Born in Nicaragua, Octavio Mantilla got his start in the restaurant business at age 16 as a dishwasher. After earning degrees from Tulane University and the University of New Orleans, he went to work for Harrah's casinos in New Orleans and St. Louis, Mo. Today, he and business partner/chef John Besh co-own the Besh Restaurant Group, which has nine properties, including a branch of their New Orleans bistro Luke in San Antonio, Texas, and the latest, Borgne, a seafood restaurant which opened this month in the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. This year, Mantilla began a leadership role on the New Orleans Tourism & Marketing Board.
G: You're active both in the restaurant business and the tourism industry now. What's your perspective on the recent run of high-profile sporting events the city has just hosted? Do these events impact your dining rooms?
Mantilla: They definitely do, but it's about more than just getting people in the restaurants. It's the national attention that comes along with it — it's spreading the word about New Orleans on a bigger scale and getting people to think about coming here.
Conventional wisdom says many restaurants rely on the tourism industry here. But what role does the restaurant industry have in tourism?
M: The city's restaurant reputation helps bring tourists here. Once they're here, we have a chance not only to show them our food but to show that it's part of our culture and who we are. Maybe that keeps them coming back.
G:You started in the restaurant business young and rose through the ranks. Does that experience influence how you do business today?
M: The whole culture at our company is based on what John (Besh) and I have been through in our careers, working our way up. The reason we have nine restaurants now isn't because John and I just decided to open them. It's because we have the talent within our organization and we want to promote them. We have so many people who are passionate enough to run their own restaurants, and that's why we've expanded. There are more aspiring chefs and general managers in the ranks too, so down the road we might be opening more with them.