Catching up with Emilio Estefan is like catching up with a tornado. He is a whirlwind of activity with his ideas and influence reaching everywhere from the way ceviche is served at his restaurant to the international stage of the Super Bowl.
The Cuban immigrant who started by playing the accordion for $5 so he could buy a sandwich, is now a Grammy-winning media mogul who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His latest achievement was asked to join L’ATTITUDE, an organization that brings together presidents, executive directors of major companies, and leading cultural figures who serve as examples to future Latino entrepreneurs. He spoke at their conference this year in San Diego from Sept. 24-27.
“I think it’s important to join this and help other Latinos see what they can do to succeed,” Estefan says sitting in the gleaming interior of his breezy restaurant Estefan Kitchen in Miami’s Design District. “I am all about being positive, instead of being negative, that’s what I love. The attitude is everything. Recognizing the opportunities and how to make the most of them, be encouraging, work on your ideas, celebrate the successes, and encourage them. Thoughts are very powerful, it’s the key.”
Estefan should know, as Latinos account for an impressive $2.3 trillion chunk of the U.S. domestic product. In the last ten years, they have created 4.3 million new companies, employing 3 million people. This year, the Latino purchasing power hit $1.7 trillion.
Estefan walks the talk, as he employs whole families to work in his myriad empire of music companies, hotels, restaurants, and shows.
“That’s something me and Gloria always work on. When you support people and say you can do it and also show them how. It’s not luck, it’s work and good energy and positivity. I still have that original accordion to remind me of how I started. We create beautiful music and restaurants with art to move things forward, to help against the negativity in the world now. It’s exciting for me to wake up every day and do something positive.”
Beyond Latin music, Estefan likes to work on any kind of music. Right now he is working with the reggae group The Wailers, Italian singer Andrea Bocelli, and using Brazilian rhythms on a new compilation of Gloria’s songs.
Their musical show On Your Feet! about the couple’s story opened in 2015 playing on Broadway for two years, there now are several international productions. Emilio says a film version is underway.
“They are working on the script now. It’s going to be fantastic. I’ve also helped cast all the actors playing me in the touring versions of the shows which sometimes gets a little strange, I’ll meet with them and they sit there staring hard at me to catch all my behavior to the point where I say to them stop you’re freaking me out! It’s still very weird to see people on stage play you – VERY weird. They have to be bi-lingual, have the right accent. Maybe one of the guys playing me now in the Broadway show will be in the film. That our story is now helping with their success story is a blessing.”
Emilio Estefan says he learned so much from his father who won the lottery 27 times in his life in different countries but still continued to work and gave the money away. And Miami has been the right city to do all this. It was maybe not such a world-class place 30 or 40 years ago but all the cultural contributions of music, art, and cuisines have made it that way now.
The Estefans have gotten rewards they never even dreamed of getting. Now the family dynasty is continuing with the couple’s daughter Emily, who has started a musical journey of her own. Emilio breaks into a huge proud grin when speaking about her.
“Emily is doing fantastic with her music, she took in all these influences and made it her own. She is working with The Wailers too, has some songs on the new album. I am very proud of her, she has taken the time to do things her way. At an event with Quincy Jones, she surprised and impressed him with her conga playing! That was a great moment for me too.”
At Estefan Kitchen he greets each staff member with a hug, pointing out the special way the ceviche is served with thin baked malanga chips. The traditional style of Cuban cuisine is given a light and healthy upgrade and served with elegant plating.
There is a large video screen that projects fantastic high-energy performances of Gloria and the Miami Sound Machine. A piano and white pair of conga drums sit ready for regular performances. The walls are a gleaming mosaic of oceanic blue and white tiles, with art by Carlos Betancourt, a Puerto Rican emigree who the Estefans have supported since the early days of Miami Beach’s renaissance in the 1990s.
The open-air restaurant sits in the Paradise Plaza, where Emilio produces regular free concerts in the ritzy Design District.
The Estefans have other restaurants, Larios on the Beach, which opened in 1992, on Miami’s Ocean Drive, one of the first upscale eateries on the run-down strip. That led the way for the successful chain of Bongos Cuban Café restaurants in Orlando, and the Miami International Airport. They recently redesigned the Cardozo Hotel on Miami Beach, and own Costa d’Este resort, a crown jewel on Florida’s Treasure Coast in Vero Beach.
After an hour of interviewing and a leisurely lunch of Chicken Vaca Frita, Mojitos, and Cuban Cafe con Leche, Estefan is on his way out. As he does so, he is stopped every few feet by diners who are thrilled to see him in his restaurant, a class act in every way.
Emilio Estefan, Miami’s Class Act World Ambassador