Carlos Salgado and Brian Tam first met in 2000 at an Outback Steakhouse in Suwanee. Salgado was working in the restaurant's kitchen. Tam was training to become a franchise owner.
The following year, Tam was ready to open an Outback Steakhouse in Cumming, and he asked Salgado to train the kitchen staff.
"In two days, I started working full-time with him," Salgado said.
Salgado and Tam were inextricably linked for the next 19 years, the last 15 at Tam's BackStage restaurant where Salgado was head chef.
But Salgado is striking out on his own, though he isn't going far.
Since mid-April, Salgado has been steadily transforming Taqueria La Rosita at 337 Dahlonega Street into Savory Mexican Restaurant, his concept for an elevated experience of Mexican cuisine that defies Americanized expectations of perpetually-spicy dishes made with "the bottom line of produce or meat," he said.
"You need to find the level of spiciness where you want to keep eating without saying, 'Oh, I need a drink,'" Salgado said. "You want to have the flavor to whatever you make it to where you want to keep going and going and going."
Salgado had been thinking about opening his own restaurant for a year when one day he walked into the grocery store in the same building as Taqueria La Rosita. Salgado overhead the building's owner discuss his desire to sell the restaurant.
"I look around and I say, 'I want it if you don't want it,'" Salgado said.
The owner agreed, and they planned for Salgado to take over the restaurant on April 15.
That meant Salgado had to leave Tam's BackStage. He agreed to stay until the end of May. On his last day, Salgado had requested little fanfare. Instead, Tam's BackStage staff gifted him with a "beautiful, beautiful" new knife, he said.
"It was a sweet and bitter day," Salgado said.
Salgado has been using much of what he learned alongside Tam the last 19 years as he's created Savory. He was willing to adapt Savory's decor during early renovations the same way he remembers Tam's BackStage adapting its concept to its surroundings. He's been willing to make gradual progress rather than a sweeping overhaul.
"I learned a lot from (Tam)," Salgado said. "I would say he's my main mentor."
Salgado's methodical approach has also allowed him time to develop the restaurant's menu. He decided to keep much of what Taqueria La Rosita offered for breakfast and lunch that appealed to the prior restaurant's working-class customers but wants the dinner menu to be "something a little more cozy, more like when you're home."
For Salgado, that harkens back to his upbringing in Mexico City, and in particular the years he spent living at his grandmother's ranch just outside the city. He moved there at 15 years old, and Salgado's grandmother taught him how to cook traditional Mexican cuisine like cochinita pibil, barbacoas, pozole but also several life lessons — to treat people with respect, to work hard but humbly.
"She taught me a lot," Salgado said.
Between his upbringing and more than 20 years in the restaurant industry, Salgado has started to develop a prix fixe dinner menu at Savory dedicated to nuanced flavors, he said. He plans to have a grand opening near the end of July and a fully-staffed operation, with a bar, by the end of the year.
Running his own restaurant has been a big change, but Salgado learned from one of the best, he said.
And as he told Tam's BackStage staff on his last day, he's not going far.
"I'm around the corner, guys," Salgado said. "Whatever you need, I'm here for you guys."