Puerto Rican Cuisine
Celeb chef Benet shares his Puerto Rico
Dining is an integral aspect of travel and tourism, how would you describe Puerto Rico’s cuisine?
WILO BENET: Puerto Rico’s cuisine is rustic, it's filled with a lot of herbs – the principal herbs would be cilantro and oregano. There's a great amount of starch in it, so you’ll see there's a lot of plantains, rice, lots and lots of roots vegetables. We tend to prefer meat over fish. By de facto, we are surrounded by water. Plantains and the combination of sweet and salty - if I have to pin down one, at least one, it would be one that gives great identity to local culture in gastronomy terms.
You prefer meat over seafood?
And you are surrounded by water?
BENET: By water.
How does that make sense?
BENET: I don't know. You know how it is in life. You have a lot of something, you want whatever you don't have. Maybe we have so much fish and seafood that everybody wants meat. This is the only thing that I can quickly make up to be honest with you.
What sets Puerto Rico cuisine apart from the rest of the Caribbean?
BENET: For one, there is never a recipe that is intended to be spicy, perhaps, an opposition to the general beliefs of the Caribbean basin. It is similar to the cuisine of Santo Domingo and Cuba in the sense that you'll find their own definition of each one of the dishes versus some of the sectors of the Caribbean, for instance, the Dutch, the French, and some of the other areas like the British and the American. I think what differs Puerto Rico from any other Caribbean destination is the fact that there is no other island that offers variety in gastronomic offerings that Puerto Rico has. Not just Puerto Rico culture, but for other cultures represented here [in Puerto Rico].
I hear that Puerto Rico has a version of my favorite soups, which is mostly associated to be a Dominican soup.
What is the difference, if any?
BENET: I don't think there are any big differences. I think in the end, it's going to be a hearty soup, with pieces of beef in it - chunks of beef and chicken and vegetables. I probably would say that the one in Santo Domingo has more intense seasoning, not spicy but more intense seasoning. But in the end, we are very similar in that way; that and many other recipes. Sanchoco is a very favored dish in Puerto Rico, and I don’t know exactly which came first, Santo Domingo or Puerto Rico, all I know is that both are super delicious.
You run Pikayo, which is regarded as one of the most popular restaurants in San Juan. What sets your restaurant apart from the rest?
BENET: I tell you what, it is a 21-year-old restaurant, so that may have something to do with it. We've been on the market for a long time. We are always for quality and service, and you know, this is a group of people that is greatly [comprised] by Puerto Ricans. We are a group of people, not for [the entire] 21 years, but there are employees that have been here for 18, 16, 14, 10, and 8 [years], so this is a core group of Puerto Ricans that not only represent what we bring to the table, but Puerto Rican hospitality is very present here [at Pikayo]. Also, I’d like to think that there is a good presentation of good Puerto Rican seasonings, which are rooted in the origins, but we've played with them a little bit to offer you some renditions. So, you get to see classics and you'll get to see fusions. That's what I feel is probably the core of it. If you have a group [where] some want to have Puerto Rican food and others may not feel like it, there's a great array on our menu. Despite the fact that we are all Puerto Ricans, our menu is not entirely Puerto Rican dishes, there will plenty to choose from.
As a restauranteur, what is your view on the current state of Puerto Rico travel and tourism?
BENET: Well, I think that due to everything that is going on in all of the media outlets, you know regarding food and how much those specific channels devoted to food only, have propelled people's general interests in going to different cultures and being a little more adventurous and exploring about food. I think if there has been a moment where there has been a great deal of importance on dining and the importance of perhaps how many choices you have before you make a final decision on a destination, absolutely so. I think Puerto Rico is a competitor in that we certainly have a lot to offer. Like I said earlier, this has been the most intense amount of visitors who [have] come specifically looking for Pikayo, looking to see me, and other sorts of things, just in pursuit of the entire foodie culture kind of deal.
Foodies would definitely love to come here.
From your point of view, what does Puerto Rico tourism excel in?
BENET: Puerto Rico excels in hospitality. The nature of a Puerto Rican is a humble [and] friendly, a Caribbean hospitality person. I always like to say that you rent a car and you happen to get a flat tire somewhere, within 30 minutes, you will not only find people will help you fix your tire, you will have volunteers to help you in your situation, and that you are likely to be invited for a meal. You will make friends. Puerto Rico's best asset is its people – the warmth of the people, the friendliness, the general eagerness to be friends with somebody who is visiting the islands. People first, absolutely.
Do you see any aspects Puerto Rico Tourism can improve on?
BENET: There are always many things facing any kind of enterprise. At a distance, probably, I don't know. I don’t even know if I can pinpoint something. I am sure there are different things. Like any other enterprise, you must be on the outside to see what needs to fixed, refurbished, reviewed, perhaps changed, or what have you. But, I don't know. Maybe transportation. Maybe we could a have a little bit more collective transportation to help [with] access outside [of] San Juan. It doesn't mean you can't have taxis outside of San Juan.
Is it more difficult to travel outside of San Juan?
BENET: Not more difficult but more expensive, that's for sure. If you wanted to go across the island to the southern side of Puerto Rico. I personally have not rented a service of such kind in a while, but I greatly suspect that it's going to be a lot more expensive than if you are just touring locally here in the metro area.
What about renting a car?
BENET: There you go. That is always a good one.
Are there many car rental companies to choose from?
BENET: Absolutely. As you made your suggestion, I realized that for those who are a little more adventurous, certainly there are choices as well. Certainly, the rental car option would clearly be a good one, especially if you are more budget-conscious as I was going on about earlier. With the advent of the GPS, there's hardly anywhere you can't actually arrive, with cool little gadgets [like these].
How receptive has the current administration been to trends and changes brought about by the current global economic meltdown?
BENET: Well, I don’t know that I am that deep into it that I can actually propose any real sustainable, factual comment on that. But, honestly I don't have anything for you on that one.
That's perfectly understandable. Being the successful chef that you are, what lessons have you learned that you may want to impart on those who want to follow in your footsteps?
BENET: First and foremost, you have to love what you do which is a common denominator for anything. Once you like what you do, you could probably arrive at a point of passion. Once you arrive at a point of passion, many other things can follow. If I have to pinpoint it on a couple of things, which I mentioned earlier in one of the other questions, quality and service are the two elements that you need to pursue at any cost, because that is exactly what is going to render the difference. I think a lot people - and this is not just in Puerto Rico, this is everywhere - service is sometimes overlooked or sometimes you have a product that is longstanding, so you tend to be more relaxed on things. The one thing that I would say for those considering the restaurant business is that it is a lot more difficult than it looks from the outside. It has nothing to do with the television shows, although that may be a good perception off-setter. It is a lot of administration and it is a lot of passion. You gotta want to be social, you gotta love to service other people, you gotta be turned on by seeing other people having a great time that to you’ve provided for them that they are so thankful for. Even if they are not thankful, if I can sense that they are having a good time, then I am somewhat successful with what I am doing. Passion, quality, and service probably is a good boiling it down to the very last three drops.
Twenty one years of service - how did you get to this point?
BENET: I went to school for photography, I dropped out of that. Washed dishes for a living, that was my first contact with a commercial kitchen. I started doing salads that turned me on from the perspective of [being] in-touch manually with things.
Did you know that you wanted to become a chef?
BENET: I did not. That, for me, right there was when it first became evident for me. I came back to Puerto Rico, I did an apprenticeship on a non-paid basis for one year, January to December, 14 hours a day, then went to culinary school. Did a second apprenticeship in Boston, graduated from school, worked in New York City, worked in a bunch of restaurants out there. Always sacrificed greater pay for better experience, so if that serves as any recommendation, certainly it is one. Worked with very strict chefs, screaming and yelling all time. But, you get good lessons you don’t acquire at school from those experiences. After that, remaining as much focused as much as I could. I say that because sometime you lose focus, you get discouraged, things happen along the way, but hopefully, we were able to pick up our wind direction and just continue on. If you want to build brand, it goes essentially back to previous questions, it goes back to the previous question. Be passionate, never sacrifice quality, always be of service. Hopefully you’re not going to get an attitude, it's not a good thing to have. You don't want your ego to precede your persona. Everybody has an ego, but if you can keep it in your pocket, it's almost better the greater majority of the time than when all of a sudden you have some success, and you feel that you need to flaunt it or something like that. I think humility is a principal part of success. It is not a required one. I know a few people that are not like that and are tremendously successful. In my own style, you know, I certainly think so. But you gotta push, push, and push. That is for you to build anything - whether a brand or a company. If you were to build a building period, so many things are not told, and I wish sometimes [that when] we took our high school courses, some time was devoted to explaining the general high school courses that as you enter into real life after high school, success and everything that is attached to success is not necessarily what it seems like from a distance and that as you ascend to success, and as you ascend and progress at other things, there will be other greater challenges for you to manage, there will be other things that may have not been told as part of the formula like rejection and a bunch of others in that same note, that if you prepare for it, you'll be able to deal with them. If you are not prepared for it, time will help you figure it out and understand that it's part of the formula and that you need to somewhat dance with it or roll with the punches kind of deal - sometimes more, sometimes less. You know challenges need to be expected as part of success. Success stories have a certain amount of common denominators which are incredible efforts, incredible hours of work.
I’d say - fourteen hours non-paid? That’s dedication.
BENET: Yeah, that's dedication. Even when I was getting paid, I still worked 12 hours, you know. Sometimes I don't work a double shift. For the great majority of my 31 years of experience, I’ve always worked a double shift. So, for you it's something that comes as second nature. It is what it is; and that is my life and my lifestyle.
It seems to me that how you arrived at this so-called "success" all came together organically.
BENET: And I gotta tell you, I never had a plan, never wrote a plan, never did anything. I essentially, I was always present, and always said yes. Can you come work? Yes. Can you work 31st? Yes. Can you work New Year's? Yes. Can you stay a little longer? YES! That is the power of yes. You have to know when to say no, but, for the most part, being accessible is part of what perhaps, as you put it, came organically. It's availability. You have to be out there to present yourself. I give my business card with my cell phone number. It bothers some people, but, you know, I think accessibility is key.
You are ambassador of Puerto Rico Tourism; what is your message to the traveling public?
BENET: Come to the Caribbean, but not necessarily with the expectations that you are going to see too much of the Caribbean island - yes, we are the Caribbean; yes, we are here; Puerto Rico is going to have a lot of the Caribbean flavor in its food, in its people, in its culture. But, in the end, it’s going to be like just any other metropolis - lots of cars, lots of shopping centers, lots of national brand names and that sort of other things. Certainly so, we have everything that is going to set us apart from [others] because of who we are and where we are. I am not trying to tell that we are some kind of a stateside experience, because that is not what we are. Every place has its own personality, and we are no exception to that. But, one of the greatest misconceptions about traveling to Puerto Rico is, you come and you think it’s going to be like a little island, like some of the little islands are like. You know, there’s more dirt roads and more charming chaos. Or you’d expect to see more, you know, less late-model cars or things of that nature, then all of a sudden, it’s all here. I think if you come with that, you will be pleasantly surprised to get in touch with the people, come to the restaurant, go to the old city, see our great elements of naure like our beaches and many of other things depending on what your taste for nature is - caves and rivers. If you come with the right frame of mind, sometimes people think that Puerto Rico is a not an inexpensive place. Perhaps Puerto Rico is an inexpensive place. As a matter of fact, it may be a little expensive. If you come prepared for it, it may just seem cool. If you come thinking that it is another inexpensive Caribbean island, you may just be turned off by that thinking - that this place is nothing like what [you] thought it was. A lot of those perceptions come with the build up of many years of many elements that have been portrayed, correctly or incorrectly, about Puerto Rico. Some we have been able to fake, some we still live with, some are still here for good or for bad. All in all, I can say that what Puerto Rico can offer you is a great time filled with beautiful people, great food, [and] lots of great weather.
This is part three of my series of articles on Puerto Rico Tourism, which I hope to end with my interview with PRTC executive director Mario Gonzales Lafuente.