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Dec. 9, 2022 – Just before the dawn of the 20th century, Bert Cutino’s uncle emigrated from Sicily to California, bringing fishing nets, and about 300 years of family experience as commercial sardine fishermen, with him to Monterey Bay. Casting for a new life to support his family, he and hundreds of other immigrants from the same fishing village (Isola delle femmine) near Palermo, including Bert’s father, eventually anchored their nets and traditions in America yet kept a piece of their hearts in Italy. Young boys at 13 would join their fathers on the boats to literally learn the ropes of the profession. In 1953, Bert began fishing on his father’s boat but already had other ideas for his future. “It was an exciting experience but I did not want to be a fisherman. I guess I broke the rule,” Chef Bert Cutino, co-owner of The Sardine Factory and Chaîne member of the Monterey Peninsula Bailliage since 1977, said to Chaîne during an Oct. 12 telephone interview.

The Sardine Factory by William Keenan Jr. cover
The Sardine Factory by William Keenan Jr. was published in 2000 (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory)

Cannery Row History

In its heyday in the mid-1930s, Monterey’s rapidly growing sardine industry drew expertise from around the world as Chinese and Sicilian immigrants were among the first commercial fishermen, and Spanish and Portuguese immigrants eventually built 16 canneries, the first one constructed in 1896. Many wives of Sicilian fishermen worked in the canneries. Monterey bustled with activity and had the smell to prove it. About 300 boats (purse seiners) of different sizes fished the Bay, each with a hold capacity up to 30 tons or more in nets that were dropped into the Bay. Three canteens opened to serve all of the cannery workers. Coffee was free. A doughnut cost six cents.

Bert said his family remained in contact with their relatives in Sicily. A snapshot in time is invaluable when studying history for it compels one to deeply reflect on and connect the dots between time, place and circumstance for an appreciation of the era.

Pause for a moment to reflect on a snapshot from the summer of 1945. Bert was six years old and already helping his mother make her famous tomato sauce. They had a table for 30 in their basement that was filled to capacity on many occasions. “My mother was an excellent cook,” Bert said. It gave her great joy to receive accolades for not only her Italian cooking but also a wide variety of other ethnic-inspired dishes. “She made the best enchiladas I’ve ever had,” he added. Both Bert’s mother and his mother-in-law worked in the canneries and then came home to cook for their young families. “It was amazing how they were, hard working people,” Bert said.

A menu board from a canteen for cannery workers in Monterey in the early 1900s (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p.29)

In the summer of 1945 in Sicily, Europe was only weeks into peacetime instead of wartime. Sicilian fishermen could once again navigate the seas without intense fear of losing their lives. Imagine the letters between family members in Sicily and Monterey after Victory in Europe (V-E) Day on May 8, 1945. Millions of families in Europe had been liberated from fear and their American relatives celebrated with them from afar. Together they had helped win the war as sardine oil was used as a preservative in the gray paint so recognizable on U.S. Navy ships.

But the joy in Monterey was tempered with a looming crisis as sardine yields had begun to decline. To this day, fishermen still debate the cause of the decline but the reason then was inconsequential when livelihoods were at risk. Shortly after World War II, sardine fishing in Monterey Bay collapsed. Bert’s father had his first boat, a small one, until 1946 and then a 38-footer in 1948 with a 20-ton hold capacity that he named Santa Rosalia in tribute to the patron saint of his ancestors’ village in Sicily.

Bert vividly remembers at age 13 in 1953 going fishing with his father. “We did not catch one sardine,” he said. To remain in business, fishermen switched focus to squid, mackerel and other species. There was such a plentiful supply of abalone, fishermen gave it to wharf workers for free. My how times have changed! Today the retail cost of three pounds of wild abalone, cut in 3-oz steaks, is $405.20, according to Alaskan Seafood.

 

Culinary Career

Chef Bert Cutino (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p. 28)

Also in 1953, Peter, Bert’s older brother, was hired as a lifeguard at the Holman Ranch, a high-end western ranch founded by Mr. Holman who owned a well known department store. The ranch needed a dishwasher. With all of the time Bert spent in the kitchen, his little brother was perfect for the job. “My brother hired me, in a sense, to wash dishes by hand for three meals a day, and besides, Peter thought he would earn some brownie points by finding someone,” Bert said.

Bert first had to convince his parents to let him take the job for the summer, a tall order because the job required him to live at the ranch. His parents finally relented. At age 13, Bert’s culinary career was off and running although he did not realize it. He liked the idea of earning $0.30 per hour.

Mr. Holman’s first love was the ranch so he checked every aspect of the business down to the food being served to his employees. He would come in daily at 11:30 a.m. to taste lunch.

One day the German chef in the kitchen asked Bert to taste his spaghetti before Mr. Holman arrived. Bert had watched him make it and declined. “First of all, it’s pasta, not spaghetti,” Bert told the chef as only a very confidant and admittedly, cocky 13-year-old dishwasher could. The chef bristled and said the next time it was on the menu, Bert could make the sauce. Sure enough, the opportunity soon presented itself. With ingredients in the kitchen, Bert whipped up his mother’s tomato sauce. When Mr. Holman arrived, he asked the chef what was on the menu. “Pasta a la Cutino,” he replied. Mr. Holman immediately put Bert’s sauce on the menu for employees and customers alike and raised Bert’s pay to $0.35 per hour.

Bert had monetized his culinary skills as a young teenager. Those skills eventually paved the way for Bert to complete a three-year apprenticeship that was certified by the American Culinary Federation (ACF) under some great chefs.

Chef Bert Cutino, left, and Ted Balestreri attend to details in the kitchen of The Sardine Factory, (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p. 94)
Chef Bert Cutino, left, and Ted Balestreri in front of The Sardine Factory (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p.43)

 

As college approached, Bert was unsure what to study so he asked his father. The advice he gave him was a gift Bert still appreciates. “Whatever you want to do is good. If you’re happy, I’m happy,” his father answered. “It was the best advice in the world,” Bert said.

The Conservatory at The Sardine Factory (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p.17)

During his college years majoring in business at Monterey Peninsula College, Bert worked at a restaurant as a busboy, in the kitchen, and anywhere he was needed. Ted Balestreri, a classmate in his economics class, also had a job as a busboy at a nearby restaurant. They became friends and often talked about their shared goal to open a restaurant one day. After graduating and logging experience in the industry, their friendship blossomed into a business partnership that has lasted 55 years with The Sardine Factory, their flagship restaurant they opened in 1968. The building was one of the three canteens that served the 16 canneries. Bert describes the building as “ugly” and “dilapidated” when they first saw it. But they were able to lease it for $400 per month so they jumped at the chance. Within two years, they owned the building.

Bert said people thought they were nuts for calling their restaurant The Sardine Factory but he wanted to both honor Monterey history and convey the idea of production by using fresh, local seafood and produce. “We were doing regional food before it became popular,” he said.

Both Bert and Ted believed one key to success was offering customers some magic, a unique and “million-dollar” experience they could not replicate at home. Bert’s passion is creating sauces and soups so he and his sous chef created their now World-Famous Abalone Bisque, which has continuously been on the menu since opening in 1968 and graced the menu at “Taste of America” during President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inauguration. The soup became their restaurant’s “secret sauce.”

Another magical touch evolved from something Bert saw while at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. He served an Intermezzo sorbet in a lighted ice swan, which they still serve today.

The Sardine Factory serves an Intermezzo sorbet in a lighted ice swan. (Photo: Courtesy of Chef Bert Cutino)

In The Sardine Factory by William Keenan Jr., a book about the restaurant published in 2000*, a review that appeared in 1968 in the Monterey area publication Game and Gossip is quoted. It confidently predicted their success. The review stated:

“People will be talking about the new restaurant overlooking Cannery Row, The Sardine Factory. To the world at large the name will become synonymous with the history of the sardine canneries, the fishing fleet, and the men and women who have made the era famous. Even the little-known people, who have been forgotten for many a decade, will find a lot of recognition on these new ‘walls of fame.’” (The Sardine Factory, p. 121)

The Sardine Factory: Bread Ring with Prawn (Photo: Courtesy of The Sardine Factory)

The author’s prediction came to fruition. The Sardine Factory took off, gradually expanding from 60 seats to 220 seats divided into themed rooms, some casual and some formal but all centered on delivering an exceptional culinary experience to customers. The elegant Wine Cellar downstairs has one long table for 28 nestled among thousands of bottles of wine, one of the top collections in the world.

The Cannery Row Room at The Sardine Factory (Photo: The Sardine Factory)
The Captain’s Room at The Sardine Factory (Photo: The Sardine Factory)

The duo and their talented, loyal staff have hosted countless celebrities and politicians over the years but credit their local clientele with their success. To honor them, stools surrounding their Brunswick bar that is more than 100 years old have plaques with names commemorating their early regulars. “They’re people who worked on Cannery Row, ordinary people of Monterey, but to us they’re famous.” (The Sardine Factory, p. 78)

The Sardine Factory: Special Dessert of ice cream and and solid chocolate ganache with mango and raspberry sauce (Photo: Courtesy of The Sardine Factory)

Their risk reaped rewards for themselves as well as the entire area – Cannery Row. Abandoned for years after the collapse of the sardine industry, the success of The Sardine Factory was a catalyst that drove redevelopment of shuttered canneries and run-down buildings into new restaurants, hotels and shops. Cannery Row became a top domestic and international tourist destination. Today Bert and Ted own five hotels and are involved in numerous real estate partnerships in Cannery Row.

“If you love what you do, you don’t really work. To me, I never feel like I’m working.” Bert said.

The Wine Cellar at The Sardine Factory (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p.79)
The Wine Cellar holds a collection of more than 20,000 bottles. (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p.133)

Culinary and Charitable Organizations

When they were building their business, Ted handled the front of the house; Bert handled the back of the house; and side-by-side they made an indelible impact on numerous culinary and charitable organizations that continues today. Bert fondly talks about his involvement with the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the American Culinary Federation, the American Academy of Chefs, The Drummond Culinary Academy, Meals on Wheels, and ProStart. Bert served as a state and national judge for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation ProStart program for high school students who participate in ProStart culinary skills competitions.

Chaîne

Cutino and others with Chaine ribbons
An early 1980’s photo of Craig Clark, Ted Balestreri, Chef Bert Cutino and Vice Conseiller Culinaire Hon. Fred Dame (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p.40)

“The Chaîne is in my heart,” Bert said as he recalled his early days when he wondered if he could have the honor of cooking a Chaîne dinner. He did and in 1977 joined the Chaîne as Maître de Table Restaurateur. It was the beginning of four decades of active involvement, serving in many leadership roles including Monterey Peninsula Bailli in 1995, Conseiller Culinaire Provincial in 1999, and member of the Board of Directors in 2003 as Conseiller Des Professional Des Etats-Unis. In 2016, Bert received the Brillat-Savarin Award and became a Grand Commandeur. To this day when Chaîne members are guests at The Sardine Factory, staff place a Chaîne flag in the middle of the table. “People think an ambassador is at the table,” Bert chuckled.

In the late 1990s when Bert was Chairman of the American Academy of Chefs (AAC), he and Burton Hobson, Chaîne’s Bailli Délégué des Etats-Unis, strengthened the affiliation between the two organizations. First discussed at a cocktail party, the collaboration flourished. Chaîne made a donation to the AAC to support chefs through AAC’s national footprint. Bert asked Burton to be on the AAC Board of Trustees, a tradition that continues today with Bertrand de Boutray, Bailli Délégué des Etats-Unis, currently serving as an Honorary member of the AAC Honorary Board of Trustees. Bert currently serves as Chairman of the Honorary Board of Trustees of the AAC.

Chef Bert Cutino speaks after receiving the Chef of the Year award for the Monterey Bay Chapter of ACF at an Oct. 16, 2022 Gala Dinner. (Photo: Courtesy of Will Elkadi/eLab Communications)

Bert’s list of awards and accolades continues to grow. He was recently honored for his lifelong contributions to the industry. On Oct. 16, 2022 with 60 members of his family present, Bert was honored as Chef of the Year for the Monterey Bay chapter of the ACF and a scholarship launched in his name, the Bert P. Cutino Professional Chef Scholarship Fund. Education is near and dear to his heart. Years ago, a judge called to ask him to start a culinary school for at-risk and underserved youth. The judge had the property secured so Bert developed The Drummond Culinary Academy, a one year culinary school on the Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas, that teaches basic culinary skills and mentors students who wish to pursue a culinary arts/hospitality career.

The Sardine Factory has a wine collection known around the world.  (Photo: Chaîne/The Sardine Factory, p.50)

At 83, Bert continues to work, primarily with his charities, which he said are very important to him. However, he still goes to the restaurant two to three times per week to see if his staff (his restaurant family) need anything and are maintaining their focus on consistency in food and service. Bert is a stickler for cleanliness, something he learned from his mother and two years serving in the U.S. Navy as a medical corpsman, a job he wholeheartedly embraced. “The Health Department loves me. They take pictures of my kitchen to show to other owners,” he said.

Since 2020, Bert has faced a health challenge with sinus surgery that left him without taste but he is gradually gaining back his most vital sense as a chef. Strong flavors returned first, including vodka. “A martini is terrific once a week,” Bert said with a laugh. “But I love wine.” While red wine tastes sour to him, he said he can still enjoy whites.

As 2022 comes to a close, it’s wonderful Bert will be able to raise a glass of white wine from the beautiful table in The Sardine Factory Wine Cellar to toast 54 years in business, decades of success that really began years before at a similar large table in his family’s basement with his relatives in Sicily seated there in spirit. “We had a great family life. Family is everything,” Bert said.

*The Sardine Factory: An Insider’s look at the Famed Restaurant and Its Cuisine, William Keenan Jr., Lebhar-Friedman Books, New York, 2000.

Links

The Sardine Factory
The Drummond Culinary Academy
American Academy of Chefs

 

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