20 Questions with Chef Denis Rodriguez of Iguana Joe’s
Located right in the center of downtown Oranjestad, Iguana Joe’s is an Aruban mainstay. Its two sister restaurants, Smokey Joe’s in Palm Beach and Iguana Cantina on Eagle Beach are also equally popular drinking and dining destinations on the island and together, they make up Aruba Joe’s family of restaurants.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
These Caribbean-style institutions are known not only for their famous (and potent) frozen colada, The Pink Iguana, but also for their diverse selection of island specialties including fresh fish, coconut shrimp, jambalaya, jerk, authentic Peruvian ceviche, and keshi jena– a traditional Aruban dish made from the hollowed out round of Gouda cheese, stuffed with chicken, vegetables and spices. Although many tourists and locals know of Iguana Joe’s, not many people know about the very talented 33-year old executive chef who is working tirelessly behind the scenes, managing a whole brigade of cooks, making sure every dish is perfect and sourcing only the best produce day after day. Born and raised in Lima, Peru, Denis Rodriguez took the time to tell us a little bit about himself, his Peruvian background and culture, and what inspires his cooking style.
JF: How did you get from Lima, Peru to Aruba?
DR: After receiving my culinary degree in Lima, I came to visit a friend who was living here. Once in Aruba, I was impressed with the island and the wide variety of restaurants, which catered to tourists from many different nations. It did not take long for me to realize that this would be the place I would want to start and expand my culinary career.
JF:Was there a specific food experience or person that made you want to cook?
DR: I was brought up in a family and culture that enjoy cooking to a level of pride and passion. My mom and grandma were both great cooks, and they were my inspiration to be a great cook also.
JF:What role did cooking play in your life while you were growing up?
DR: Growing up, I was the favorite child in the family. It was an honor for me that my mom and grandma chose to share their secret cooking methods with me rather than with my siblings. I used this opportunity to spend happy occasions with my friends and family.
JF: What made you want to become a chef?
DR: From a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a very good cook, but not necessarily a chef. As I grew up and refined my cooking skills, I realized that I was privileged to be a part of Peru's great culinary wealth. At that point I decided that I wanted to become a chef and enrolled in culinary school.
JF: How has your culture influenced your cuisine?
DR: My Peruvian culture is my greatest culinary inspiration, but I have also become very interested and influenced by other cuisines such as French, Spanish and Asian cuisines. I do like to combine certain aspects of different cuisines.
JF: What would you say is your cooking style?
DR: “Fusion” cuisine– combining tastes, colors, shapes and textures of varied cuisines into a new, exciting culinary experience.
JF: What are some of your favorite local ingredients?
DR: As Aruba is a desert island, with little local vegetation, I would say that my favorite local ingredient is fresh-caught Caribbean fish, especially the Red Snapper.
JF: What do you miss about Peruvian cuisine?
DR: I miss the Peruvian Aji chili peppers, such as the Rocoto, the Aji Panca and the Aji Amarillo, which are only available in Peru.
JF: What are some of the biggest challenges of being a chef in Aruba?
DR: When I arrived, as a recently graduated Peruvian chef, my biggest challenge was that I was unknown and had to prove my ability to work my way up. Today, as Executive Chef, my biggest challenge is to direct a cooking team of over fifty staff members and produce the best culinary experience for our diners.
JF: What was one of your biggest surprises about the food culture in Aruba?
DR: I expected a variety of cuisines, but I was surprised by how many different cuisines were actually present on this small island.
JF: How do you decide the direction of the menu?
DR: At Aruba Joe’s we feature three different cuisines for our three restaurants: Iguana Joe's, Smokey Joe's and Iguana Cantina. As the Executive Chef I have been able to integrate my culinary knowledge into the menus to create culinary experiences that are second to none.
JF: What is your favorite menu item or items and why?
DR: The Ceviche, which is my grandma's recipe.
JF: What is the one food you cannot live without?
DR: I cannot live without my grandma’s favorite dish, passed down for generations: “Causa Limeña. ” This Peruvian dish is made of layers of cooked, mashed yellow potatoes filled with a variety of vegetables and tuna or shellfish.
JF: If you're not at work, where are you eating?
DR: As a professional chef, I like to eat and explore other restaurants and cuisines. On a personal level, I like to eat at home, because I see the dining experience as a special opportunity to bring friends and family together.
JF: Where do you think Aruba’s food scene is heading?
DR: It is a dynamic scene: on the one hand there are exciting new chef-driven restaurants, on the other hand, there are more "fast food"-type restaurants that do not require a chef.
JF: When you get time off, what do you like to do in Aruba?
DR: I listen to music, spend time at home, enjoy the beaches.
JF: What is it you love best about Aruba?
JF: If you were not a chef, what would you be?
DR: I cannot imagine being anything other than a chef.
JF: Balashi or Chill?
DR: I'm not a beer person, I prefer a refreshing Pisco.
JF: If you could live and cook anywhere in the world, where would it be?
DR: I really believe it would be “Aruba”, so I guess I am living my dream.