I’m going to start at the end of this story when Nils Stolzlechner, the general manager at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort, thanked his staff for all their hard work during the Taste of Rio Mar: The Ultimate Food & Wine Experience, and really meant it. Instead of being appropriately attired for this formal occasion, he was donning a pair of Vans and a chef’s shirt because he had been helping out in the kitchen. When he graciously acknowledged his team, they were met with a standing ovation.
The pride in their eyes was obvious, as it should have been because the food and wine were first rate. But it was more than that. They were proud of their efforts in pioneering a more sophisticated culinary scene.
“Twenty years ago, most chefs on the island were from Europe or America. Local chefs didn’t have the opportunity to run a huge property like I do now,” Ramón Carrillo, the Executive Chef at Wyndham, tells me. “Gastronomy once languished in the downtown, but we are growing up. There are new restaurants with deeper concepts, and the Taste of Rio of Mar will be legendary as we build creative food and wine year after year.”
Their commitment to making this event a success was evidenced by the care the chefs took in crafting a menu to highlight their local cuisine, by the thoughtful wine pairings, by the beauty of table settings, and by the impeccable service, which always came with a genuine smile. They did it because they have pride in their work regardless of their position, pride in their resort and pride in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans love their culture and their island, and they love sharing it. Stolzlechner thinks it is in their blood, but I think it’s in their hearts, too.
Mr. Stolzlechner came onboard as GM just before Hurricane Irma with Maria making her debut a scant two weeks later. Getting the hotel back on track was a tall order (but they are up and running, as is 80 percent of the island.) The very next day, much to his astonishment, the staff arrived to help, leaving behind their families and hurricane-strewn homes.
“When I saw that I was convinced we needed to find a way to stay open. I also recognized the unbelievable potential to achieve a higher level of service and clientele for our hotel because of our employees’ dedication,” says Stolzlechner.
The rooms, property, pools, spa, casino, beach and the nine onsite bars and restaurants were overhauled. This included transforming a tired Asian bistro into a hip farm-to-table dining experience. The impetus for Roots Coastal Kitchen began as a pop-up concept between Stolzlechner, Carrillo and Top Chef participants Jeff McInnis and his wife Janine Booth, who operate the Root & Bone restaurant in New York, among many others nationwide. The menu blends Caribbean cuisine with traditional Southern comfort food, paying homage to Puerto Rico’s roots and McInnis’ Floridian roots, hence the name.
McInnis was originally invited to the resort to help rejuvenate the culinary staff by the former GM. He now visits annually to check on Roots and tweak the menu with help from Carrillo and his team. The two are great compadres and share recipes and techniques. They also share a similar background. Both learned cooking from their grandmothers who had working farms and have incorporated those early recipes and a penchant for fresh ingredients into their farm-to-table meals.
“My grandmother cooked for 21 grandchildren, and sometimes a couple of neighbors arrived, and we’d feed them too. We ate a lot of rabbit, chicken, pigs, cows, hens, goats and fish we’d catch,” says Carrillo, the resort’s youngest executive chef.
“Great-grandma Bryce had a huge farm with cows, horses, produce and a field full of birds – chickens, guinea hens, geese and turkey. The slowest bird was always dinner. The other part of my life was fishing and being on the water,” says McInnis.
This is where farm-to-table began before it became a culinary craze.
“One of my favorites things about working with these guys and this restaurant is Ramón. He’s incredible. Because he has lived here his whole life, he knows everyone and everyone knows him. He’s extremely well respected from the farmers, to the produce guys, to the fishermen,” adds McInnis.
It’s true. I followed Carrillo to La Frutera as he carefully selected the best avocados, papaya and pumpkin. His smile was infectious and returned by all.
Another culinary improvement was the opening of Iguana’s Cocina Puertorriqueña, headed up by Chef Jorge Cátala. This upscale restaurant has an open kitchen so you can watch your food being prepared. They serve Caribbean fare and Puerto Rican dishes inspired by their Spanish, African and Indian heritages. Fresh seafood is a staple in the Puerto Rican diet, and at Iguana’s it’s sourced from local fishermen. It was here, overlooking the resort’s two golf courses and the majestic El Yunque rainforest, that the three-day Taste of Rio Mar was held.
In a previous life, Stolzlechner was the food and beverage director at the Highlands Inn in Carmel, California, where the preeminent Masters of Food & Wine was hosted. His mother was a good friend of Julia Child and she attended as his guest. So, when considering how to elevate Wyndham’s gastronomic experience for locals and travelers, and introduce tourists to Puerto Rican food, that event came to mind.
“I wanted to have a world class dinner with world class wines,” he explains. “We have no Michelin star chefs on the island. Hopefully, we’ll get some. But we do have many renowned chefs and several who were nominated for James Beard awards.”
Joining Chefs Carrillo, McInnis and Cátala was Chefs María Mercedes Grubb, José Mendín and José Enrique. Grubbs is the first woman in Puerto Rico to receive the James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef. She owns Gallo Negro, a restaurant and whiskey bar in San Juan, where she serves as executive chef. Mendín is a five-time James Beard Award semifinalist. He opened restaurants in Miami, London, Chicago and Las Vegas and co-founded the Pubbelly Restaurant Group. He returned to his homeland to offer his expertise and support at this event. Enrique made history as the first Puerto Rican chef nominated as a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the category of Best Chef South. His restaurant, La Placita de Santurce, is also in San Juan.
“José Mendin is one of the top three Puerto Rican chefs. Maria is a brilliant woman with sensational food and José Enrique has the best Puerto Rican food on the island,” Stolzlechner proudly states.
And I can attest to that. This was some of the best food I have ever tasted in my life or travels. Over the course of three days—November 1-3—I gladly ate and drank everything placed before me. The first night consisted of six tasting stations, one from each chef. The following afternoon we were treated to a six-course, sit-down luncheon with each dish being prepared by a different chef. We returned that evening to a sumptuous six-course feast. At every meal, we were presented with amazing wine pairings—these included red, white, champagne and dessert wines from Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Sonoma and Napa Valley.
“We wanted to do something very special. We considered the menu, but we looked for high-end wines from the old world and the new world,” says Arnaldi Carrasquillo, Wine Manager at V. Suarez & Company. “It is an honor to have the opportunity to pour my wines at this elegant event.”
The following morning at brunch were more tasting stations, Mimosas, Aperol Spritzers, Bloody Mary’s and strong Puerto Rican coffee, all of which was necessary after the damage I did the night before.
Everything was delicious as I said, but because of my palate these were my favorites: Haachi Poke with lemongrass romesco, hazelnuts, morrones by Chef Mendín; a Lobster Corn Bread with gooey cheddar corn bread, buttermilk crème fresh and scallion by Chef McInnis; Chef Cátala’s Water & Land 2 with wagyu and beet scallop, kabot, yautia crema, bee pollen dust, micro kale and pineapple tomatillo; Chef Grubb’s Causa Santurcina, a corn nut crusted tuna with a saffron huancaina sauce, fried yuca, and aji dulce salsa verde; Chef Enrique’s Dry Aged Strip with coffee jus, calabaza pure, roasted scallions and toasted coconut; and Chef Carrillo’s Cinco Jotas Iberic Benedict Truffles with hollandaise and focaccia toast. (Just thinking about it again makes my mouth water.)
The chefs selected for this event had to have close ties to Puerto Rico by residing there, having family there or being involved in the recovery efforts. Any profits derived from the Taste of Rio of Mar were donated to Visit Rico, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the island’s agricultural economy.”
Stolzlechner wants to expand the Taste of Rio Mar next year to include internationally known chefs and talented up-and-comers to give them an opportunity to work with established chefs on the island.
“I love seeing people enjoying our food. When they sit down to share food you can feel the love in the atmosphere,” says Carrillo.