Legendary Panamanian restaurant Manolo Caracol changed location and management. We went to check it out and talked with talented chef Felipe Milanes about his ideas for the evolution of Panamanian cuisine and what it takes to be successful in the industry today.
From US to Panama Across the World
How did you become a chef?
Well, initially I went to the United Sates to study marketing and my mom, knowing that I like cooking, told me, “Listen, here in the US they have something called a culinary school, where you go and you graduate and you become a chef”. And I was like WOW, something like this didn’t exist in Panama at the time – the first one opened at the end of 2001, a couple of months after I left. Thank God, had it opened earlier, maybe I would have stayed here and never travelled.
So I though, cool, I’ll go to school and I’ll become a chef – I thought it was that easy. I went to a trial class; I walked into the classroom and the chef instructor was teaching the students like in any other school, except everybody was sitting down, eating and writing. So I asked the lady giving me the tour “Hey, are they in recess now?”, and she said “No, they’re studying. 90% is this and 10% is books and notebooks.” I decided then and there, “Fuck it! I’m not going to study marketing, I’m gonna go do this!”
So I went to school thinking that in two years I will graduate, go back to Panama and open a restaurant. But, three months into school I found my first job in the US, which was washing the dishes, and then I realized – whoa, this is gonna take more than 2 years! So I spent the next 15 years in the US, Europe, Latin America, everywhere a bit. And then I came back to Panama to open the Tomillo.
Can you compare the Panama that you left and the Panama that you came back to?
It’s completely different. I mean, I would come every year to visit, but it would be for not more than 10 days, so I never got truly back into the culture of Panama until now. Ten years ago, if you went to a restaurant here in Panama and you opened the menu, you would see imported beef, salmon, peaches and strawberries from California and you’d go – this is a good restaurant, I’d pay for this. But those places are not Panamanian, there have no identity, they are generic.
I remember when Manolo Caracol opened in 2002. I lived in DC at the time and I heard about this restaurant in Panama that was doing a tasting menu and I was dumbfounded – finally, Panama was advancing culinary-wise! That’s why Manolo Madueño, the owner, was such an innovator – all of his ingredients were local, from the backyard. Fish from Panama, locally produced meat; he would use cuts of meats that the wealthy would normally not eat, like beef cheeks or jarette, because everything here was Americanized. But we’re moving slowly away from it, big time.
New Panamanian Identity
If you were to go to somebody’s house, ten years ago, and asked them where they got something nice, the answer would always be Miami. Because the Americans had a base behind a fence and all the attractive goods were on their side. So if you could get something from the base, everybody would be jealous because you got the American bubble gums. And that translated to everything.
We were suppressed in a way. Everything American was awesome, everything Panamanian not so much. But now, with the new generation, it’s the other way around. I have friends who are chefs and in all of these hot Panama City restaurants you’ll never see salmon on the menu, you’ll never see very popular cuts of meats, because we don’t support that. Now it’s all about farm to table. Manolo is 100% farm to table.
Tomillo is 80% farm to table, but it is because the cuisine is not Panamanian, it’s an interpretation of all the travels I did. But here in Manolo everything comes from the farm. The lettuce for instance, it’s handpicked at the farm, we grow our tomatoes, we also have a lot of beans in Panama. Before you would put a sopa de frijoles on the menu and people would complain “This is what my maid makes for lunch.”
No Twist Can Be a Twist as Well
Do you make it the old school way or did you put some twist to it?
Bean soup we make the old school way. Because sometimes there are too many twists. This new generation now, everything has to be modern Panamanian, with a twist… Actually, going back to the basics is also an aspect of the modern.
For instance, when you think about a tasting menu, farm to table, you immediately think fine dining. That’s the first thing that comes to your mind. But it doesn’t have to be this way, not at all!
For example, for Tacos San Felipe we make our own tortilla from the same corn. And we use the brisket, which is again, a cut of meat that you won’t find in the supermarket. You have to go to the market and bring it here.
Again, for the Tamalito de Porky on our tasting menu we grow our own corn, we make our own little polenta cake and we buy the pork right here in San Felipe, where 80% of the workers get their pork. Others buy at the fancy supermarkets, but we go there, we pick our pork and bring it here. Those are really cool things. We also have on our menu Guachito de conejo, the rabbit risotto, really good. Wild rabbits, they’re bigger than regular rabbits.
Back to the Roots
And for the desert, the jobo pudding. Jobo is a bitter sweet fruit. When I was growing up, I barely saw jobo. When my mom was growing up, she ate a lot of it. But when my grandma was growing up, jobo was like water, jobo juices, sorbet, etc. It got lost throughout the generations. Because the only way you can get the fruit is to wait for the fruit to fall down, that’s when it’s ripe.
So the farmers were thinking: jobo is a pain in the ass, we can’t make that much money from it. But at our farm we have a few jobo trees and we put a net underneath the tree and every day a guy goes and picks up a few fruits. And we make jam, juice and other things from it. And now, my daughter knows what a jobo is, if we didn’t do that, she would have no idea.
So now you can do stuff which looked impossible before. That’s why it’s amazing that Manolo did what he did, he started all this when nobody was doing it and he’s been open for 15 years now…
How did you meet Manolo?
The space downstairs brought us together – I rented it from Manolo and that’s how we became friends. Then I showed him Tomillo and he invited me to his farm and we became really good friends. Naturally, we started talking about the trends in food and how all the kids now just want to fads like foam and we clicked immediately. Then I told him that I went to his restaurant when it opened and was amazed, I really appreciate what he’d done for the Panamanian food culture.
Manolo Caracol Partnership
And how did you become partners in Manolo Caracol?
When we got to know each other better, when he saw the restaurant and everything, I started buying produce from him. Because he won’t sell his produce to just anyone, he wants knows what you’re doing with it. So one day, we were at the farm, having a good time and his proposal just popped up, “Why don’t we become partners?” My answer was, “I would love that, now that you’re going to close Manolo, I could buy all of your produce.” But he had another idea in mind, “No, why don’t we become partners in Manolo? How about you take over the restaurant and I stay on the farm? I’ll hand over the flag to you and you take Manolo to the new generation.” Needless to say, we closed the deal literally waking from over here to downstairs, we shook hands over it and 9 months later, here it is.
So this is Manolo Caracol, the next generation, which is great ’cause it’s going to stay alive. It’s a restaurant which is a monument to the new movement in Panamanian cuisine. The New York Times wrote a review on it in 2011. Before Manolo, Panama was culinary-wise, well I don’t want to say non-existent because there was always a push towards what we’re moving towards today, but I believe Manolo is where it all started.
No Success Without High Quality Ingredients
Is it hard to get good quality ingredients in Panama?
For Manolo, we don’t have problems because we get everything from the farm. In general in Panama, we do have problems with cattle. Why? Because we live in a humid country with hills and only a certain breed of cattle can survive this. Boquete, which is beautiful, would be good for growing cattle, but it lacks space to cover our needs. So when it comes to meats, we’re very limited.
For instance, I grabbed the Panamanian New York steak and I said to my chef de cuisine – I’m gonna make this right. So I marinated it and did all kinds of things to it – and nothing. The only thing this meat is good for is for grinding and using in burgers. I mean, the Panamanian filet mignon weighs about 2,5 pounds, it looks like a pork tenderloin.
One other reason for this is poor marbling. The fat is not as tasty as the one in corn fed or grass fed beef. Also, the fat here gets tight. Now that doesn’t mean that we’re not using our cows, or that we’re not using them in different techniques. However, it’s difficult to say “Now I’m gonna serve you a Panamanian rib eye”. One the other side, Panama has great seafood.
What kind of seafood do you use?
We are mainly using langostinos, lobster and octopus, but we adjust the menu to the daily catch. All of the seafood comes from the people who call in saying, “Felipe, I have 10 pounds of octopus” or “20 pounds of red snapper”. Similar thing with vegetables, Manolo called me the other day and said, “I have 240 pounds of ripe cherry tomatoes.” So now we have to spread it through all the restaurants, make marmalade, pickle it, etc.
Too Cool for School
Did you learn anything about the traditional Panamanian cuisine in school?
I’ll be honest with you. School taught me almost nothing. Most of what I know today came by cooking, traveling and working with really good chefs – I learned from them. Also, I read a lot, but only cookbooks. I would recommend you What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained.
I am glad I stayed in the States after finishing school even though culinary purists look down on US. But there’s something that the US has that nobody else has. In the US, if you go work in a Mexican restaurant, you’re gonna work with all sorts of different people and learn about the traditional culture from so many origins of all the people that work in the kitchen.
The Recipe for Success
Considering your substantial experience in cooking and restaurant management, what would be your piece of advice to young prospective chefs or restaurant owners?
First of all, work somewhere else. Learn as much as you can, from as many people as you can. Everybody can teach you something. Then again, there are some examples of people succeeding without much experience. For instance, Charlie Trotter, he traveled, worked for only one chef for a couple of months, then went to Chicago and opened up his own restaurant.
I saw another chef do it – Johnny Morris – he worked at a restaurant for only one year. Then he opened up a place that had only 6 tables, and he cooked what he knew the best, only 5 dishes. Then a few years later his place grew a bit bigger and he had 10 dishes, but also perfect. And slowly, slowly… 6 years into it, he scaled his place back down to the initial size, only tasting menu and you can’t get in there till today. A few years ago, Barrack Obama wanted to eat there and he couldn’t come in on his own schedule.
What I’m trying to get to is – do something really small. And do what you do the best. That’s my advice, cause you can lose money really fast. You can love cooking and all that, but this business is only 5% cooking. The rest is leadership, business, how you use your product, how you manage costs, etc. And write everything down you eat and drink, read, watch TV, YouTube, and all that.
It’s not only a dish, but the atmosphere needs to be set up correctly as well. It has to be winter, a place somewhere in the mountains. I’d make a classically French braised short rib with braised carrots and shallot, nicely reduced gravy, mashed potatoes, nicely whipped, and a glass of red wine.