20 years

Chef at one of the newest hotels in Panama defies family traditions

Paul Carrillo is executive chef at one of the newest hotels in Panama, the Radisson Decapolis. Peruvian by birth, his ancestry is Italian and his traditional family believed the kitchen was for women only. As a child, he liked to play in the family kitchen. His grandparents thought it was not manly for boys to be around food preparation.

New Year in his family was a time for looking toward the future, and one year Paul was asked what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted, he said, to be a chef. His father demanded to know if he was gay, Carrillo says with a chuckle, speaking through an interpreter.

Paul Carrillo

The family agreed that he could learn culinary art only if he continued his studies in hotel administration. He agreed and, for a while, took both courses. But the workload was too much and he dropped the hotel administration course in favor of becoming a Cordon Bleu chef.

Opposition to his career has evaporated now that he has proven he can hold his own among the finest hotels in Panama. When he goes to his family home in Peru, he does the cooking and his family looks forward to the dishes he prepares. Mama’s home cooking might be fine, but I’m sure it is nothing like the dinner Chef Carrillo prepared for me.

The meal began with a ceviche unlike any I have tasted before in any of the hotels in Panama, a blend of Japanese and Peruvian. A small mountain of raw diced halibut topped with a sprig of cilantro, spiced with pepper habanero (from Cuba), lemon juice, garlic and ajinomoto (a type of salt) was garnished with concha, a soft white nut from Peru, slightly larger than a pea, and choclo, a toasted maize, crunchy and not much larger than an apple seed, also from Peru. These were mixed with red onion and spiced with vegetable oil, passion fruit, yellow pepper, white vinegar and sugar.

Stuffed grouper

For the main course: grouper stuffed with mushrooms, garlic, crabmeat, lobster, basil and dill. This was accompanied by lobster prepared with butter, tamari sauce (similar to soy sauce), Worcestershire sauce, with crabmeat. The first garnish was a Peruvian corn prepared with milk and a tandoori base, with a sauce of fennel, butter, garlic and leeks. The second garnish comprised onions, zucchinis, garlic, Kikkoman soy sauce and lemon juice prepared in a wok.

The meal finished (with a satisfied grin on my face), Chef Carrillo asked if I would like to try one of his own “inventions”, something unobtainable in any of the other hotels in Panama. A sorbet made from cilantro and lemon. It was difficult to imagine the combination, but the taste was delicious, leaving a lingering yet refreshing aftertaste of cilantro for a couple of minutes.

Peruvian dishes spicier

Chef Carrillo is just 26 years old, yet is master of three floors of kitchens and preparation rooms, and is responsible for a staff of 60. As he took obvious delight in showing off his domain, he told me that Peruvian dishes are a little spicier than those of Panama, but the dishes I tastes were by no means hot. About 15% of the meals he prepares at the Decapolis are of Peruvian origin.