The Shock of the New
► A Q&A with Chef Ever de Peña of Ike’s Bistro
Gerald Sarmiento has a problem. His hotel has just spent almost two million dollars on renovations, including almost half a million on its sensational restaurant and bar, Ike’s Bistro. But the beach patio area, long an Aruba institution, is showing its age. “What should I do?” he asked, raising his glass.
— By Timothy Dugdale
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
“The place has character. We are putting in a sushi bar over there but the patio? I must think about it!” The effusive Sarmiento recently returned to the Manchebo Resort after helping open The Ritz-Carlton. He came back to escape the corporate management structure. “Too many levels. Here I can move fast on good ideas and train the staff to my standards.”
One problem he doesn’t have is Ever de Peña, the chef at Ike’s Bistro. One of the youngest chefs on the island to head a top kitchen, he has a soft, self-effacing manner that belies strong opinions about cooking. Recently, de Peña hosted Yoji Tokuyoshi of Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy and together they created a special five-course dinner at Ike’s. They met at the Mistura Festival in Lima, Peru the year before. “I like Yoji because we are similar in ideas.” Ever delights in Tokuyoshi’s verdict on working at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s legendary restaurant. “He thought it was ridiculous,” said de Peña, chuckling. “They would spend four hours prepping all these foams, take a break, and then spend another four hours doing the same. There was no cooking.” De Peña himself has no patience for another food trend, sous-vide. “Everything ends up tasting like everything else. And the flavor of the protein is either destroyed or smothered.”
TD: What’s your connection to Aruba?
EDP: I came to Aruba in 1998. I was born in Venezuela but grew up on Aruba. Then I moved away and came back to go to the culinary institute. I didn’t know if I wanted to work in the front of the house or the kitchen. I eventually chose hospitality after three years. I went to the Renaissance Resort and decided to enter the culinary program at Colegio EPI (Oranjestad) which was much more focused on the work of a chef. I started working at Cooks at the same time. The owner of Cooks made some changes and we tried to do casual fine dining. With them I won two culinary competitions and started applying to the hotels and the top restaurants. That’s what brought me here three years ago.
TD: Back then it was Giorgio’s.
EDP: Yes, it was completely Italian. But after a year, we started to do chef’s tasting dinners. The management liked it and decided to make a full change with a new restaurant. They told me whatever I decided to do, they would respect it.
TD: So Ike’s is your baby?
EDP: Yes, me and the owner. I started to look around the market and saw that there was no real Mediterranean restaurant in the area. Through the internet, I met a few chefs, including a guy who was going to be cooking at the Mistura Festival in Lima, Peru. I went there last year and I met all kinds of chefs. José Andrés was there, Alain Ducasse. In total there were 23 chefs. So I chatted with them and watched their demos. The connections are starting to grow.
TD: You’ve had experience in both the front of the house and the kitchen. What are the most challenging aspects of fine dining restaurants on Aruba?
EDP: The culture here on Aruba is not geared towards the staffing of fine dining. It’s completely different. Much more laid back, chill. We have a fews chefs on the island who I’ve heard have worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and they are doing well. I think the island, as a whole, is changing.
TD: What changes have you noticed in the way that guests approach dining in Aruba?
EDP: In this hotel, people certainly have different, higher expectations. If you notice, a lot of restaurants on the island are closing because of lack of service and food quality. A few years ago, people would buy an all-inclusive package and they’d eat whatever was put in front of them. Not anymore. Today you can’t survive doing that.
TD: That said, what do you see as being the future of fine dining on the island – stand-alone restaurants or ones that are attached to hotels?
EDP: Stand-alone is very hard to do, to control costs, to maintain standards. This hotel is a boutique hotel and the whole hotel is geared towards top quality. I have a friend right now who has a very good restaurant but he is going to move downtown because rents are lower there. Alone is very tough.
TD: How would you describe your cuisine? Last night I had the seafood chowder, for example, I noticed you use a real roux.
EDP: Everything I make is from scratch, the old way.
TD: The roux is listed on the menu. So is mirepoix. That is serious. Did you demand that?
EDP: Oh yes. I have a lot of young chefs who work for me and some of them don’t even know what a mirepoix is. If I can put essential elements like that on the menu, things that are hundreds of years old, I like to do that if it specifically belongs to that dish.
TD: You’re educating those who don’t know and enticing those who do.
TD: Last night, you also made a lovely lamb chop served with tomato risotto and lightly grilled shrimp and scallop with a bit of mango salsa.
EDP: Scallops you can eat them raw. My cooking style is to try to keep it simple and fresh. The risotto is not going to be a strong flavor. You will taste the tomato but it won’t overpower.
TD: The proteins are the stars of most of your dishes. Do you use any special preparations or marinades to enhance their flavor?
EDP: You know, we used to do that. And a lot of people did not like the marination. What we do now is just have fresh herbs, sea salt, olive oil and garlic. Everything is cooked à la minute. People are very demanding now. They want their food cooked their way. You have to work with them.
TD: So you’re caught between old school fine dining and current food fads and health trends.
EDP: As a chef, I want to give you the best. And some people don’t want to pay for it. Other people, they want a filet mignon well done which ruins the meat.
TD: Or cooked sous-vide.
EDP: That’s it.
TD: What is the target destination for your cuisine, say in five years?
EDP: What I learned from going to the festival in Peru and talking to all those chefs was that they all have their own philosophy but share the same principles. They may have different techniques but in the end, they want to communicate something to you on the plate. My dishes allow the flavor of the protein to come through. I want to cook without interfering.