No Place Like Home
► A Q&A with Chef / Owner Eduardo Ellis Jr. from Papiamento Restaurant
Set in an idyllic garden, surrounded by lush trees and centered around a shimmering swimming pool, stepping into Papiamento feels like you’ve been invited to a lush, private outdoor party.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
A group of musicians play live music next to the crowded bar, and every crisp white linen tabletop is lit by a glowing candle. With lights sparkling from the leafy tree tops and staff warmly greeting each guest, whether old friends or new customers, the atmosphere at this restaurant feels like coming home. This makes perfect sense since the building that houses Papiamento was actually the Ellis family’s home, which they transformed into a restaurant around 20 years ago.
Originally opened and operated by Eduardo and Lenie Ellis, the place is run today by their son, Eduardo Ellis Jr., who took over the family business. Though his parents are still involved in the restaurant, Eduardo Jr. is now in charge. He was kind enough to take some time away from the bustle of the restaurant to talk about growing up in Aruba, living in a restaurant, and what exactly makes Papiamento such a special spot.
JF: Tell me about the restaurant – how long have you been open?
EEJ: The restaurant started in 1983 in downtown Oranjestad, and it was an already existing restaurant owned by The Concord hotel. So what happened is, we managed it and then we took it over. The building was not ours, so about 20 years ago they wanted to charge us triple the rent. We decided to leave and we came here. This was our home. We were living here back then, so we grew up here and that’s why there’s a pool. You don’t usually build a pool in a restaurant. But the pool was built for the home. And we had a big bar too.
JF: Sounds like a really fun place to grow up in.
EEJ: Yes, it was! And then 20 years ago we decided to leave that building and we came here. Because it was our home we tried to find another place, but we couldn’t find anything that would do. We were getting busier and busier so we didn’t have time to leave. Eventually we all left the home – we all got apartments or houses or whatever — and then it became all restaurant.
JF: Are you from Aruba?
EEJ: Yes, I was born in Aruba. My sister and I were born in Aruba, and one of my brothers was born in Milwaukee. Another brother was born in Holland. My father is Aruban and my mother is Dutch and they met each other when he was studying in Holland. Back then we didn’t have the schools that we do now, so in the 1950s you had to go to Holland to study after high school.
JF: So you grew up here. What was that like?
EEJ: Nice! The best. You know a lot of people and because it’s a small island you end up having a lot of friends. It’s a very safe island, it’s a very nice island, especially when 20 years ago it was very quaint and everybody knew each other. The pace is a little faster now because of the 120,000 people living here, and because of the 1.6 million tourists coming here, there’s a lot of energy going on. So it’s not like it used to be but still it’s a safe island. I don’t want to leave!
JF: Do you run Papiamento with any of your other family members now?
EEJ: My parents. So it’s just my parents and I. Two of my siblings are now in Holland and one, my sister, lives here but she does her own thing, just like my other brothers. Hospitality is not for everybody and I’ve been working for my parents for 31 years, so I’m very used to it.
JF:. How are your parents involved these days?
EEJ: My mother is very much involved in the decoration, but they’re a bit older now so I want them to enjoy. My father is always sitting here at the bar every night. When he sits at the bar he has a Cuban cigar and he has his water – he only drinks water, sometimes a wine — and my mother comes in later and does the decorations. She arranges or re-arranges everything. She’s the re-arranger [laughs]. Sometimes they misplace things and she puts them back in their proper place.
JF:. Did you first start working as a busboy here?
EEJ: I was washing pots and pans. I was in the dish pit when I was 14 years old. Of course I went to school. I was 14 and did some dishes on the weekend, and then my father and my mother were chefs so I saw them working and I wanted to do that. Cooking I never learned from any college or school, I just picked it up. All my siblings did, actually. I just lived it. If I would come home from school I would make my own food between 2pm and 5pm, when the kitchen was on pause after lunchtime and before dinner service. So I would make my food then.
JF: Has the food changed at Papiamento as you became more involved in the business?
EEJ: No, we still have a lot of items on the menu that date back to the first day we opened. There are some dishes that my parents had on the menu that we still have. If you talk about produce, that’s changed a lot in the last 20 years because it was really hard in the past to get, for example, a red pepper, or an orange pepper. There were only green peppers and there was only iceberg lettuce, no romaine. And then eventually it all started coming in, and now we get a lot of things from everywhere.
JF: Do you think the island is changing in that regard?
EEJ: Yes! We have some greenhouses, we have some local farmers, the Department of Tourism and Culture, they’re really promoting farming. But still, it would be very hard to supply all the hotels. We have 120,000 people living here, and then we have the 1.6 million people visiting. Then there’s all the restaurants. If you look at the fresh fish, I can get fresh fish, but it’s for myself. We don’t have those kinds of large-scale fishermen, so we import all our fish. Freshly chilled, or freshly frozen, from everywhere.
JF: What do you think brings people back to Papiamento?
EEJ: I think it’s the consistency, the ambience, the food, everything actually. A lot of people just love the family and because we have a lot of time sharers, people who own houses and apartments, they come back every year. We have people coming back for 20 or 30 or more years, every year in a row. That’s pretty big, that’s pretty hefty. As the tourists come to Aruba, 50-60 percent who arrive at the restaurant are repeat guests.
JF: Where do get your menu ideas from?
EEJ: I have no idea! It just comes to me and sometimes I change things. I can’t change much because people come back year after year for the same dish. I have a gentleman who’s been coming for, like, 25 years and he always eats the same thing.
JF: When you’re not here and you’re not working, what do you like to do?
EEJ: Cooking, eating. I cook everything. I love Chinese food, I don’t cook that as much. There’s very good Chinese here, but you have to come with me!
JF: What’s your favorite thing about hospitality?
EEJ: I think cooking, because I have been the chef here for 18 years. I’m still the chef here actually! So I still do the menus, I still do the specials and that is very important to me.
JF: How did you work your way up to chef?
EEJ: I started in the kitchen, then I did some service, but I noticed right away that I liked the kitchen more. When all my siblings left I had to come out of the kitchen. It took 2 years to get used to that because I always had the kitchen, a wall, and then the restaurant. So it took about 2 years to feel more comfortable and I’m not the big host who goes to all the tables. I’m not like that at all. If they know me, they come to me. It’s not that I don’t like to, but I think with all the tables it’s too much. I just want to make sure everyone’s happy with the service, the food, the drinks. I’m the observer and I try to take care of the problems before they happen. A lot of locals seem to like to eat here. People keep telling me this is one of their favorite places to go. I think that we have a lot of smart local people with good taste [laughs].