Dinner with Wilo Benet
Wilo Benet is a busy man. He’s the chef and owner of three restaurants in Puerto Rico: his flagship, Picayo, which bridges the gap between traditional Puerto Rican dishes and high end cuisine; Payá, a casual spot in the business district of Guaynabo; and Varita, the new rotisserie-style restaurant which opened a few months ago, and which happens to be where I met him last week. His other passions go far beyond food — he’s a drummer, photographer, and saxophonist in what little spare time he can muster — but fortunately, I was able to see him at his best, serving up mouth-watering dishes and delightful Puerto Rican hospitality. “Puerto Rican food is all about the intensity of flavor,” he said. “Things are well-seasoned, but not a single dish is intended to be spicy.” With this well-seasoned chef helming these spots, you know you’re in good hands.
Varita is Benet’s latest venture, and here he says he’s trying to serve the “comfort food of Puerto Rico — roasted pork cooked on a spit over wood.” The spit — or varita — in fact, inspired the name of the restaurant, but that’s not the only down-home touch. Benet explained that the meals that you’d find in the small towns in Puerto Rico influenced everything from dishes to the design of the restaurant, pointing out the pressed tin walls that evoke the roofs of the food kiosks scattered along the beaches, the mustard and amber floor tiles that are reminiscent of a country house, and the recovered wood and coconut shells that have been refurbished into the tables and walls.
But the food is the reason why you’re there, and in all honesty, it’s
incredible. Benet described his technique as the “deconstruction and
of traditional dishes… I implode them and reconstruct them without
losing the authenticity. I ask how I can bring them to the next level
without losing the roots [of the food].” From the rum-spiked tamarind
piragua (shaved ice) that arrived with our menus to the fantastic flan
for dessert, each dish took the standard Puerto Rican fare and served
it with what can only be described as intelligence. The pinonos, a
Puerto Rican lasagna of plantain stuffed with ground beef, was rich and
flavorful. The land crab stew was tangy and thick, but not to heavy.
The bacalaítos cod fritters were the perfect combination of salty and
sweet. And the roast pork (featured in the video, above), was incredibly tender and came served within a wreath of crispy skin. It felt
like you were eating pork that had achieved a higher purpose, as though
it had acquired a master’s degree.
is no slouch himself, of course. Educated at the Culinary Institute of
America, he’s worked in the kitchens of Le Bernadin, Parker Meredien,
The Water Club, and The Top of the Hub in Boston, before returning to
where he was raised to become the chef for the governor of Puerto Rico.
Today, in addition to his restaurant duties, he’s busy hosting the
likes of Andrew Zimmern, who was recently filming in San Juan, is among
the small group of Top Chef Masters and has a cookbook, Puerto Rico: True Flavors, under his belt.
Even though he realizes that what he’s doing now is a stretch from his
- Nat Geo Expeditions
French training — he remembers thinking “all of a sudden, I’m goint to
be morphing menus to accomodate rice and beans” — it’s obvious that he’s glad he
embraced his local cuisine. More than once during the two hours he sat
and ate with me, Benet used the phrase “what’s good is good” to
describe his sensibility for serving traditional dishes. But with
Benet, it seems that what’s good is always a bit better when he’s done
Varita: Condado Plaza Hotel, 999 Ashford Ave. San Juan, Puerto Rico; +1 787 919 7818.
Photo and video: Janelle Nanos