In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Daniela Moreira.
When Daniela Moreira first decided to open her award-winning bagel store Call Your Mother, she had never eaten a bagel before. The Argentinian chef had won a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, worked at Eleven Madison Park, and started a successful pizza business that earned her an Eater Young Guns award in 2017 — but she had never tried a bagel. It was her lack of knowledge about the beloved carbohydrate, though, that enticed her to attempt to perfect it. Moreira loves a challenge. “I wanted to try a new cuisine that I didn’t have much experience with,” she remembers. “Researching and testing new recipes is where I thrive.”
Moreira traversed the United States, from New York to South Florida to San Francisco, sampling bagels and other regional Jewish foods to identify the elements and flavors she wanted to bring to her own menu. (She also had bagels shipped in from Canada.) She then spent nine months in the lab (otherwise known as her Timber Pizza Co. kitchen) developing her ideal bagel recipe, which — with a hint of honey — results in a happy medium between fluffy, savory New York bagels and dense, sweet Montreal bagels. “It truly was trial and error,” she shares. “I never stopped at ‘good enough.’”
The first Call Your Mother, billed as a Jew-ish deli, opened in Washington D.C.’s Park View neighborhood in 2018. It was an immediate hit, with lines forming around the block, and eventually landed on Eater’s Best New Restaurant list in 2019. As a response to the ever-growing demand, Moreira and her Jewish husband and business partner Andrew Dana have since opened another nine locations in the nation’s capital, Maryland, Virginia, and Denver — and even more are in the works.
Here, Moreira shares her path from Argentina to the United States, how she made the switch from fine dining to pizza and bagels, and why she treats her businesses like a startup.
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Daniela Moreira: When I was in high school in Argentina, all I wanted to do was see the world. I believed that the way to see it was through a career in cooking — I had grown up cooking alongside my mom. There was a moment where I wanted to work on a cruise ship, but my parents said, “No way!”
Did you go to culinary school or college?
I went to culinary school in Córdoba, Argentina for two years before moving to the United States at 20 years old. I attended the culinary program for adult immigrants at Carlos Rosario in Washington D.C., where I won a full scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. I always worked a side job while in school to pay for my day-to-day needs. I then spent five months working at Eleven Madison Park perfecting my fine dining skills.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My unofficial first job was helping my parents in the kitchen (and helping with other duties like painting and building tables) at the summer camp they own by the river in Córdoba. My mom had a small restaurant by the road and my siblings and I would move there every summer to work. At 16, my first official paid job was at the local bar in my hometown as a bartender. One night, the chef couldn’t come in, so I volunteered to make pizzas and after that was hired as the pizza-maker until 12 p.m. and bartender until close at 6 a.m.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
The industry in Argentina was very competitive and male-dominated. It was difficult to land a job as an 18-year-old girl. I remember stopping by so many restaurants I wanted to work at, and sometimes they wouldn’t move forward with an interview simply after seeing me.
And then, years later, after finishing culinary school at the CIA and working in fine dining at Eleven Madison Park, I lost my passion for cooking. I worked so hard in such a competitive world that I lost track of what cooking was all about and why I fell in love with it in the first place. For a while, I was doubting if I even wanted a career in culinary anymore.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
I came back to D.C. after working at my parents’ camp in Argentina for 10 months because living here [in my early 20s] was the happiest I’d ever been. That’s when I met Andrew Dana, who’s now my husband and business partner. He was cooking pizzas out of a wood-fired oven at a farmers market. I saw him and his friend blasting music, making amazing-looking pizzas amongst other farmers and producers, and it reminded me of home. I asked him for a part-time job while I waited to start a job that I had lined up at a brand new fine dining restaurant. After three months of working with Andrew, and a lot of convincing from him, I gave up the fine dining world and decided pizza would be my life!
When was the first time you felt successful?
My dad came to visit from Argentina when I had my first daughter, Jojo, and in one of those conversations he said, “Do you two realize what you’ve built?” Stepping back from the day-to-day operations, seeing everything from afar, and knowing I gave birth on the day we opened our ninth Call Your Mother location was truly gratifying.
Watching growth happen without us running the day-to-day operations in each store and seeing our amazing team be a driving force for the business is special. Our staff takes so much pride in what they do and at times they do it better than us! During the first years of our first restaurant, Timber Pizza, when we were making every single pizza, and then the early days of Call Your Mother, when we were baking every single bagel, if you told me that only five years later I would see it all happening without me, I would not have believed it.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
Every day is different. As an owner of the business, my days depend on where we are at with our goals for the company. I just spent two months in Denver opening our newest Call Your Mother store, which had me working the line with the team and making bagels like it was day one. My favorite part of my job is seeing how employees grow within our company. I love seeing how people master one position and are then eager to step into new roles.
What would surprise people about your job?
My job is hard. Every day is a challenge and you only get one chance to make a good first impression. In the restaurant industry, you get new customers every single day, so the stakes are very high. You really cannot allow yourself to have a chill or easy day.
How are you making change in your industry?
Since day one of Timber Pizza and Call Your Mother, we told our employees to see working with us as a startup rather than a restaurant, and that they could grow with us as much as they wanted to. I love that we are creating opportunities by not having a ceiling in the kitchen. It’s a company that people can build careers around. It’s not something I saw in my beginnings in the restaurant industry in Argentina. We are providing the tools to make our teams successful, including offering language classes and workshops on how to open bank accounts.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I believe that everything happens for a reason, so I wouldn’t change anything. Everything I’ve done thus far has taught me valuable lessons that I use in my life every day.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Work very hard, every single day. Don’t take no for an answer and always keep pushing.
It’s also not as fulfilling to do this on your own, so I’d advise that you build a great team that wants to work just as hard as you. I was lucky to find Andrew, who shares the same passion, values, and love for the business that I have. There is nothing as beautiful as when we get to share the wins together because we know exactly how much hard work went into it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in New York.