“I’ve been working pretty much my whole life,” says de Castro. “Living in a Communist country, one of the things Fidel [Castro] did was have you work for him every day on your own land. I remember when I was maybe 12 or 13, I’d get up and help my mother reach her daily quota—whether it was helping with sugar cane or hoeing in between rows of plantains.”
From his humble roots, de Castro, whose only toys were “a beat-up bicycle and a raggedy ball and bat,” now sits on the porch of his picturesque four-bedroom, four-and-a-half bath home with a four-car garage, perched high atop a nearly three-acre piece of property, overlooking Maynadier Creek—also known as “Cocktail Cove”—just outside of Annapolis.
And those early lessons about the value of hard work, as well as the drive to better his lot in life, have helped put a steak on his plate every night of the week as founder and CEO of Big Steaks Management (which oversees day-to-day operations of his nine Ruth’s Chris Steak House franchises in Maryland, North Carolina, and New Jersey, plus Baltimore’s Havana Club). He won’t disclose his gross annual revenues (a decade ago, they were reported by business news sources to be in excess of $20 million, and that was a lot of steaks ago), but with more than 500 employees, de Castro is now tied with another franchise holder for the most outposts in the country. Clearly, he’s come a long way from Castro’s Cuba where, ironically, red meat was only available through the black market.
Despite a hectic schedule, which has him traveling up and down the East Coast, the restaurant magnate is happiest here at home with his wife, Darlene (whom he met in Louisiana while pumping gas into his 16-foot speedboat 39 years ago), his Maltese pup, Bentley (there’s a non-canine version parked in the garage of his Naples, FL, vacation home), and his four grown children and six grandchildren, all of whom live nearby and join the couple at Cocktail Cove for celebratory Sunday night dinners.
Seventeen years ago, the de Castros were living in a more modest space in Arnold, and in search of a new place to call home.
“We definitely wanted something on the water,” says the 58-year-old steak magnate between puffs of his Padron number-six Nicaraguan cigar and sips of espresso coffee. While the property was beautiful, they knew they would need to make the home their own. “We didn’t build this house,” says de Castro, “but we spent 13 months gutting it—the house was totally different when we bought it.” The couple knocked down existing walls, and then the domino effect of home renovations came into play. “We said, ‘Oh, well, let’s do the kitchen,’” recalls de Castro with a laugh. “And then it was, ‘Let’s just do the bathrooms,’ and it went on and on from there. It would have been much easier to tear down the house and just start from scratch.”
The expansive waterfront home is designed to let the views take center stage, with a predominantly neutral palette of blacks, whites, golds, and grays. And while statement pieces—such as a pair of zebra-hair ottomans, stylish black leather armchairs, and diaphanous gold-sequined curtains—add a sense of panache, they never detract from the main event. “I wanted to use these colors,” says Darlene, “because I didn’t want to take away from our view—it’s just so beautiful.”
Sure, the vista is breathtaking, but the home’s well-appointed interior is equally memorable, with a wonderful collection of objects and art, including a globe filled with semi-precious stones (acquired on a trip to the Caribbean), Art Deco Erté bottles, an elegant French humidor box, a collection of antique clocks, and a hallway “Jubilee” chandelier that’s a replica of one used in the James Bond film Die Another Day. Toys are scattered throughout the house, not only for de Castro’s grandkids, but for the man of the house as well—years ago, Darlene presented her husband with an electric train on Christmas Day. “I bought it for him because he didn’t have any toys growing up,” she says.
And there’s plenty to entertain onself with in the state-of-the-art kitchen, outfitted with a six-burner Viking stove, a stainless-steel Sub-Zero refrigerator, black granite countertops, and a collection of copper cookware suspended from a rack on the ceiling. “I wanted a working kitchen that was easy to clean and a nice open layout,” says de Castro, a serious cook whose specialties include paella, veal dishes, and, of course, steaks that he brings ready to grill from one of his establishments.
Grapes loom large in the home’s décor, from a grape motif on the tile backsplash and stained-glass insets in the cabinetry in the kitchen to a dedicated wine cellar (converted from a screened-in porch) with a Champagne saber for beheading a bottle of bubbly, and a hand-carved door recounting the story of wine growing. “I love a good bottle of red Burgundy,” he says, wistfully.
De Castro, who plays the ultimate man of the house—waving away cigar smoke, offering shots of rum straight from the bottle, and regaling visitors with stories from his past—has always dreamed big. He immigrated to New Orleans with his mother and sister (joining his father and brother) in 1968. “We were country people,” says de Castro, now out on his deck and peering from behind his Gucci sunglasses. “I rode a horse to elementary school. At age six, I used to get up at three in the morning to help my uncle with the cows and deliver the milk. My mother would make me café con leche—my mother would fix the coffee for me, and I’d fill the cup with milk directly from the cow.”
The grandkids’ toys co-exist in de Castro’s home with his collectibles, including a globe filled with semi-precious stones (acquired on a trip to the Caribbean), Art Deco Erté bottles, an elegant French humidor box, above, a collection of antique clocks, and a hallway “Jubilee” chandelier that’s a replica of one used in the James Bond film Die Another Day.
In New Orleans, while still in school, a 14-year-old de Castro went to work as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant to help the family make ends meet. Within no time, he had worked his way up to the front of the house, bussing tables, waitering, and bartending, and, at 17, he became a maitre d’. “I loved being around the people,” he says, “and I loved making money. I learned that if you work hard, you can buy anything you want.” At 24, with more money in his pockets than most people his age, de Castro opened an Italian eatery in Covington, LA, that lasted less than a year. “I thought I knew everything about the restaurant business,” he says. “The timing was bad—there was an oil crisis—the location was bad. It was the biggest lesson I ever learned.”
From there, he did a stint with chef Warren Leruth of the five-star LeRuth’s in Gretna, LA.
“I learned attention to detail,” recalls de Castro. “Everything had to be perfect. Every glass had to be perfectly clean, perfectly in place, this setting has to face that setting, when to pour wine, and how to do tableside bananas Foster and hot spinach salad.”
In 1980, as luck would have it, while working at The Butcher Shop Steakhouse across the street from the original Ruth’s Chris in Metairie, LA, de Castro reconnected with Ruth Fertel (who put the “Ruth” in Ruth’s Chris), whom he had met at his first job at the famed La Riviera in Metairie. “I worked at The Butcher Shop for a year and a half,” recalls de Castro, “and business there went from being slow to packing them in within six months. Meanwhile, Ruth was watching me from across the street.”
Fertel (who passed away in 2002) had a plan for the prodigy: to send him to Washington, D.C., to take over her worst-performing restaurant—which was losing close to a million dollars a year, according to de Castro. While neither de Castro nor Darlene (who hails from Oklahoma) had any interest in uprooting their family, de Castro told Fertel he would go for a long weekend to “check things out.” Four days in D.C. did not change his mind.
“I didn’t like it at all,” recalls de Castro. “The restaurant was dark, it was dingy like a dungeon.” Still, back in New Orleans, in an attempt to let Fertel down easily, de Castro made a long list of requests—never expecting she would grant them. “I asked for everything—from my own franchise to covering moving costs.” Much to his surprise, Fertel accepted. “I was convinced she’d say ‘no,’ and hadn’t even prepared myself for the possibility of the ‘yes,’” he recalls. “She looked at my notes and said, ‘You have two weeks to be in Washington.’”
When he got there, de Castro did what he has always done: He rolled up his sleeves and got to work, replacing most of the staff (not to mention 114 broken light bulbs). “The first month, I broke even,” recalls de Castro. “The first year, it went from being the worst-performing Ruth’s Chris in the country to the best-performing Ruth’s Chris in the country.” Having worked for some of the best in the business, he let the staff know that he had the highest of standards—a credo that he carries with him to this day. “I was taught by the best, and I only knew how to do things one way,” he says. “To me, if it wasn’t done the right way from the beginning, you couldn’t work for me. It had to be right from the beginning.”
Nearly 21 years since buying his first franchise, de Castro is as involved as ever. He visits his restaurants unannounced and walks through their commercial kitchens. “I really take my time in the kitchen,” he says. “I walk through every cooler and look at the date dots that we put on every product every day. I take all the meat out and weigh every steak. I meet with the managers and spot-check the inventory.”
Nothing makes de Castro happier than seeing his customers content. “That’s the best part of the job,” he says. “It’s seeing people celebrating and just having a great time—whether with family or a significant other. People often come here to celebrate something, and we try to make it very special.”
These days, de Castro has won so many industry awards—from the Restaurant Association of Maryland’s Restaurateur of the Year to Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year—he has dedicated an area of his living room (and numerous walls in his basement) to the accolades. “Every award means a lot to me,” explains de Castro. “Each award reminds me that if you put your heart and soul into something and want it badly enough, you can achieve anything. That’s the American dream!”