Bert Cutino Looks Back
The Sardine Factory owner reflects on 50 years in the restaurant business
Few people in the restaurant industry have cooked for locals and celebrities alike while staying in business for more 50 years—and giving back so much to the community. Chef Bert Cutino is one such unicorn. The veteran restaurateur grew up on Cannery Row in Monterey with his Sicilian fisherman father, then went on to open his own place, the Sardine Factory. These days, they don’t serve many sardines, but you can still find the veal Cardinale with lobster on the menu, unchanged since 1968.
Bert hasn’t skipped a beat in five decades, and he never plans to retire. “I love the business,” he says. “A chef used to be a guy in the back with a cigarette in his mouth. The whole image has changed and taken the chefs out of the kitchen and into the forefront. Now it’s better so say you’re a chef than a restaurateur.” He should know: his accolades include National Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Federation. He’s also the co-founder of the Drummond Culinary Academy in nearby Salinas, where at-risk students are trained and mentored in culinary skills.
The Sardine Factory in Monterey has served everyone from Julia Child to Paul Newman, and Cutino has fond memories of the actor, who was a regular customer for decades. “Paul was a friend of mine and he came every year for about 30 years—he came for the races at Laguna Seca,” confirms Cutino, who recognized Newman right away the first time he paid a visit to the restaurant. “I told my staff right away to give him anything he wants—you never know about actors. Well, he wanted everything different from the menu. I think he was worried about his figure. He wanted sautéed spinach with no butter, plain poached Dover sole. He said, ‘That was so nice of you and the waiter was very nice. I’ll come back to this place.’ I told him we’d love to have him.” That was the beginning of a long relationship with one of Cutino’s favorite patrons.
One night, Cutino sat Newman in his conservatory room, then prepped the waiter and staff. After Newman special-ordered his meal, he asked Cutino if he could go into the dining room and thank the staff. “He followed me into the kitchen and shook hands with the cooks and everybody and said ‘I just want to thank you for taking care of me for so many years,’” recalls Cutino. “He walked out, and a month later he died. He knew he was going, the cancer had eaten him up. He just wanted to say goodbye to the people who took care of him for so many years.”