Everyone finds their own path and not everyone’s is the same. I had the opportunity of meeting one chef who had a different path than most and is looking to change the world and culinary industry through inclusivity and education.
Harold Villarosa , currently Executive Chef at Freeman’s and new speakeasy Banzarbar in NYC, has a robust CV with many Michelin Stars under his belt, including NOMA, Batard and Per Se. As impressive as that already is, Harold’s passion project overshadows that all. He is Founder & CEO of The Insurgo Project, a community collective committed to nurturing the farm to table movement in low-income neighborhoods throughout the world. Their goal is to merge local farms, restaurants, and chefs with residents to sponsor environmental sustainability and economic growth.
I met Harold in Copenhagen, where he was teaching students as part of his role as the Culinary Ambassador for the United States Embassies. Harold’s drive and spirit is the true embodiment of the American Dream. I felt a special bond with him because he, like me, is a Filipino American. We both shared the struggles and hardships of growing up as immigrant children in a very sterile world, having to overcome a lot of adversity to get where we are today. Harold grew up in South Bronx where he had a rough childhood and struggled to make ends meet. Not only was he not afforded the luxuries that many people in this country had, but he also grew up with violence in his surrounding environment, where making it home in one piece was almost always mission impossible. As easy as it would have been to become a statistic, he manifested his inner strength to forge a different path—a path to greatness.
“ALL OF THESE EDUCATION COMPANIES ARE PROFITING CRAZY OFF OF KIDS AND IT’S BEEN GOING ON FOR OVER 60 YEARS AND MAYBE I CAN CHANGE IT AROUND AND CREATE SOMETHING ELSE. BECOME A CATALYST TO CHANGE THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT THE EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM… I REALIZED THAT IF FOOD CAN TAKE ME SOMEWHERE LIKE THAT, THEN EDUCATION CAN TOO.”
Harold knew there are a lot of children out there facing the same challenges he did and he wanted to create a path for them. According to Harold, “Nowadays, students 12 to 16 don’t understand that they don’t need to go to college to be successful, and more importantly, they don’t need to go into debt to be successful. They can create their own business, learn from their mistakes, grow their business and climb the ladder that way.” This new generation needs to see that there is not only one way to be successful and that it is all about creating their own path and their own niche.
His origin story is only part of his motivating force behind Insurgo. When he was working at Fedora in the West Village, he received his weekly order of Chanterelle mushrooms from Pennsylvania and asked the farmer how he grew them. He found out that they were ocellated in a shipping container with sawdust. A thought came to Harold—“Why at 27 am I only learning about this and why don’t children in my neighborhood know about this.” This was the moment he knew he had to find a way to get this type of knowledge to those who needed it the most. He wanted to give back to the community and to help future generations.
Starting the business was not simple. Harold didn’t have a formal education and he took free business classes at Columbia University when he was able to in order to build professional and business acumen. The Insurgo Project was founded in 2013, with the help of his business partner, Joaquin Elizondo. They address local food insecurity and are committed to nurturing the farm to table movement in low-income neighborhoods throughout the country.
You Better Work
Harold’s perspective of the food game changed and his business acumen began to grow. When developing the educational program his goal was for this new generation and all future generations to understand how and why his mindset of being in the kitchen evolved into something more. He has coined his core philosophy “The New Hustle”, which basically fosters the notion that you don’t need to have a formal education to make it in the world. It abandons all traditional notions of success and how to get there and focuses on an individual’s drive and nurturing individuality in order to succeed. Think the name is fitting, as it not only embodies Harold, but also the skills that an individual needs to know and cultivate in order to succeed in this world.
His philosophy truly resonated with me because I am a strong believer that education and the whole university system is up for an upheaval. The way we succeed is no longer tied to pedigree and education, but the lasting impact we can make in the world and society. If you look at the organizations and the hierarchical structure being thrown out with the bathwater, it won’t be long till the whole university system and typical path to success to be reinvented as well. I mean, look at Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
When speaking to Harold, he doesn’t see this as a one off, but as a continuing program, growing community and a complete immersive experience.
The curriculum of the Insurgo Project focuses on three key lessons:
1-Sustainability: The importance of the farm to table movement
2-Business Acumen: How to create your own restaurant business
3-Leadership: How to become a global leader
What he and his team is doing is remarkable, has no boundaries and completely agnostic–there is no discrimination as the project accepts all economic, racial and gender classes. He is teaching the students that they all have what it takes to succeed and there is no right path to success. He fosters the principle that it is everyone’s social responsibility to hold each other accountable for the world. If you are rich, you need to acknowledge that and see how you can better contribute to the world around you. If you are poor and come to a place of success, you need to pay it forward and share it to bring others up. The first step is awareness–We need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages we have in life, accept them and make the most of them. We all have an individual purpose that we need to put forward into one global purpose.
As every true social entrepreneur, it is never enough. Harold’s vision for Insurgo is to grow it into a way of life and change education as a whole. As the official culinary ambassador for US embassies, his influence is reaching a global scale. He is continuing to establish partnerships with different international embassies interested in the program and is planned to have programs in the Ukraine, Bogota and another program in Denmark this year alone.
From a national standpoint, he is partnering with a green infrastructural company called NYC Seed. His vision is to create learning gardens all over the world. He wants to create spaces that take students outside of the classroom and teach them where food comes from and that food can be grown in any part of the world. They have co-created a curriculum framed around farm, food and fun(draising) that is synergistic with Insurgo’s core philosphy of youth driven social entrepreneurialism and leadership through urban agriculture and sustainable culinary practices.
Harold’s ultimate goal is to build his own school for the next generation–he envisions a three-floor building that will hold a restaurant, office space, classrooms, and a rooftop garden. His concept is to build community and envisions that community members will come in and work at the restaurant as part of the teaching process. He hopes to create a place where students would be able to learn all the aspects of creating a business and generating revenue through a holistic approach.
Paying it forward
Harold did not get here alone. He had many mentors throughout his career, but one that particularly stood out was Chef René Redzepi from NOMA. He advised Harold that he should go back to his roots, take his time to learn from the best chefs, give back to his community, and teach them what he had learned.
“Bring those people that are behind you up.” Harold took those words to heart and stays true to those words and pays it forward by sharing what he has learned. Here are some of his words of wisdom that he would like to share.
AR: What Advice would you give your younger self?
HV: Never regret anything; Don’t think too much about the future; stay in the present.
AR: Share something that gives you strength when things are tough
HV: Never forget where you come from otherwise you become an asshole
AR: What is the motivating force that drives you?
HV: Being able to tell a kid I’m teaching, “All the things I am telling you, I’m doing myself, whether I’m trying to increase my business from scaling it up, to attracting new business partners, becoming a global citizen. I live for the moments to explain that to them and be an example and share my knowledge.”
AR: What is the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
HV: I like to wake up before the sun comes up and greet it–then I meditate for 15 minutes. I started mediating after 2016 on my second trip to Copenhagen. I met some spiritual people who were into reiki. They taught me 10 easy yoga positions that help with bloodflow that I do in the morning and it puts me in a good place.
AR: If you happen to get an extra 15 minutes in your day, what would you do?
HV: NYC has always been my muse. I would go sit in Tompkins Square Park, listen to the city and take it all in.
AR: There must be a lot of great moments in what you do, what would you consider one of the most heartfelt moments?
HV: When the kids eat ice cream the just made with liquid nitrogen. The whole program is so rigorous and they are so serious. They take such an adult mentality and mature so much during the curriculum so it is great to see them become kids again and it helps me remember what it’s like to be a kid again.
Think we should all take a page out of Harold’s Journey—always stay true to yourself and NEVER conform to society’s rules. Always remember to just do you AND never forget where you are from.