A few weeks ago, at Las Clementinas, we celebrated the opening of Casa Bruja – Casco Antiguo, the second venue of the most beloved artisanal brewery in Panama. We approached the chef, Alejandro Fábrega, since we were eager to know what inspired the dishes that accompany beers with names such as Talingo, Condado del Rey, Sir Francis, or La Fula. When he was a child, Alejo (as everyone calls him) would return from school in the afternoons. His parents were still at work, so he had to prepare himself something to eat. He would rummage inside the refrigerator, and sometimes there was nothing but the classic four-day old white rice and a carton of eggs. Suddenly I would find myself frying, stirring, and devouring a simple concoction that I love: my favorite dish on our restaurant’s menu. The name is self-evident: Arroz con huevo (‘Rice and Egg’), a recipe of very modest origins, which Alejo has raised to a sophisticated level.
I began to investigate local ingredients that could work with this dish and I stumbled across the chorizo tableño [a spicy sausage from Las Tablas] that I adore. It is spiced with rich Panamanian products: lots of cilantro and lots of annatto. With the chorizo as its base and a dose of powerful lentils, Alejo created a risotto topped with a poached egg. Like the rest of the menu designed by Alejo for Casa Bruja, eating Arroz con huevo triggers memories: with each dish in my menu I close my eyes and am no longer here; each one is a way to relive different experiences of my past.
Chicago – Barcelona – Panamá
Alejo was working in Barcelona when he received a call that he was waiting for, although much earlier than expected. The owners of Casa Bruja and I had plans to open a gastronomic space and suddenly they called me to say that in spite of being one or two years ahead of schedule, they had found the perfect place and we could not let it pass. So, from one day to the next, Alejo found himself in Panama setting up a restaurant and preparing a menu rooted in his own memories and in the identity of Panamanian cuisine.
But can that identity be defined?
¿Se puede definir la identidad en un plato?
Alejo gives a straightforward answer: For me, Panamanian food is what I ate when I was a child. Panama is a country with so many influences and cultures that anything I can think of can be Panamanian. Alejo was inspired by his own recollections, defining and fine-tuning his ideas, while trying to take them to a different level: I love the concept ‘signature cuisine’ because it’s a way of saying: I cook what I feel like. I don’t follow parameters. Nobody tells me what I can or cannot do.
After he picked Arroz con huevo as his favorite dish in the menu, we challenged him to choose two more.
Every Wednesday at my grandmother’s, I invariably ate corvina and yucca with ‘mojo’ [garlic sauce]. It’s one hundred percent my grandmother, only interpreted differently. My version is on a bed of candied onions.
The third course chosen by Alejo is related to another intense childhood experience: soccer. My whole family is fan of both San Francisco de La Chorrera and the Panamanian soccer team. During every game, we ate beef skewers. For a perfectionist like Alejo, research is imperative. The first thing he needed to do was to guarantee a better beef cut, and he chose skirt steak. Then came the hard part: the seasoning. We went all over the country tasting beef skewers. After many twists and turns, we decided on what we thought was the best one. Now, every time Alejo takes a bite of his personal carne en palito, he returns to the stadium’s entrance, as excited as always, and about to see the beginning of an intense game.
Alejo had it clear from the moment he received the phone call in Barcelona: Casa Bruja was going to be a bar; but a bar with its own identity and with strong Panamanian roots. I did not come to Panama to cook Catalan food (even if it is excellent), much less to fill my clientele with burgers, wings or chips. Before moving to Barcelona, Alejo had worked in two emblematic restaurants in Chicago: Alinea—selected three times as the best restaurant in the United States and the ninth among the top 50 in the world according to the San Pellegrino List—and the famous Girl & the Goat, a Best New Restaurant finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award.
Alejo is passionate about being an active part of the culinary movement of young chefs who reinterpret the flavors of Panamanian cuisine. Chefs are creating incredible things based on the knowledge and techniques acquired outside the country. There are many talented chefs here. I particularly appreciate José Carles, who in a short time has become a good friend. I also admire the cuisine of Riesen and Tomillo, among others.
When we asked him to give us a final comment, he said:
I prefer not to talk in the first person.
I prefer my food to speak for me.