Puerto Rico’s “top chefs” are world-class. Their edible artistry is on display every night in restaurants across the island and their exploits have been chronicled on shows like Top Chef, The Next Iron Chef, Top Chef Masters, and Iron Chef.
They are also fierce competitors in the international arena, bringing home gold in kitchen showdowns against the best talent around, which is a source of pride for most chefs and its one of the things that unifies them.
Fernando Parrilla of El Asador San Miguel restaurant in bucolic Naranjito; Jannette Berrios, executive chef at the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino; Daniel Vasse, who’s eponymous Chez Daniel at Palmas del Mar; and Jose Carles of Royal Isabela Golf Club and Resort are among the new masters of the kitchen, Puerto Rico’s newest rock stars, with droves of followers addicted to the fresh and inventive flavors they cook up.
Many homegrown chefs pay homage to the island’s comida criolla by reinventing it, often incorporating ingredients and techniques from world cuisines, while maintaining the essence of Puerto Rican cuisine. Chefs who have made Puerto Rico their home, meanwhile, take the beloved cuisine of their home base, be it France or Italy say, and will likely infuse it with nuances of flavors from the island.
Either way, much of the best cuisine reflects the chefs’ love of Puerto Rico. However, part of the true wonder of the island as a culinary destination is the amazing variety of world cuisines made in the classic tradition, be it French, Italian, Chinese, Peruvian, Argentina, or Lebanese. Regardless of the type of cuisine, you will find a delicious and authentic meal in San Juan, as you can in Beijing, Florence, Paris, or Beirut.
Great food and great chefs go hand in hand in Puerto Rico, which is why this is such a big and ever burgeoning culinary destination. Much of the reason is that the ranks of chefs are continually being refreshed with new talent, both home-grown culinary wizards working their way up, or skilled masters from abroad who like many before them fell in love with the island.
Here are some of the cream of the current crop of culinary stars, who reveal their individual approach to cooking and how that relates to the demanding and increasingly more sophisticated palate of their diners, loyal local clients, as well as increasing traffic from abroad with Puerto Rico tourism booming.
Energetic and enthusiastic; Parrilla, Berrios, Vasse, and Carles live and breathe food. They are skilled in the culinary arts, but are also tasked with creating menus and recipes, supervising kitchen staff, ordering provisions, and creating unique plating concepts for, after all, “visuals” play a big role in our appreciation of food. Most have put in years of apprenticeship, honing their craft on or off the island, often working with special mentors who recognized their potential and helped them grow.
They embrace the use of fresh, locally grown products and the fusion of international cuisines to add a richness of taste and complexity to the dishes they prepare.
For these chefs, excellence, creativity, and learning are integral aspects of their career. And underlying it all is a great dedication and passion for what they are doing.
“It was love at first sight,” muses Parrilla about his passion for cooking that began when, at the age of 20, he got a job in the kitchen at the former Sands Hotel & Casino now branded the InterContinental San Juan Hotel & Casino in Isla Verde.
Parrilla, chef extraordinaire, has come a long way since then. Among many career highlights are: winning gold, silver, and bronze medals as part of the Puerto Rico Culinary Team in 2011 Taste of Caribbean in Miami. The competition draws 12 to 14 Caribbean islands to this event in which the Puerto Rico team, founded in 1995, is managed by the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association; finalist in the competition Master Chef Latino in 2011; two silver medals, and one bronze medal in the American Culinary Federation competition in 2010 in Orlando, Fla.; second place in Master Chef Puerto Rico in 2009, assisting Chef Efrain Cruz; and two Gold medals, and Best Chef of the Caribbean in 2007 Taste of Caribbean.
Participating in national and international gastronomic competitions is a point of honor for Parrilla who said these events “represent a challenge and (provide) the experience of sharing with colleagues from other parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean, so you learn about new techniques, trends, styles, and products.
“I like to participate to represent my island and because of many other reasons like staying in the vanguard, trying out new food pairings, using products not used in Puerto Rico,” he said.
What struck him most, he said, was the level of personal satisfaction derived from being able to please people and satisfy their food choices. He recalled one occasion when a plain dish of white rice prepared by one of the chefs at the Sands Hotel elicited an enthusiastic response from a pleased diner.
This realization led to a switch in career paths, from electronic technician to gastronomy. He trained locally at the Universal Institute and the Banking Institute and at the culinary arts program of the Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Parrilla’s work experience includes stints in the kitchen as well as administrative posts.
Besides the Sands Hotel, he has worked at the Caribe Hilton hotel and Agora restaurant at the Westin Hotel Providence in Rhode Island. He also served as coordinator of the Gastronony and Bartending Program at the Commerce and Banking Institute (Instituto de Banca y Comercio) and directed the Gastronomy, Bartending, and Tourism Program at Mbti Business Training Institute in San Juan.
Nestled atop a mountain in rural Naranjito, with stunning views stretching as far as the metropolitan area, El Asador San Miguel restaurant opened a year and a half ago. It sits about 200 people, is open Thursday through Sunday and is available for private functions.
Its specialties, Parrilla said, are smoked and grilled meats. Among its signature dishes is El Asador, a grilled chicken, churrasco, smoked sausage, ribs, and shrimps -- served on a specially designed tray with a small hibachi in the middle for further cooking tailored to individual taste. The dish is accompanied by tostones (fried green plantains), risotto, manposteao rice (a combination of bean stew with cooked rice) or puree of malanga (taro) or apio(celery), locally grown root vegetables.
Under his stewardship, the restaurant has added Kurubuta or “black hog” pork. Considered the equal of “Kobe beef,” kurubuta is the most prized pork in Japan and comes from the oriental strain of the famed Berkshire pig. The pork is imported through a stateside distributor with all other cuts of meat served at the restaurant purchased locally.
Quality and cooking methods are what counts most when it comes to meats, according to Parrilla. For example, El Asador’s signature ribs take 14 to 15 hours to prepare as part of an involved process that begins with seasoning the meat with spices (paprika, oregano, brown sugar, salt, and pepper) and searing it for about 20 minutes, followed by more seasoning (secret recipe) and 12 hours of cooking on a barbecue pit over wood and mesquite wood, to give it that smokiness that diners find so appetizing.
The cooking process doesn’t end there. The ribs are next soaked in a barbecue sauce of sugar cane molasses, brown sugar, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce, and cooked for another two hours. The end result is a culinary specialty that has clinched El Asador’s reputation.
“I consider myself a chef with a base in classical Puerto Rican cooking fused with creative cooking,” said Parrilla, praising the island’s cuisine for its wealth of ingredients and flavors.
Cost demands often force restaurants to use processed foods, according to Parrilla who tries to avoid this. “Eighty five percent of my cooking is fresh. The closest to the earth the better,” he said.
Parrilla prefers letting food shine to reveal its own natural taste than overwhelm a dish with a surplus of flavors.
“Each cook goes through a process where he wants to use different ingredients, he wants to do so much that he ends up not being aware of using too many ingredients,” said the amiable chef who favors garlic and cilantro. “Less is more. For me a chef needs to have the skill of combining the senses in each of his dishes. My objective is to maintain consistency and my focus is ensuring that diners take away an experience that is unique and complete.”
Married and the father of 3, the 40-year old Parrilla described himself as a perfectionist who expects his team of 10 people to give their best on a daily basis, show respect for food, and have a good attitude.
As a chef, he finds that creativity “keeps you in the vanguard and challenges you in creating dishes for the most demanding palates.” His passion, he said, is to create something from scratch, support local agriculture, and honor Puerto Rican cuisine.
Even the best of chefs have their own personal list of stars and Parrilla is no exception. He said that he is inspired by the work in Puerto Rico of Chefs Augusto Schreiner, Ariel Rodriguez, Jeremie Cruz, and Israel Calderon. International creative influences include Thomas Keller, Ming Tsai, Douglas Rodriguez, Rick Bayless, and Charlie Trotter.
His ultimate inspiration is his family. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his wife and kids, exercising and traipsing around the island. He also loves gardening and travel.
It takes more than a degree from a cooking school to be a chef, according to Jannette Berrios, who became executive chef of the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino in 2013 after six years at La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort.
Culinary school graduates who think a diploma turns them into an instant chef “have no idea that they have a world to learn,” said Berrios, a petite woman who projects an appealing yet assertive confidence. She is among a few females in Puerto Rico who have achieved the rank of executive chef in a field still predominantly dominated by men.
Mastering the job of a chef takes experience and it doesn’t hurt to have innate talent. By all indications Berrios has paid her dues in a career that has had many satisfactions but also its share of difficult moments like having to put up with sexist attitudes from male co-workers resentful of her success. Professional jealousy is not unusual in her line of business but, as she pointed out, “If you are sure of yourself you don’t have to be fearful.”
It helped that she loves doing what she does. “This is a career of love, creativity, and passion,” she said.
In announcing her appointment, then general manager Randall Ha praised her “fresh culinary vision” and noted that “her expansive knowledge in luxury fine dining brings a refreshing perspective.”
In her job, Berrios, who is 39, supervises a staff of 35, including 10 women, and oversees all five food operations at this major convention hotel, including the Pool Bar & Grille, Choices Restaurant, the District Bar plus room service and banquets.
She projects being in full command. A graduate of the Tourism School, she rose through the ranks at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan then worked with Norwegian Cruise Lines in Hawaii, and with The World, the only private residential community at sea aboard a 644-foot ship that sails all over the world. She credits this latter experience with sharpening her skills as it required creating meals inspired by each of the 35 European ports at which the luxury ship docked.
These years of apprenticeship and professional growth came to fruition in 2007 when, at 29, she was offered the position of executive chef at La Concha Renaissance, in charge of setting up the kitchen and banquet operations as the hotel re-opened for business after years of closure. Not an easy task, she said, but a challenge she took on after careful consideration as it allowed her to “implement her own culture, her own style of doing things.”
Her job at the Sheraton brings new challenges, including creating new food concepts and revising the banquet menus, which are very extensive and, she said, require going item by item to see what works and what doesn’t.
“We strive a lot but you can’t always please everyone in the world,” conceded the chef, whose successes include being the first woman selected to join the Puerto Rico National Culinary Team, and being a silver medalist at the Chaine de Rotisseurs USA finals.
Berrios’ typical day is spent juggling the kitchen and administrative duties. She much prefers to be out on the floor “with my boys so I can see what they are doing, can correct them, teach them new techniques.” Delivering a good product is paramount and she frowns on staff taking shortcuts or not following established procedures. She has a strong sense of duty. “Any type of breakdown in the operation is my responsibility,” she said.
Berrios says her style is steeped in French cuisine and the tradition of Paul Bocuse with a fusion of Latin and Asiatic cuisines. She credits her mentors at the Ritz with teaching her the basics of French cooking and Chef Alan Gruber, in particular, for exposing her to international cooking. “From Alan I learned everything about Asiatic cuisine, Vietnamese, Thai,” said Berrios, who described her younger self as a “sponge,” eager to learn everything. Her list of mentors also includes local Chef Marisol, with whom she worked briefly in a part-time job that exposed her to the “art of fine dining.”
Creating a dish involves working with texture and taste. Balance is also important because no one element should predominate in a dish, according to Berrios. “There has to be a protagonist and co-stars with their decorations,” she said. In blending cuisines, she is careful not to overwhelm a dish with too many flavors. As she told one interviewer last year,” too much fusion is confusion.”
The menu at Choices features “Latino chic” food, a concept that she popularized at La Concha and involves tweaking traditional Puerto Rican and Latin American dishes to give them a modern flavor. For example, the duck ropa vieja is made the traditional way but instead of boiling the duck it is cooked slowly submerged in its own fat, a process known as “confit.”
One of the more popular appetizers on the menu is her signature cream of celeriac (a variety of celery) imbued with truffle essence over an edamame pudding. “It’s one of our best sellers,” she said.
What are her goals as chef? “To do the best,” said Berrios, finding the worth of her work in being able “to create and do something different each day.
“To create is to take something out of you. It is to look at a product and see not just what you can do with it but how many things can be done with it. To create is not to copy a dish from somebody else and then say it is yours.”
The young woman who grew up in a rural sector of Guaynabo still finds it pretty amazing at how far her career has taken her. “I went through every step of the career ladder,” she says proudly.
With work days often running to 13 hours, Berrios says she is now working on trying to find some balance in her life. Her after work pastimes are sleeping and running with her two golden retrievers.
Chef Daniel Vasse says he owes his success in Puerto Rico to traditional French cooking but has learned in his 33 years on the island to blend the colors and flavors of the local cuisine into his recipes.
“I’m a traditional, conservative chef but with that touch of creativity we all need to have,” said Vasse, whose restaurant at Palmas del Mar in Humacao recently celebrated 30 years in business. He also has a smaller, family-type restaurant next door to Chez Daniel and in 2008 opened Bistro Tartine in Caguas.
Vasse uses his creativity to give traditional dishes of the French canon a unique criollo spin. Take piononos, a popular dish best described as a meat pie made with ripe plantains and ground beef picadillo. In Vasse’s version the meat is replaced by a duck confit for a happy fusion of French and Puerto Rican cuisines. Another of his recipes is a foie gras with mango which, he says modestly, “is quite appealing.”
He uses as many products from Puerto Rico as he can, such as avocados, root vegetables like yautia, green lemons, and fish. He said fishing in the island’s east coast is rich with lobster, which Chez Daniel serves on weekends, Mahi Mahi and wahoo. Among his favorites local herbs are cilantrillo and recao.
“I like working with fish. Our specialties are as simple as a gratinée onion soup, a Bouillabaisse, a cassoulet, even a chocolate soufflé or apple tart a la mode,” said the Chef.
The son of a butcher, he grew up in a small town of Normandie, in the northwest of France, not far from the beaches where the allied invasion began the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II.
He cooked in Normandie and the South of France, learning the cuisines of both these areas. “France has a different cuisine in each of its regions,” he says. Norman cuisine, for example, is rich in the use of cream, butter, and mushrooms.
Cured meats and smoked sausage are local specialties. Provencal cooking leans towards lightness and favors the use of garlic, tomatoes, rosemary, and thyme.
Vasse came to Puerto Rico through an unusual coincidence. The owner of the restaurant he worked in Perpignan, in the Pyrénées-Oriental (French Catalonia), owned land at Palmas del Mar and in 1982 decided to open a restaurant at the resort.
Vasse initially signed up to work at La Marina for six months but ended staying three years. When the owner decided to sell the restaurant, Vasse offered to take it over and rechristened it Chez Daniel.
Through the years, Vasse, who is married and the father of twin daughters, has fully embraced his new homeland. He helped make possible “La Buena Vida,” a cook book sold to raise funds for the construction of Palmas Academy, and contributed to Jose Diaz de Villegas’ book, “Great Caribbean Cooking.” He has received many awards, including several Silver Spoons, and in 2009 won the “Table Magazine Hall of Fame Award.”
“I have been lucky to grow professionally at a time when nouvelle cuisine, created by legendary chefs like Paul Bocuse and Michel Gerard, among others, revolutionized traditional ways and taught us to prepare lighter, healthier food.
“Puerto Rico has a lot of talent; the only thing that a young person needs for success is to want to learn,” said Vasse. “A young cook nowadays has a lot more tools to learn quickly plus he has the opportunity to work with talented chefs. If he takes advantage of that, challenges himself, and knows how to stay humble, he can be very successful.”
“Working in a restaurant involves a lot of sacrifices but at the same time brings many satisfactions,” said Vasse, who is 66. He sees the restaurant experience as one in which everyone, the executive chef together with the whole staff of cooks, waiters, bartenders, and maitre d’ are responsible for the ultimate goal.
As he put it: “We all contribute so that the client will have an unforgettable experience.”
“What inspires me about all this is to be able to create smiles from what we do and making sure that the client is satisfied,” said Carles, who three years ago took over as Executive Chef of Royal Isabela’s La Casa restaurant.
Royal Isabela is a private luxury golf course and resort community on 1,800 acres of stunning real estate fronting the Atlantic Ocean in northwestern Puerto Rico, about 73 miles from San Juan.
Enterprising and eager to experiment, this 28-year-old chef describes his style as one based on simplicity and fresh, locally sourced products. “I want people to appreciate the taste (of food),” he said. “My cooking is simple so as to highlight all the flavors.”
The reliance on freshness is amply supported by La Casa’s own farm which devotes one acre to fruit trees, one acre to vegetables and herbs, and another much larger acreage (well over 40 acres) to plantains and breadfruit. The land is productive and rich in nutrients as it used to be a cow farm. “Things grow well,” said Carles.
Fishermen from the area and from Cabo Rojo keep the restaurant well stocked with daily fresh catches of wahoo, swordfish, Mahi Mahi, grouper, red snapper and yellow fin tuna.
Carles said fishermen also supply him with lobsters, fresh shrimp and river shrimp.
For inspiration, Carles gathers all his fresh supplies on a kitchen counter -- the fish, the vegetables, the herbs from the garden (his favorites are mint, tarragon and basil) -- and like a painter contemplating a blank canvas, lets his imagination run. He has been cooking for years and finds he is good at tweaking his own recipes.
“I like to experiment quite a bit…my biggest challenge is to offer something new and different every day, which has helped me to be versatile and have my own style. A good chef is original but above all needs to keep things simple,” Carles said. “My focus is ensuring that the original flavors of each element in a dish are not altered.”
A junior golf champion in his teens, Carles traveled around the states playing in tournaments and trying out for golf mini-tours and on one of those trips soaked up the culinary scene at LeCordon Bleu (College of Culinary Arts) in Atlanta through a cousin who was a chef instructor there. It left an impression.
At 18, he left the junior pro-circuit to study accounting and management, all the while helping to support himself through catering and running a side business devoted to that all American favorite, the hamburger.
“You were born to cook,” Carles wife told him one day and with her encouragement he quit his studies and signed up for the culinary arts program at the San Juan Hotel School. During his two years there, he said, his most influential teacher was Sebastien Lamerre, a French-Canadian who offered motivation and, after class, long conversations about food.
While still studying, an opportunity arose in 2010 for Carles to work at Royal Isabela, a $100 million project then its early phase of development. Not to cook, as there wasn’t a restaurant yet, but as the golf director’s caddie. One day the owners of the property, former tennis champion Charley Pasarell and his brother Stanley Pasarell, a distinguished tennis player himself, got hungry after a round of golf and Carles offered to whip off, what else, some hamburgers. When La Casa finally opened, Carles came onboard as sous chef to newly installed Executive Chef Alex Yates.
Working with Yates, he says, “was the best experience of my life. He is a visionary who taught me a lot about classic cuisine.”
Cooking is a dynamic field and Carles says he also benefits from regular trainings with Chef Dave Pasternak at his New York restaurant, ESCA. “I go several times a year and we have a very good relation. Pasternak has helped me to understand the kitchen and look at it from another point of view.”
A collaborative style in the kitchen suits Carles best. He may be the boss but he likes to get his six cooks involved in planning and even lets them participate in some of the decision making because, after all, “we are a team.” His 14-person staff also includes eight people working the front of the restaurant.
“What I most expect from them is that they work with satisfaction and pride,” he said. “What fascinates me about my profession is that one has the ability to know many people who admire you because of what you do.”
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