Wilo Benet is an internationally renowned chef who has spent the last 40 years creating delicious dishes at fine dining establishments from New York City to Puerto Rico. He has also acted as a judge in Top Chef, was a participant in Top Chef Masters First Season, created a television show for Fox Latino, opened critically acclaimed restaurants, been a guest chef at the James Beard Foundation and has written best-selling cookbooks.
Today we’re chatting with this tour de force about the future of food, how to bring global influence into local dishes and why the secret to crowd-pleasing recipes is a mix of ‘dulce y sal’ (sweet and salty).
Impossible Foods: You’re internationally renowned in the food industry. Tell us about your journey.
Wilo Benet: I actually started studying photography in college, but left early to join the army. However they rejected me because I’m colorblind, so I ended up working in the kitchen washing dishes. Soon after, I moved on to peeling shrimp and oysters, and I really credit that experience with prompting me to look into culinary arts. When I told my father I wanted to be a cook, he found out about The Culinary Institute of America(opens in a new tab) (CIA) and told me that if I wanted to get in, I would need real world experience, so I moved back to Puerto Rico (I was living in Florida at the time) and got an apprenticeship at the Hilton Hotel in San Juan.
At that time, it was the epicenter for gastronomy and I got to work under many great international chefs and taste their food for the first time. From there, I went on to study at the CIA, and upon graduation worked at a series of great restaurants in New York City. One thing led to another and I got the opportunity to be chef at the governor’s mansion in San Juan, so I moved back to Puerto Rico and two years later I launched my first fine-dining restaurant, Pikayo. Since then I’ve launched Payá, Varita and most recently, Wilo Eatery & Bar.(opens in a new tab)
IF: You’re known for redefining Puerto Rican cuisine, bringing it full center while combining it with global influences to set new culinary standards. How has your background impacted your recipe creation?
WB: When I first moved back in 1990, I didn’t want to cook anything ‘criollo’ or native Puerto Rican -- no rice, no beans, no tostones. Picayo was a cajun-creole fusion concept and there were no other restaurants like it at the time. However, one day when things were a bit slow, I decided to make mofongo, our local dish. My partner was firmly against it because at that time, local cuisine wasn’t incorporated into fine dining establishments, but our customers loved it! I think it was a message for me that I needed to engage the local culture in one way or another.
Once we added it to the menu, we never looked back. We have focused on featuring both global cuisine and local favorites on our menus, from alcapurrias to caviar and everything in between. I focus on bringing as much of my experience to the table in terms of finessing and sophisticating the dishes without unanchoring them from their origins as we know it as Puerto Ricans. They’ve been very well accepted and helped me to receive recognition locally and globally, which is also why I decided to start writing cookbooks like Puerto Rico True Flavors(opens in a new tab) which was devoted to the down home style foods of Puerto Rico.
Cheese Souffle with Spiced Guava Sauce
IF: How would you define Puerto Rican cooking?
WB: Puerto Ricans have a love of everything salty-sweet, and that’s actually a theme I’m exploring in my new cookbook, Wilo Benet: Salty Sweet, which will come out next year. From steamed pasteles to cheese souffle with guava sauce, roast pork and all the plantain dishes - we order more fried plantains than french fries in our meals! This book highlights my culture’s love for food and has given me the opportunity to talk about my experiences with family, colleagues and food tasting the world over.
IF: How do you balance local tastes with global food trends?
WB: Diners are embracing movements like plant-based and farm to table - I have a whole plant-based category on my menu and we always tell our guests that if you have a request, just tell us and we’ll create something to suit your needs. Those requests come every day, and there are a lot of opportunities to incorporate plant-based, gluten free, etc into the menu and still create very delicious dishes. My belief is that the role of a chef is changing, and in the future we’ll be healers through food, not just entertainers as we are currently.
The role of a chef is changing, and in the future we’ll be healers through food, not just entertainers as we are currently.
IF: Why did you add Impossible™ Burger to the menu?
WB: We actually started with a competitor’s product and liked it, but when we tasted Impossible™ Burger, we loved it so much that we made the switch. We liked it so much better because of the taste, the texture -- it allowed us more creative expression. As a culture, we use a lot of ground beef, from stuffed peppers to picadillo, pionono and even spam and canned corn beef from the American influence on the island. I created a pasta based on local flavors made from shredded brisket, ripe plantains and cream cheese, and we can easily swap out the beef with Impossible™ ground meat made from plants, which is phenomenal.
We actually started with a competitor’s product...but when we tasted Impossible™ Burger, we loved it so much that we made the switch. It is phenomenal and we use it in a lot of our recipes -- it allowed us more creative expression.
Pionono of Ripe Plantains filled with Impossible™ Burger
IF: You have quite a few Impossible™ dishes on your menu. How are customers reacting?
WB: We get a lot of positive comments on our dishes, especially from families where everyone eats a bit differently. Now there are options for kids, meat eaters and vegans. That’s my take on how to service all the growing trends - I try to be as inclusive as possible with my food.
IF: Where is the future of food going to be?
WB: As we get more information regarding the future of supply chains and the impacts of globalization on our planet, we need to think about how we source our food and focus more on local production and sustainable ingredients. However, sourcing those ingredients can be tricky because of availability and consistency. When I have 400 customers a day, I need to be able to have reliable sources of food so I can create dishes that customers can rely on - consistency is the secret to successful restaurants.
I don’t think we all quite realize that food production is going to change tremendously, but if we keep heading down the same path and globalization continues to impact our food systems, we will have to make some changes.
Pumpkin Ravioli with Parmesan Shavings, Biscotti Dust and Olive Oil
IF: What advice do you have for young chefs?
WB: What I’ve taken away from my training is an emphasis on discipline, attention to detail, finesse in the palette and great handwork. I always tell aspiring chefs ‘If you want to be a marine, join the Marine Corps. If you want to be a great chef, work at a Michelin Star restaurant.’ I think it’s also important to realize that things take time -- I’ve noticed the younger generation expects to move through the ranks to executive chef quickly. Not everyone can do that, so patience and commitment are important in this field.
If you were inspired by Wilo’s story, feel free to check out his books on Amazon(opens in a new tab) or head over to Wilo Eatery and Bar(opens in a new tab) in Puerto Rico for an unforgettable meal. If you’re a foodservice operator who would like to try Impossible™ products for yourself, request a free sample today!(opens in a new tab)