At the Bar Room at the Modern, one of the signature dishes is the charred avocado: A wedge of marinated avocado roasted until it’s nearly blackened and then served with a crab salad and spiced bread crumbs. But chef de cuisine Thomas Allan says that until 2016, the source of its star ingredient was constantly changing. Avocados could come from any company, and of the thousand avocados the Modern goes through every week, Allan had received his share of bruised or unripe fruits. For years, it was a more temperamental dish.
But one night in 2016, that changed. A party of four dined at the restaurant’s “kitchen table,” where guests are privy to a behind-the-scenes look at the chefs preparing food. After their meal, Allan started talking to them and met Miguel Gonzalez. “I sell avocados,” Gonzalez told him. “And I guarantee they’re better than any avocados you’ve ever bought before.” The chef was intrigued but skeptical. Could he really guarantee quality with such a notoriously mercurial product?
Gonzalez offered to send a case so the chef could see for himself. The next day, the box arrived. And “it was a really, really amazing product,” Allan says. “Exactly what he said. A big, really vibrant green, super buttery, high-quality ingredient.”
That day, Gonzalez’s company, G de P, became the Modern’s sole avocado supplier, and the quality level of the charred avocado dish “literally changed,” says Allan. “That dish went from being good to being outstanding.”
In 2014, Gonzalez was ripening avocados in the basement of his apartment building and delivering them to clients in his wife Astrid’s VW Passat. But in the past three years, chefs and owners of more than 120 of New York’s top restaurants have become his clients. They include Michelin-starred restaurants like the Modern, the NoMad, Daniel, and Casa Enrique; more casual restaurants like Five Leaves and Llama Inn; and popular, fashionable cafes like the Butcher’s Daughter. Gonzalez now has two delivery trucks, a warehouse, and a staff of six. Every week, he distributes 900 to 950 cases of avocados. Each case weighs 25 pounds and can contain up to 48 avocados, depending on the avocados’ size.
“His avocado, it’s really like candy,” says Daniel Boulud, chef and owner of seven restaurants in NYC, several of which use Gonzalez avocados. “It’s just so perfect. So creamy.”
Gonzalez’s expertise comes at a prime time. Americans’ affinity for avocados has escalated steadily for years; the Hass Avocado Board reports that the number of avocados sold in New York rose 25 percent from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018. And according to Time, data from tech company Square’s sellers showed that Americans spent nearly $900,000 per month on avocado toast in 2017, up from $17,000 in 2014.
It’s also taken on a degree of cultural cachet, in part due to the proliferation of avocado toast on Instagram. Several chefs tell Eater that finding the product to fulfill the demand isn’t easy, especially when consistent quality is so important. “What you receive is three-quarters of the challenge, making sure you have that quality every single day,” says Allan.
Gonzalez takes a number of measures to ensure that quality, a reputation that’s made him the go-to guy among NYC’s top restaurants. First, his avocados come from a source he trusts: His friend from school in Mexico coordinates with the avocado farms he imports from. But starting with a high-quality crop is only the first step of the process; avocados are easily damaged or bruised by fluctuations in temperature and excessive handling. That’s why Gonzalez carefully controls every aspect of their transit, from the conditions inside the trucks that transport them to the way the boxes are stacked.
When the avocados arrive in New York, they’re kept in G de P’s warehouse in Queens. There, Gonzalez oversees the ripening process. His wife Astrid calls this “babysitting” the avocados.
“He’s very, very careful of the fact that there’s minimal handling, so you really have a perfect avocado from the core to the skin,” says Boulud. “When you cut the avocado and split it, you can tell right away what you’re dealing with. It’s like, whoa. It’s almost picture perfect.”
For some clients, that picture-perfect element is crucial. Gonzalez knows that if he’s working with a cafe with a large Instagram following, the fleshy inside must be a bright, photogenic green. Not every restaurant has the same priorities, though. Gonzalez finds out exactly what each client needs so he can deliver their ideal product.
Sometimes, that means more than one type of avocado. At Casa Enrique, chef Cosme Aguilar uses ripe, easily “mashable” avocados for guacamole. But when they’re displayed in dishes, Aguilar prefers a firmer, more aesthetically pleasing form that Gonzalez calls “semi-ripe.” When the restaurant orders, Aguilar says, they get eight cases — four ripe and four semi.
Gonzalez is protective of the methods he uses to coax avocados to those specific levels of ripeness; a level of secrecy surrounds his warehouse. But he might not be able to describe it even if he tried — he relies on instinct, not formulas. That instinct is so acute, it can seem almost mystical to an observer. He never squeezes the fragile fruits; instead, he assesses their appearance and “senses” them by placing his fingers on them.
“I have a sense of it,” he says. “I can say, ‘I know this is ripe.’ Or, ‘I know this is going to be ripe.’ I don’t know what it is. It’s heavier, or it’s softer… I have no idea. But when I have it in my hand, I know when it’s going to be ripe.”
He’s mostly self-taught. Gonzalez started eating avocados as a kid, growing up in Michoacán, Mexico, exposure that he partly credits with his affinity for the fruit. He also sorted vegetables at a local grocery store when he was 12. Beyond that, he hasn’t received formal training in fruit and vegetable imports.
His background, instead, is in finance. He came to the United States at 19 and learned English in ESL classes in Long Island, then attended New York University while working in banking. But after nine years in the industry, he found it unfulfilling; when an opportunity arose to partner with a friend in Mexico, he left banking and started importing avocados.
At first, Gonzalez sold his stock to wholesalers. That changed soon after Casa Enrique opened in Gonzalez’s neighborhood in 2012. He started eating there frequently and became friends with the chef-owner, Aguilar. At the time, Aguilar was frustrated by the inconsistency of the avocados his supplier was sending. “I used to buy cases and in every case I’d have, like, 10 bad ones,” Aguilar says. “Sometimes half the case was bad.” Serving them bruised or unripe simply wasn’t an option, so he’d be forced to run to the supermarket to buy ripe replacements at premium prices.
Aguilar saw Gonzalez’s passion for the quality of the avocados he was selling. He set about convincing Gonzalez that he should sell directly to restaurants. In early 2015, Casa Enrique became G de P’s first restaurant client, and Aguilar’s supply problems disappeared.
“The quality was way higher,” Aguilar says. “I’m talking way, way higher. With Miguel, it’s rare to find one bad avocado in the case.”
Almost four years later, Gonzalez remains actively involved in every aspect of his business. He wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning to oversee the loading of his trucks for the day’s deliveries, and he still personally receives all of his clients’ orders. Often, he joins his drivers to deliver the stock. This is important because his relationships with his clients are personal, he says. He has great respect for chefs, and his goal is to be an extension of their team. “I love chefs because they’re creators,” he says.
And the feeling seems to be mutual, several chefs say. “I admire him,” says Boulud. “He’s a very hard worker.” Boulud adds that Gonzalez’s specialized knowledge makes him an avocado expert. But despite confidence in the product, Gonzalez wouldn’t call himself an expert. He insists that he’s been lucky, and that his business was built through trial and error.
However, he does admit his passion for his product. “He’s obsessed with avocados,” says Aguilar. “He’s wearing avocado socks; he’s wearing T-shirts with avocados. One day he came in with a tie with avocados. We call him ‘the avocado guy.’”
Gonzalez can’t deny the obsession. After all, it’s given him a career he never could have planned for. “It’s not like I was searching for it,” he says. “It just kind of happened, and I understood it, and I liked it. And when you like something, you grow it.”
And somehow, it feels right. “This is my calling,” he says. “This is where I feel comfortable.”
M. Tara Crowl is a writer based in New York City.