Patio del Nispero Restaurant in the Hotel El Convento in San Juan
I recently had the good fortune of cruising in the Caribbean with 8 of my girlfriends. We’ve been sneaking away together for 26 years now, if you can believe it. This year we picked a cruise with some warm weather spots, including San Juan, Puerto Rico.If you’ve not been there, San Juan is actually a quite large city – nearly 400,000 people – and it’s old town is close to where the cruise ships land. That’s where you’ll also find tons of shopping, which is what half of our group wanted to do for our afternoon there.I’m not really much of a shopper. I joke that I am a buyer, not a shopper – I see something that would be good and buy it, but get bored wandering from store to store. So instead, I wandered through the historic center of town towards the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, which sits on the old town square. Across the street, in what used to be the convent for the church, is the historic Hotel El Convento.And in the center courtyard of the hotel sits the Patio del Nispero restaurant, which I had heard was a great place for lunch. I had emailed the hotel to make a reservation, and I guess because the hotel saw my cookbooks and website on the closing of my email, the Executive Chef (Luis Castillo) contacted me and offered to make a special three course lunch for me and my friends. Well color me tickled pink!The first course was a cold avocado based soup topped with pique, a house made spicy oil. It gave the soup just enough kick to linger at the back of the throat, and we loved it.Chef Luis and his team make the pique in house: you make a sort of steeped tea with pineapple skin, and then after it has infused into the water, you strain the liquid and add it to the other ingredients: hot peppers, sweet peppers, coriander seeds, cilantro stems, black pepper, oil, and vinegar.Our second course just may have been the best salad I’ve had in years. The Brussels sprouts must have been just quickly sautéd so that there were a few charred leaves, but then torn apart to make a green salad and combined with mango, goat cheese, avocado, cilantro, and pork belly croutons, and topped with a cilantro vinaigrette. Oh my.Finally, the chef prepared a twist on brandade: he served us a fresh piece of local cod served with some brandade (an emulsification of salt cod and olive oil) on the side. The fish was served on top of white and sweet potatoes, chives, and avocado alongside a hard cooked quail egg, with some olive oil for garnish. Again, oh my!After lunch, the chef took us on a private tour of the rooftop gardens where they are growing a wide variety of herbs and fruit trees. His goal is to grow everything the restaurant needs right there in that rooftop garden, and the woman who actually does the gardening could not have been more proud to show off her work.After I returned home I contacted the chef to see if he’d share a little bit about how his career landed him an executive chef job at the young age of 34. He had mentioned that his mother was a terrible cook, so I wondered just where did he develop his skills and love of cooking. Here’s my short interview with Chef Luis Castillo:
How/where did you first learn to cook?
In 1999 I was working for the the Palm restaurant in San Juan, and in my time free I went and learned how to cook.
What was your first paying job as a cook?
James Lane Café in East Hampton, New York
Who do you consider your mentor/who influenced you the most?
Every chef in my career has influenced me, but Jannette Berrios from San Juan, Puerto Rico taught me to love and respect cooking, and Juan Jose Cuevas took my skills and sharpened them. Everything changed and I could finally see my career with direction.
What other cooking jobs led to the job of Executive Chef at El Convento?
Your are never ready for your first executive chef position until you are there, working the job, but the 1919 Restaurant in the Vanderbilt Hotel in Puerto Rico was the place I was working that led to this opportunity.
What are your favorite ingredients to cook with?
Pigs feet, tomato, and tarragon
How would you describe your culinary style?
I cannot describe it yet – every day I see it differently.
Do you have a memorable experience around food that you’d like to share?
Every day that I cook for my fiancé I have a memorable moment.
How about a humbling moment?
Went I cook for my people.
What is your favorite food to make for yourself?
What should visitors to San Juan make sure to taste while they are there?
I missed both of these, so it looks like I need to return to San Juan for sure! Thanks again to Executive Chef Luis Castillo for sharing his creations with us for lunch and for taking the time to share some thoughts about his career.