Jul 6 • 1HR 25M

Episode #46: José Olmedo Carles

The chef of Fonda Lo Que Hay in Panama City, Panama.

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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
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José Olmedo Carles is the owner of Fonda Lo Que Hay in Panama City, Panama. Jose used to have the restaurant Donde José, a very small and exclusive fine dining restaurant in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, it was one of the restaurants that helped put New Panamanian cuisine on the map, but he closed it at the start of the pandemic to concentrate on Fonda Lo Que Hay, which means, basically, “Fonda What There is.” It’s a larger, more casual restaurant and it’s really, really good. You eat well there. It’s one of the great restaurants of Latin America in my opinion. It’s that good. And it’s not expensive. Anyway, we talk about why he made the shift and everything else going on in his life, including why he is spending so much time in Los Angeles (and is looking for cooking opportunities there).

-Nicholas Gill

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Partial Episode Transcript

On the Surprise Success of Fonda Lo Que Hay:

José: I think like a lot of chefs of my generation, maybe I came back to Panama like 10 years ago, where Noma was and still is for me, like Noma. I think I was 100% inspired by it and what they did. You know, using the the produce no one was using…again, like a lot of chefs of my generation. And that was the goal. Like how could we take things to the next level? And I understood that I could only do that in a fine dining, tasting menu only restaurant, where I have 100% control. In the back of my head, I always said I’m never going to have a second restaurant. And well Fonda Lo Que Hay changed my mentality, in many ways, in many things. So yea, that was 100% of plan and then Lo Que Hay happened and for a second I almost was like, fuck, I'm going to close Donde José because I’m having too much fun.

And I think it was a period of time where it was just like a roller coaster and then I was like, Ok, I actually like both a lot. I really like fine dining. I really like a casual dining. And I realized that they both feed each other, and I realized one made the other better. I think it was you that told me like many you should start incorporating all this fermentation and all these things in Lo Que Hay from Donde José it's a great formula. And, and I think basically, since I closed Donde José we've been getting there but it's not easy, you know? How do you change from one extreme to the other and find yourself in the middle? And I think basically, things changed.”

Nick: “It's a totally different scale the way foods move out of that kitchen. Compared to Donde José, in the old space, at least, there were just like, 16 seats, right?”

José: “Sixteen first, and then I, I got rid of the chef's table because I was sick of talking to people. Well, then there were 12. I was like, OK, I don't want to talk to people one meter from me anymore.”

Nick: “Yeah. That was super close. I remember that.”

José: “It was too close. I'm actually anti-social. What am I doing?”

Nick: “Twelve seats, first of all, what the hell kind of business model is that?”

José: “Like, it's insane. But you know the crazy thing actually, I don't know what it was, but as a business it was great.”

Nick: “It was always sold out. Right?”

José: “It was all sold out. Always my dad always told me like, and he still tells me ‘Josê, it's not how much money. It's not how much you sell. It's how much you keep in your pocket at the end.’ You know, and it's a business. It was such a solid business. And I think, obviously, there's a moment that you always want more. And I think that's where things started getting complicated. But I still believe that it is a solid model. As a business, it obviously has a cap, you can only make so much. But it's a solid income, so that's one thing I definitely miss about that.”

Nick: “So when Lo Que Hay came to be, did it feel more natural. Do you think it felt more natural and comfortable in a way? You're basically using the same products for the most part, right? I mean, maybe there's not like five ingredients picked from the rainforest on a plate like you would do at Donde José, but for the most part the ingredients are mostly the same. The bulk of every dish is the same. They're just presented in a much different way. Does it feel more natural and the way Panamanians eat?

What I'm getting at is I think everyone has this idea about what fine dining is. What food is and like the Noma influence. But I don't think it has to look like Noma. You know what I mean? I don't think it has to look like a tasting menu all the time, not there's anything wrong with them. They're great most of the time…some of the times, but it doesn't mean that's all it has to be. Do you know what I mean? It can be other things, too. Yeah. And I think that's why I personally connect with Lo que Hay so much, because I think the options in Latin America in the way to present cuisine…there are so many things that haven't been tried yet. So many people are just making a tasting menu or whatever, but that's not necessarily how people eat in Latin America. Do we always have to try the European model? I don't know. I just love Lo Que Hay and I loved Donde Josê too, but I think Lo Que Hay is revolutionary, in a way that most restaurants aren't. I don't even know what my question was.”

José: I know where you're going. And I think a lot of what you were trying to ask me if that's how I felt and 100% yes. I think it's funny that when I opened Lo Que Hay, my closest friends from cooks to my wife to everybody, they told me this is you. This is truly you. At Donde José you have a vision. You have a mission. But somehow you're compromising a little bit of your essence. And a little bit of that Panamanian essence of how we like to be. We're loud. You know? We're messy. Sometimes we're colorful. We're not minimalistic. We're not purists. We're not Spanish. I just came from Spain and I freaking love how they will grill a fish and do a perfect pil pil emulsion and it’s heaven. And that's not us. We like to fuck things up. This is not this. This is Lo Que Hay. Our Soul. Out colors. Our influences. Our crazy mix of influences. And I think what happened was that I put so much pressure…we put so much pressure on ourselves at Donde José to quote unquote make things perfect. And Lo Que Hay was all about putting something out there, but I think it became easy because of Donde José. Because of all the pressure [at Donde José] it felt like like cooking was easier [at Lo Que Hay].

I'm never going to forget one time Paco Torreblanca and Antonio Bachour came to look and it was a hole. Nothing. And I was like, these guys are going to hate this place. And I remember saying just be you. And I was at a table. I was like, literally doing dishes I've never done in my life. I was like, ‘Guys, I'm going to be honest with you, because I respect you a lot. Like, I don't know what the hell's going to happen. I'm going to put some things out there. And I really hope you like it. Because I was not expecting you guys to come.’ And at the end of the day, they were so happy and there was a crucial moment for me, because I was like, Okay, there's something in the way I'm structuring my dreams and my life, that are not making sense. Because at this place we’re cooking with flow. Nothing else but flow, feeling. And not even putting 1% of the effort I put in Donde José. And people are way more happy. Like, WTF?

So definitely, things changed. But then in the pandemic, Donde José has been gone for, I don't know, two or three years, I realized the creativity of Lo Que Hay was getting stuck. I realized it was because I didn't have Donde José. So, I didn't have that fermentation, or that crazy technique that I could translate to another place. So these days, I think we're still getting there, but I think we're finding that formula where we're pushing ourselves, at least in the creative department. So, we can cook in an easier way that doesn't feel like we're just making something that looks easy and is easy, or that it may look easy, but there's a lot of thinking behind it. I think we're not there yet. I’m very critical. But I think we're getting there.”

Nick: “I think it's much harder to make these subtle changes, to add these little details to dishes that are very comforting, and they're already delicious, than to try and make them better. If you’re trying to add a little something to a fine dining dish, you could, you know, ferment a turd, and you know, put it on  like another fermented turd, and add some leaves and shit. And if people will be like, great. It's like, you didn't even have to think about it. You just have to fucking throw a bunch of shit on the plate together that sound cool. And most people will probably be fine with it. But when it's pure flavor that you're working with, you can't just do that. You have to really fucking think about what you're doing. How to make something that's already delicious, more delicious.”

José: “Oh, crazy. Two simple examples from the restaurant. It's like a patacón. We take so much pride in our patacón. Oh man, like from the sourcing. Which is the most important thing. Without the right plantain you can be the best chef in the world, but it’s not going to happen. And the precise temperature and the time and how you rest it before you smash it because it needs to steam. And they’re perfect, like, thickness…I mean, it's crazy and it's so beautiful when somebody tells you ‘man, I never had a patacón like this.’ And it’s the simplest thing that everybody has had like a million times.

Or concolón, which is crispy rice. And again, we found using like the same technique you might use to make pork crackling, how you fry to a certain temperature, but you keep some humidity and then this freaking rice becomes so beautiful. And I think we're trying to find those subtle details that you change. So, starting with the produce, how we treat it. And then we’re always asking ourselves at the end, it has to be delicious. That's the only thing. So we always make a dish and it’s like, what's the one little thing that we can do to make it better, and like you say, because it's one little thing that is so hard.”

On the little known Chinatown outside Panama City:

Nick: “We went to this Chinatown outside of Panama City that I had no idea existed, but it was massive. What's the name?”

José: “So that area is called El Dorado. And El Dorado is a big area. I always tell people, that's a real Chinatown or that's the modern Chinatown because Chinatown, officially is like outside of Casco Viejo? But obviously that was a years ago.”

Nick: “There’s nothing's there now, right? There's no Chinese population there? Maybe like one guy?”

José: “There are maybe like 5% of what there was. So you still have a couple of Chinese restaurants and Chinese stores. But you go to El Dorado and when you see the banks they’re written in Chinese. The signs are on Chinese like that. Literally, everyone walking in the street is Chinese. Oh, this is a real Chinatown.

Nick: “El Dorado existed before it was a Chinatown? It was like a neighborhood, like a suburb or something?”

José: “El Dorado is the commercial area that is right in the center of Dos Mares, Alameda. All these neighborhoods are high middle, middle-class, high-class neighborhoods, and basically where are all the stores. So the malls like everything. So, it's like a crazy commercial area. It's like a main streets, plus, like one that goes across where every single business is Chinese. If not maybe like, 98%.”

Nick: “It looked like it could have been somewhere in China. I guess. It seemed like to me like Flushing Queens or something like that, where it's a total Chinese neighborhood. We went to all these places, and they were amazing. Like, they were incredible. We ended up eating at like eight places or something. And it was great. But most people don't even know it exists. I've written fucking guide books to Panama and I didn't even know it existed.”

José: “Do you want to know something that actually I consider cool. Like after we did that, you know, we posted [on social media] and everything. This was like a while ago. So many people saw that we did that. And after that, maybe like four people that are influencers, like foodie influencers in Panama. They wrote me like, ‘that was super cool.’ And now people are doing El Dorado tours. Because people didn’t know. People in Panama don't go into place because it doesn't look pretty. They don't go in because they they’re not trained on Instagram. But the thing is, like now, there's a young generation of people that are psyched, even younger than me, because I'm 36 now, kids that are like 24, 25…they're taking over. They take over all these restaurants and they're on Tik Tock, and all this.

El Dorado is the number one place when I'm trying, within Panama, I'm trying to get inspired by an ingredient because they actually use more diversity of ingredients that grow in Panama than we do. By far, and I cannot believe there are four places literally one next to the other where I cannot choose which one is better. Maybe like I go to this one because this one does the best siu mai. But I go to the one next door because this one actually does Pekín duck better. But instead I have one thing here and one thing there, like what I did with you. And I don't want to say that it's because of us. But I truly think it's when you and me and Bollo and we started posting all about it, all these tours started and now you cannot find seats. You go like on a Saturday, and you need to wait. You need to make a line. None of these restaurants used to have delivery, for example, because nobody knew about them. You can find all of them now in all the apps. So, I feel definitely like Chinese food finally in Panama is getting the recognition that is long deserved.”

Nick: “I remember going into a little bodega in Panama City. I remember one clear instance in this little bodega that sold sodas, and, milk or whatever they sell. And on the counter by the register, there was a tray with dumplings. They made their own dumplings. I didn't expect it at the time. I knew there are a couple of Dim Sum places in Panama City, but you don't realize this kind of underlying Chinese element to Panama. And I didn't really see that until we went to El Dorado and it was like, Holy shit, there's a really big population. There's a lot of cool shit. And it's not just like some historic footnote of, Chinese people building the canal or whatever. They still exist and things are still happening. And all of these populations, all these waves of migration to Panama are still there. They didn't just like come and work on the canal and leave. They're still doing things. And it's fascinating. I think there's so much richness of cultures and it's super cool.”

On spreading awareness about Panama:

José: “Somehow, I feel like Panama is one of those countries so I feel for me, it’s my new mission to be a prophet of what we do. I think that's a mission that I’m talking to other friends that are in the industry, chefs, we all feel the same way. We all understood that it's not about opening a restaurant, necessarily. Maybe a restaurant is one of the things that happens, but it's like how I use Panama and its resources and the experience that we accumulate, cooking in Donde José and Lo Que Hay and going to a place like LA and being there, making sure more people look to Panama. Not I went there and I opened a restaurant because I wanted to be famous and make money. Hopefully you always want to be successful. But in doing something that actually makes people look to a country in ways that maybe you can only accomplish by cooking in LA or New York or cooking in Paris.”

Nick: “I was just going to say that story I wrote, it was more specific than I think a lot of people took it. My issue was with the actual language of conquest. The word conquest in terms of cuisine, and how there's so much emphasis on it. I pointed out like, 10 stories where the word conquest was being used for Latin American chefs opening restaurants somewhere else. So, it wasn't about someone going somewhere and sharing their food or opening restaurants. It's great. It's just like, there's this media attention from within a country for approval elsewhere. I get what you're trying to do is trying to get more people to come to Panama and stuff like that. This wasn't really happening in Panama. It was more other places. But let's just say a Panamanian newspaper, putting so much attention on you going to LA and it being in the Panamanian media every day, when there are people like Joseph [Archbold] who doesn't really get that much recognition from within Panama, when he's the one who decided, maybe I won't open the restaurant in Paris, even though I have all these skills. Maybe I'll come and work in my region and do that. So my issue was with from within the country of putting so much emphasis on approval from somewhere else. But what you're doing is totally different. What you're doing is going and sharing your food and getting approval from other people to come to Panama to share your thing. It's not depending on media to be on your side or to cover you.”

José: “I think like the main issue with media, at least because it happens so much in Panama, it's again, colonization. Everything that comes from outside is always school. So, if you make it in Panama, they say, Well, that's what we expect them to do.”

Nick: “Totally. That's what I'm talking about.”

José: “I 100% agree with you because it is a small country mentality. Because you don't see in New York, when a chef opens in Panama, you don’t see The New York Times going ‘Seth opened in Panama.’ Like you already made it in New York. I think it's a small country mentality. And I really want to I feel that's the main thing I've been trained to fight since I opened my restaurants. The way I talk to my staff is like how do we empower our people to understand that it is not that we're better, but we are just as good? We are as special. But we have to understood that we are different. We're not going, like you were saying, it doesn't have to look normal. It doesn't have to do like this. That's awesome. And you know what? They worked so hard to make it look like that. Why do you want to look like that? How do you make it look like us?

Definitely in Panama in the past couple of years there has been a little bit of a bigger sense of pride in the being Panamanian than before. I think for a specifically that you want to happen that I also want to happen, at least in a country like Panama. In this year, in this age, it will happen only more if you make a bigger name outside. Because I think like once you make the name in the states, you become big, whatever you do here. It starts getting more attention. Everybody that's here is like, ‘whoa, this guy is there. Now he's here. Now, I gotta go. I gotta go. I gotta go.’ So it sucks, but I think it's kind of like a system, right? People talk about systems and how you have to use it. You can't let the system use you. I think sometimes, somehow, at least for the past 10 years I've been trying to do the complete opposite. I understand I wasn't playing the system, right.

He will tell you more, but Joseph actually is one of the people I talk a lot about this because we both came with the same thing. It's like, oh, let's go to Panama. And maybe they're just like, Oh, come on, man. And you know why? Like, I don't want to have to. I mean, there are different ways to bring attention to the country, right? And none of them are wrong. Like one of them is to say, just bring people. Show them. Bring important people. I think that's the best way that everybody does in any industry. You bring people from the outside that have influenced to show what they have. But I always, in my opinion, I always got angry at that because why do I have to do that? Why do I have to bring people when I want to show people here, and hopefully the people here will make enough noise so the rest of the world listens?”

Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.

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