Junior Borges is more than a chef. He’s a force of will, talent, and determination; a lesson on how humble hard work intermingled with vision can take you as far as your dreams can venture.
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Borges was captivated by his grandmother’s dynamic
cooking, steeped in Bahia’n homeland traditions. Though cooking beckoned Junior early on, the culinary trade at the time was not an acceptable pursuit for a young educated Brazilian man. Wanting to take the more ‘respectable’ route, Borges went to college to be a teacher and studied nutrition. However, it quickly became clear this was not the path he was supposed to be on.
In 2001 Borges followed his sister to New York City, where she had moved to follow her own ambitions. His mother soon would follow. Without having yet learned to speak English, and the need to contribute to his family in the pricey Big Apple, Borges wound up working as an upscale bathroom attendant among other odd jobs, to make ends meet.
In his free time, Borges began to obsess over cooking shows and cookbooks that he would read in the aisles of Barnes & Noble. He set out to teach himself to cook and be facile enough with his kitchen skills to pursue a job in culinary. This self-training eventually led to his knocking on the doors of Sony Club and offering to work for free until he proved himself.
With grit and a natural ability unleashing opportunity, Borges soon began working at A Voce under Chef Missy Robbins (a James Beard Award Winner), Colicchio & Sons with Tom Colicchio, and after graduating from the International Culinary Center, was offered the Executive Chef position at Amali.
Executive Chef at Uchi and FT33 (Matt McCallister) in Dallas, TX, would follow. After stepping into concept development with Joule Hotel (Mirador, CBD Provisions), Borges became Vice President of Culinary at The Village in Dallas, where he opened Meridian in 2021.
CW Mag was thrilled to catch a moment with ever-in-motion Borges for a rich conversation about his life, his African-infused homeland, and the diverse culinary tapestry that has his modern Brazilian menu at Meridian sing.
You’ve said that food was a big part of your life growing up. Please share more about this.
Half of my family on my mom’s side come from Bahia, the largest African population in Brazil and the largest African concentration outside of Africa. So it’s a big part of the state’s roots, traditions, and culture. My grandparents migrated to Rio from Bahia in the 50s. This was not easy for my grandmother, who had twenty-three siblings.
Twenty-three siblings! That’s simply amazing. Much respect to your great-grandmother! What part of Africa was she from?
We don’t know exactly; probably West Africa because of the migration of slavery. My great-grandmother was born a slave. Unfortunately, our patriarchs die, and we don’t know which country they came from exactly.
Please share more about your Grandmother’s cooking that you loved so and that inspires many dishes on your menu at Meridian.
In Brazil, growing up in Rio, the cultures are very much rooted in the kind of things my grandmother would make for us. She was the oldest of all of her siblings, so she was like half Mom. Food was always a big part of life that connected the traditions she grew up with in Bahia and how you care for your family and show love. My grandmother’s family was very poor. Food was what brought everyone together. One of the dishes we would eat, which inspires what we do in the restaurant, is my homage to her: Skate Moqueca with charred plantain and coconut broth, dende oil, and steamed rice,which is essentially a fish stew cooked in red palm oil which brings all of these aromatics into the restaurant. Traditionally you put all the fish steaks with the bones in the stew, which flavors the broth. Our menu also includes variations on what I would eat as a child growing up in Rio–Tapioca & Brazilian Cheese Fritters with Benton’s country ham, farm pickles, and smoked hot sauce or Grilled Beach Cheese on a Stick with hot honey, oregano, and lime.
Going back to the African influences of your upbringing and cuisine, can you share a few central ingredients that resonate through your menu at Meridian?
For sure, Yuka, because it was indigenous to slavery. I also feel like one of the main ingredients of my grandmother’s food was manioca (a starch made by leaching and drying the root of the cassava plant, the source of tapioca) because there are so many different applications that you can make from it.
You are really educating your clientele in Dallas about what Brazilian food is all about.
Very few people here know what Brazilian cuisine is. Most people think it’s a bunch of meat on a big skewer, like in a Brazilian steakhouse. We have a huge and rich culture in Brazil; there are so many different influences. The first I try and celebrate here obviously is African; the Yuka and the tapioca and the things I grew up with. However, Brazil also has the fourth largest Italian population outside of Italy, so I grew up eating a lot of pasta. There are also a lot of European restaurants like Portuguese in Rio and rotisserie chicken places where they serve the chicken with simple rice, beans and a little vinegar sauce like the Portuguese Peri Peri, which is very acidic and spice-forward that accompanies meats and other things. At Meridian, we pull from these different influences and try to show that Brazilian cuisine is eclectic.
Can you share a bit about the organic nature of your rise to success?
When I moved to New York at 20 years old, I knew I wanted to be around food, but I didn’t know exactly what that would look like. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t speak English and didn’t have the ability to go to school. It can be a scary moment in New York when you don’t speak the language or know anyone. My first job was giving out pamphlets. I barely had any clothes. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Then there was an ad for culinary school in the subway station, and my Mom said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ And I was like, ‘Well yeah, I love food.’ And she’s like, ‘Yea, you’re always eating too.’ So that moment was really the start.
How did you not get discouraged?
I was in survival mode, right? It was me, my mom, and my sister in a small apartment at the time. Everyone had to work. I just felt very responsible that I had to contribute and do my part. So eventually, I worked for free in a kitchen for 6-7 months. And then, right around that time, I had a son, and I was like. ‘Okay, I really have to better myself and create a better opportunity for me and my kid.’ I always had this mentality of needing to prove myself. I’m Black, and I always felt I was behind. Why would they give me this job when they can give it to another guy? So I worked very hard.
You have worked with a lot of the big names, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, and of course Tom Colicchio, to name a few, who believed in you and have advocated for your rise in this industry. Being at your current level, what do you feel you have in common with these mentors?
I always understood the chef’s work ethic. I remember even when I worked for Tom Colicchio. He was there basically every day opening the restaurant, and after three months, he wasn’t there every single day. And then somebody said, ‘Ah, Tom gets to do whatever he wants.’ I responded, ‘Do you understand that this man has worked for over 30 years? He has more than put in his work!’
Your resilience and self-possession, in spite of what you’ve had to work against, has been, in some ways, a blessing. Because many people are born with everything and don’t get anywhere.
100%. I mean, thinking about it, so many stories and things that I have gone through have made me who I am and pushed me to be the person who is never satisfied and always wants to improve myself, be better and conquer more. To this day, I still have that. I don’t take no for an answer.