of the LRA. The association looks to teach new chefs in order to sustain the proliferation of new restaurants in the city, and it also wants to deepen the connection between locals and the restaurant culture in New Orleans. For example, for a week in early September, the LRA promotes an event called Live to Eat.

“It’s a time when locals are settling back in from summer, and tourism is light,” he says. “During Live to Eat, restaurants provide menus at discounts from regular retail prices, and we get people excited about eating out. The name is well chosen. Here we really do live to eat.”