Owner of Pikayo, Varita and Paya restaurants in Puerto Rico
Most chefs know almost from birth that that’s what they want to be when they grow up. But for Chef Wilo Benet, it was his love of eating.
“When I was a little kid, I had more of a love of eating than cooking,” says the owner of Pikayo, Varita and Paya restaurants in Puerto Rico. “My mother cooked from scratch, but I don’t have a story where I spent time in the kitchen with my mom. It was not like that for me.”
No matter. Benet, who is also the president and owner of Museum Restaurant Group, found his way to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and his renowned style of cooking, just the same.
Benet was the keynote speaker at the World of Latino Cuisine and talked about young chefs and how tradition should not be abandoned, how the fundamentals of each culture have to grow in time, “while not ‘unanchoring’ it or fusing it with another culture.”
Benet says his initial interest was in professional photography. “But I didn’t finish and that led to dishwashing and that led to a pantry position at Fox Fire Inn in Jensen Beach, Fla.,” he says. “If I trace back to the one moment I knew I wanted to work with my hands, that the kitchen had a place for me, it was when I came back to Puerto Rico and was an apprentice on a non-paid basis at the Caribe Hilton Hotel.”
From there, he got a recommendation from executives to join the CIA in the winter of 1983.
“When I went to the CIA, I wasn’t even aware of the grandness of that institution. In my eyes I just thought I was going to some culinary school,” he says. “Then I realized it was the very best culinary school on the planet. I didn’t go there because it was embedded in me. I went there because the chefs at the Hilton, who were all European, recommended it.”
What the school did for Benet was instill the rigors and values of how to work a kitchen professionally. “How to be exposed to things that I’ve never even seen or tasted before. It certainly instills in you a philosophy, and other elements of discipline — how to wear your uniform, how to understand the importance of sanitation, consistency, uniformity,” he says. “Those were the greatest contributions the school gave me.”
Benet served an apprenticeship while at the CIA at Boston’s Top of the Hub, then returned to school to graduate. “The Top of the Hub is known for quality food but what it was for me was exposure to how to handle 1,000 covers,” he recalls.
While there, he was in the prep station, but it also gave him a shot at cooking. After graduating from the CIA, he went to work at the restaurant Maurice, at the Parker Meridien, and this was where he learned about the real world of foodservice. “It was a three-star restaurant, and although I had been exposed to a true apprenticeship at Hilton, I was a puppet, in a good way! But when I went to Maurice, I had the golden experience. The chef would scream at you for anything, and start banging on the window. I thought, oh my God. But all this I absorbed as part of the training, I never complained. I assumed it was just part of the training.”
What he learned in that experience was further steps in the discipline he learned at school. “No, it has to be in this position, or ‘This is the diameter, not this.’ We’re not interested in your opinion. That rigor, to have a true European experience of hand-crafting and discipline,” he says.
Benet then went to work at Le Bernardin in the morning doing the pastry shift, took a break, then went off to the night shift at the Water Club. “That was 300 lunches in the pastry department and only five of us. It was just insane,” he remembers. “Then I did the fish station, 5-600 covers in a day.
When you went to the Water Club in those days, it was really happening. You got to see how that classic skill had a strong hold on success in the restaurant business. There’s always space innovation, the latest technology. But steak and potatoes are going to be selling for a long time, past this conversation!”
The Water Club introduced him to a wide variety of other cuisines, one of which was Cajun. “That was not the forte of the place but we were allowed to be a little more creative,” says Benet. “The guy who I shared the fish station with was from Louisiana and he, loved Cajun. I learned from him.”
Here’s where the story gets a little interesting, Benet says. “My wife worked at the governor’s mansion in Puerto Rico, and we had known each other from childhood. The working chef there was getting old and wanted to retire, and she remembered that I was in the business. I came and tried with a couple of things and he loved it and I was hired. It was such a contrast to a commercial situation because, where you make a reduction from wines you couldn’t afford to drink if important people were coming to your own house, or you have to stock a bunch of things just in case someone wanted something — in those environments, you have to say yes and run and get it,” he says.
Not only did Benet serve senators, congressmen, admirals, and royalty but celebrities, too, like Julio Iglesias. “When he comes to dinner, I’m wiping a table and he goes into the kitchen to say how much he loved something. That’s worth a million dollars.”
Benet remembers other times when things weren’t quite so wonderful, like learning at 10 a.m. in one house that the governor was having a luncheon at 12 in another of his houses, or that he wanted a grilled cheese sandwich on the third floor when Benet was on the first and he had to run prepare it, then grab it himself, not even give it to the butler, to make sure it got there right at the moment.
But all cuisine in Puerto Rico comes back to rice and beans. “That’s the nucleus of everything,” he says. “Some kind of rice and some kind of grain. It’s a triple-starch-based diet. Plantains, root vegetables, rice, beans, some protein, a little bit of vegetable, lots of intense veal flavor. When the American troops had settled in Puerto Rico, that’s when we started consuming sodium. They loved spam and corned beef in a can, and our palates started loving sodium. That’s why everything was so highly seasoned from then on.”
Benet says he loves corned beef. “I’ll eat it out of a can any time, but I’m a renowned chef, I can’t possibly have canned corned beef on my menu! So how can I reincorporate it without losing its authenticity? I make a biscuit, stew the biscuit, make it soft, stew it in grill sauces so I have exactly the same thing you would make in a can but a far better quality,” he says.
Everything in Puerto Rico is highly seasoned. “Probably things that go against the nature of culinary school,” he notes. “You don’t season meat with salt the day before you cook it because you will draw the juices out of it. It does rid itself of some of the juices, but at the time, people liked their meat well-done, kind of on the dry side, and this provided for that and made for a tremendous potency in terms of flavor.”
Benet left the governor’s mansion after two years. “I was home at 2 in the afternoon – I’m 26, this can’t possibly be my life. So I started looking for spaces, and I found one in the Old City that I liked,” he says. “That’s’ when I started Pikayo. I wanted to do something different because everything at that time was traditional old-school Italian, Spanish, paella. I decided I was going to do Cajun Creole because that had influenced me a little. I never lived in that part of the world but our cultures had some similarities. They had jambalaya, we had paella. They have gumbo, we have osso bucco. They like food that is highly seasoned. So do we. Here’s an interesting point. Not a single Puerto Rican recipe is intended to be spicy by heat, but by intensity.”
In his first two years at Pikayo, Benet says he learned a lot. He did dishes with alligator sausages and chicken. “Some did not fly entirely,” he says. “As an administrator, never having owned a business, there was lots to learn. At the time we had American wines only, sparkling wine from California, and that struck a nerve with the wine people. It was a small place, only 10,000 square feet. I was so influenced by the French experience but I thought, all that schooling, all that yelling and screeching, I’m not going to do that.”
Then something he didn’t expect happened. “You know how life will drive you to the path you have been selected to follow? One day it was really slow at our 2nd location, so I started looking around again. Mofungo was an incredible transformation, it provided for me the opportunity to figure out how to invent, how to represent, how to bring to people the things of Puerto Rico within a menu that’s really a global menu. We have things from all over the world but we have a strong representation of fusion and classical dishes of Puerto Rico itself.”
But once Benet and his partners capped off at the amount of what they were grossing, another opportunity arrived. “To move to a museum, a brand new $50 million museum. They provided everything, the facility, the décor, they gave me the structure and we tripled our sales,” he says. “It was a phenomenal transition. And we started to get real press. Jonny Apple came from the New York Times and he called Pikayo the best high-end museum restaurant in the world.”
As the company, Museum Restaurant Group grew Benet had an office in the banking district, with 14 people in administration, and he started opening and managing restaurants. “I had a payroll of 200 people. Some restaurants we closed, some we sold. I traveled a great deal, I had a TV show in Argentina and was featured on different shows in the U.S. It was a good limelight time.”
Then he was offered his current location, a brand-new steakhouse, which has now been open six years.
How have diners’ tastes changed, over the years?
“You can’t be everything to everyone,” he says. “We have had an evolutionary process. You look at things you painted 24 years ago and now you’re embarrassed. It’s been a very gradual evolution. You embrace everything. You can come to this restaurant and see things that are current, what’s going on, local farming based. We have customers who come to these restaurants every single day, and from time to time they say; you have to change the menu. Constantly we are making changes to the menu. It’s not like we haven’t had a stretch of 25 years of accomplishments.
Benet has written several books and has his own TV show, “1 2 3,” that airs in all of Spanish-speaking Central and South America.
Benet says he is all about preserving traditions and customs. “Fusion is fine,” he says, “but there needs to be an effort placed on things that are of value for the preservation of a culture.”