By: Michael Donahue
Reny Alfonso’s favorite catch phrase — “Does not suck yo!” — could apply to his career choice.
He almost had to become a chef.
“My grandmother, I remember vividly, every week we would pick a different country we were learning about and she would make something from that country,” says Alfonso, director of operations at Celtic Crossing and Bog & Barley.
Born in San José, Costa Rica, Alfonso remembers his grandmother making “straight-up paella” from Spain one time. “When we did the United States, she made apple pie.”
Alfonso loved being in the kitchen. “I’ve always liked the heart of where all the parties were.”
His father’s best friend, who held all-day cookouts at his house, taught Alfonso how to grill. “It would start out with sausage on the grill. And you’d eat that with some bread and some chimichurri. Someone would throw on some sweet breads and some octopus after that. A short rib would go on. Then a prime rib.
“The kids would be in the pool swimming and I’d be on the grill.”
Alfonso’s first restaurant job was Mark’s on the Grove in Coral Gables, Florida. One night, his brother-in-law couldn’t pick him up after work. “The chef said he would take me home. On the way home, we went to a bar. And I stood there at a bar having a beer with all the cooks and shit. And I said, ‘I definitely want to do this for the rest of my life.’
“For me, it was almost like finding a second family. A bunch of people with one direction and one goal. And just having a good time doing it at the same time.”
Alfonso, who went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University – North Miami, worked his way through some of the top restaurants in Florida and New York.
In 2005, he became executive chef of Chez Philippe at The Peabody. “We changed the menu, the whole format, to a French-Asian concept.”
He began doing charcuterie after a trip to Austria, where he watched The Peabody’s pastry chef Konrad Spitzbart’s family cure meat. “I converted my house in Mud Island to a cure room. I had two cure boxes set up in my garage, three set up in The Peabody, and then I built a giant smoker in the garage at my house for cold smoking.”
The Chez Philippe menu featured “whatever was coming out of the cure box at the time of service. We did from snout to tail.”
In 2010, Alfonso moved to Philadelphia to work for Starr Restaurants for the next decade.
Alfonso’s friend DJ Naylor, who owns Celtic Crossing, told him his new restaurant idea. “He always had a dream to build something bigger than what a traditional Irish pub would be, but still with the heart and feel of an Irish pub.”
In 2021, Naylor and Alfonso began working on Naylor’s dream restaurant: Bog & Barley. “‘Bog’ is ‘from the earth.’ And ‘barley’ is for the whiskey aspect.
“The idea I had for this is, ‘Yes, it’s an Irish restaurant. And, yes, we have Irish dishes on the menu. But I don’t want to do them the way they’re stereotypically portrayed.’ I had managed so many different restaurants over the last 10, 15 years, I wanted to incorporate a little bit of what I learned at those restaurants.”
Alfonso keeps a little bit of Ireland in his non-Irish dishes. “I took steak au poivre and, instead of using brandy, we’re using Irish whiskey in the sauce. For the pork porterhouse, I’ve got an Irish cider glaze on it.”
Alfonse hired Joel Lemay as Bog & Barley’s executive chef and Max Williams as Celtic Crossing’s executive chef. “I’m in the kitchen with both of them.”
Alfonso doesn’t want Bog & Barley to be stuffy. “This restaurant, as fancy as it may look, is not a fancy restaurant. You can come in whenever you want and have whatever you want. It’s affordable.”
The restaurant is “approachable on a regular basis, not just a special occasion.”
Bog & Barley is at 6150 Poplar Avenue, Suite 124, in Regalia Shopping Center.