Rafael Reyes – Putting Panama on a Global Culinary Map

Rafael Reyes is the executive chef in Maito – the only Panamanian restaurant on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. We met Rafael inside his latest project, taqueria La Neta, and talked about his culinary beginnings and aspirations, the history and current trends in the Panamanian cuisine and the hard path that was rewarded in 2016.


How did you develop your love for cooking?

I developed it when I was a kid, like 16 years old, when I realized nothing else interested me and I devoted my time to this career. I was cooking until I was 24, 25. Now, I am still a chef, but I don’t consider myself as a full time chef. My boss, Mario Castrellón is more in the kitchen, I am more interested in operations now. My favourite time to cook is at home, on the weekends. I don’t think I’ll go back to the kitchen full time – I prefer to be creative, come up with an idea and pass it on to the guys, so they roll with them.

What was your career path up to Panama?

I’m Colombian, I left Colombia when I was 17 and went to study in Argentina. After that I worked in Brazil, as a private chef for millionaires. I studied to become a chef in Colombia, Argentina and then in NYC for a year and a half in a French Culinary Institute. In New York I worked  for a year and a half in a restaurant called Blue Hill, which was the 48th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list with a famous chef Dan Barber – one of the creators of the farm to table movement.


What did you learn there with him?

I loved his, as he says, modern American cuisine “from farm to table”. He grows everything in his farm and serves it in his restaurant. And he is for me the creator of that big movement. The science in food is not how you evolve your dishes but how you evolve your ingredients. He says that if you treat the carrots before the beginning, with healthy soil and care, that’s going to be the flavour that you get.

He started almost 10 years ago and had a lot of support from the government. Now he has two restaurants, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Blue Hill New York and a foundation Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. He united a lot of young cooks and young farmers with the idea of meaningful food.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay in the US because my visa expired and they didn’t want to renew it. So the dream was broken and since that day I am every day more and more out of the kitchen. I decided not to be only a chef but to be an entrepreneur, learning about everything. You need to know a little bit of everything to succeed.

And then you came to Panama?

First I went to Brazil, I was in Brazil for a couple of years and then I came to Panama. And it’s been amazing here, lots of hard work, very hard to enter, since it’s a small country, but once you enter, you can build your dreams here.


When you first came to Panama, did you have any idea of the cuisine they had here?

Actually, I had no idea – I came here and I discovered a need. The country hadn’t discovered its culinary roots. Later on I started working a lot on the history of the cuisine in Panama. There was a lot of that missing and no one knew why. I started digging around because this is a country that is only 100 years old. To start organizing the history, you need to go to the roots, to start putting the pieces together and only then you can start seeing what the Panamanian cuisine is.

The thing is that it’s so new but it’s very hard to figure out. First it was the French, they brought many people from the Antilles, the Creole cuisine, curries and all these things. Then the Jewish emigration from Europe followed and they ruled the country for some years. With the building of the canal, a lot of Chinese and Philippine people started coming. Then the Americans came and took the country and ruled it for a long period leading up to the present. So all these people contributed to Panamanian culinary identity.


Did you find any traces of the old Indian cuisine around Panama?

There are tribes, a lot of tribes. Mainly Kuna Yala on the seaside in Darien province and Ngöbe-Buglé in the north. We do a lot of social work with them. They live up north in the mountains, but their food culture is unusual because they do not have a developed common identity. Besides lobsters and fresh grilled fish, they eat a lot of stocks, soups, chicken and a lot of variety of tubers in different shapes and colours. That’s the indigenous tradition.

What are the most popular traditional dishes?

The iconic dish here is the chicken coup sancocho. It’s simple and for me there’s nothing more Panamanian. People also like arroz con pollo. It’s weird cause every time I start digging I find something new. They also eat a lot of fried fish, they eat a pork tail ceviche. They boil the tail, and they do a ceviche. Lemon, onions, cucumbers, cilantro and spice. Also they have very good spices, hot sauces here.

For instance, I love cilantro! Here we use cilantro and culantro. Culantro has the big leaves, it is thicker, harder but it tastes very similar. It is one of the most important ingredients in the history of the country. While we put culantro in the stews, cilantro is used more like a garnish, fresh, not cooked.


What do you think is the situation on Panamanian culinary scene right now, how do you see it developing?

I think the Panama just started using its full potential. Last year we opened the door with the San Pelegrino award and the 36th place on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. We went to Mexico for the award ceremony and I was impressed because this was the first time in the history of the country that a restaurant from Panama found its way to the list.

The cool thing is that after we got the award people started looking at Maito and started bringing a lot of pressure, on us but on all other colleagues as well. That pressure brings hard work and hard work brings progress. When nobody’s looking you can just do whatever you want but when a lot of people are looking at you they are looking for quality. So we’ve all came together and started working on branding the country.

What was crucial for winning the historic award?

It was hard because we didn’t know how. To do something usually you need to know how. We didn’t know how to achieve it so we started bringing people and started receiving people from abroad, step by step, but the key thing was that the people didn’t see Panama as a gastronomic destination. You didn’t know where to go eat, what’s happening, what’s the most important dish… At the same time, we recognized an opportunity in that limbo. We took the opportunity and made history. Not only with the award, but also by placing Panama on the culinary map of the world.


So Maito was only the beginning. What are you working on right now?

This taqueria, La Neta, is a new venture, started a year ago. We have been doing a lot of tacos in our restaurants and catering around the city and people liked it so we had the idea of making a restaurant without a lot of money, to change our concept of growing. Our fancy end is very expensive to build, so to build something in a good style, you need a lot of money. But we also wanted to open a place where everyone can go with no strict margins and everythingthat comes with it so we opened a taqueria.

We tried to make it homey, casual and comfortable, where people feel welcome. Everyone can come in and eat, have fun, play pool or just relax.

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