One day in a Panama City grocery store parking lot Andrés Morataya had an epiphany. He went to the story to buy mangoes, which he noticed were all from Mexico. As he walked to his car he saw a mango a tree at the edge of the parking lot. Hundreds of mangoes were just rotting on the ground. It had a profound effect on him. He realized just how disconnected everyone is with where their food comes from.
This helps explain why we are walking barefoot through a path through the mangroves at the edge of Panama’s Azuero peninsula, where Morataya just opened Panga at Playa Venao, outside the cowboy town of Pedasí near the Pacific coast. It’s a place where you might see men passed out on their horses that are trotting their way home, but suddenly it is transitioning into a resort area. The tide is out, so to get to the river to take get a skiff to Isla Cañas, Morataya and I need to take off our shoes and hike about a kilometer down a warm, muddy path that cuts through the mangroves.
Ecologically speaking, the Azuero peninsula would seem to be a poor location for developing a restaurant at first glance. It has been impacted by waves of slash and burn clearing for cattle grazing that has destroyed all but a few patches of the original dry forests. Populations of many native species are low, either from hunting or habitat destruction. Yet, there was more here than it might appear.
Morataya began buying oysters from Isla Cañas a few months before. These were the first oysters being cultivated in Panama and he was thrilled he could serve them. He had installed tanks at Manolo Caracol, the Panama City restaurant he had been the chef at for the past year, so he could keep them on the menu all week. He wanted to know more about where they were coming from and what the supply was like.
The isolated 700-person community is comprised of mostly artisanal fishermen and conchas negras (black clam) collectors. The virgin beaches are notable sea turtle nesting sites, and the traditional yet ecologically damaging activity of collecting the eggs. The oysters were introduced here as a sustainable, alternative source of income. A group of women were spearheading the project and we found one of them at her house not far from the pier we arrived at. The project had its ups and downs over the past several years and some of the women had withdrawn their support, but now that several restaurants in Panama City had discovered the oysters, the project’s long term stability seemed likely. She was standoffish at first, but let her guard down as she saw Morataya’s enthusiasm over the oysters. She then showed us where they were growing and we bought a couple of dozen to eat later that night when we got back to the finca.
As he puts it, Andrés Morataya Forrest Gumped his way to Pedasí. He was born in Guatemala, but later lived Costa Rica with a girlfriend whose brother eventually opened a B&B in Pedasi. He studied engineering in Chile, but his heart was never into it, and when they moved to Pedasí to take care of the B&B he took over the restaurant. Not long after his girlfriend left, but he stuck around. The restaurant was just open two nights a week. On Friday nights he grilled fish and beef from local fishermen and ranches. On Saturday nights he made sushi. One day some people that worked with the Prince of Liechtenstein came in, which sounds unusual, however, the prince had a summer house near Pedasí. Not long after the prince asked Morataya to be his private chef there. So for five years he worked with him. He was only needed in Pedasi about eight months each year, so for the rest of the year he would bring him to Lichtenstein or send him to places in Europe or the U.S. to get inspired.
When he decided it was time to move on he connected with Manuel “Manolo” Madueño, the Spanish born chef of the restaurant Manolo Caracol in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City. When he opened the restaurant in 2002, Madueño’s thinking has been years ahead of every other chef in the city. With the money he made he didn’t buy cars or houses, he purchased roughly 1,000 hectares of land all over Panama where he could grew native products and created a supply line to his restaurant that is still the envy of every other chef in Panama. While Manolo Caracol received good reviews, Madueño never got the recognition he deserved. He stuck to his principles. He served farm to table food when it wasn’t even talked about in States. He fought with everyone in the culinary community. When he was asked to participate in a culinary event that was being sponsored by an energy company he said “Fuck you,” and they never asked him again. In 2015, Manolo was sick of the stress of the city and wanted to relocate to Pedasí. He asked Morataya to move to take over the restaurant, while he worked on the finca in Pedasí and ran a small restaurant there.
The swap worked out well for both of them. Madueño appreciated the country air and the lack of people, while Morataya not only gained experience operating an established kitchen, he breathed new life into the restaurant, connecting it to the suddenly blossoming Panamanian food scene. The other chefs in Panama had finally caught up to the ideas of Madueño. Farm to table was in and chefs that had worked in Spain, the U.S., and South America were all (and still are) returning to Panama to open restaurants. Madueño didn’t need to say “fuck you” anymore. Everyone was on their side now. Even Casco, the once gritty, crumbling neighborhood had been revived and buildings were being restored on every block, being turned into new boutique hotels, art galleries, and restaurants.
Like Casco, Manolo Caracol had a bohemian air, serving a tasting menu long before anyone in the city knew what one was. They brought in opera singers to perform during dinner service and gave away sprouted coconuts from the farm in Pedasí to anyone who wanted to plant one a palm tree in their yard. They hired old women from Las Tablas to make chorizo for them. “I don’t know if it’s a good business model or we are hopeless romantics paying four ladies to make something I could do in an hour just because we like to hear them talking,” Morataya told me. Aside of the new oyster tanks, he began sourcing ingredients like giant conger eel and sea urchins from the Darién, serving them alongside everything that Madueño was growing on the farms.
“We have all of these things like corozo, a palm nut that’s found all over Panama that nobody knows what to do with” Morataya tells me as we walk around Madueño’s Pedasí finca. They found a way, after experimenting and experimenting, to grind the corozo into a powder. I taste it. The flavor is beautiful. Unique. A little bit sweet with a hint of fruitiness. “But this jar is all we have of it,” he tells me. “This is all that exists in the world and I like being the one that’s trying to find something to do with it.”
They are experimenting with vinegar. There was one that was aged two years and tasted incredible, but they only made a single bottle of it and by the time they realized how great it was the recipe was gone. Yet they had a starting point and they were going to try again and again until it was right.
The connection to what they were growing for the restaurant in Azuero, both the small farm in Pedasí and another larger, more wild plot of land further away where they initiated a reforestation project, is something rare in Panama. Sourcing organic ingredients more diverse than say tomatoes is frustrating. Every chef would love things like squash blossoms and despite prodding farmers to sell them they never materialize.
“Manolo says he’s been waiting 10 years for something like this,” Morataya says. “He just had to grow them himself.”
As the surrounding farmland was mostly genetically modified, the tradition of farming in the region has been lost. They needed to speak to really old men to find out what to do with some products. There was rice, a local variety that they harvested by hand. There was malaguetto, a seed of African origins that used to be used to flavor chicha de maiz but disappeared. Manolo found some in the middle of nowhere and bought all he could. There were moringa trees and seven types of mangoes, plus various ají peppers, herbs, and fruits.
All was going well at the finca and in the city until news came that the owner of the building that houses Manolo Caracol was going to do a major renovation. One that could take years. Manolo Caracol as it has been known for the past 20 years would be no more. Madueño went into partnership with Felipe Milenés, who returned to Panama after years abroad to open Tomillo, for a small Casco restaurant. Morataya was going to join them, but suddenly a plot of land opened up in Pedasí, which is suddenly about to explode with new hotels and condos. A friend had a hectare of land on Playa Venao given to her by her parents. She isn’t even living in Panama so gave Morataya a deal he couldn’t refuse. He now has a family with two young daughters but wasn’t seeing them much while working at Manolo Caracol. This was his chance to make the restaurant compatible with his life.
Panga is still a work in progress. Morataya is creating a restaurant in the way that he wants in the land he has spent nearly a decade trying to understand. The 40-seat space, on a deck looking at the Pacific, is exposed to the salty air. He built wood tables and raised garden beds. His neighbors are howler monkeys that come visit every morning. Every afternoon five macaws sit on the deck. His daughter thinks they are hers.
There’s a tree growing a sort of red blueberry that tastes like a fig. An old guy he met said he used to eat them when he was a kid, but no one knows the name yet. Oysters are coming from Isla Cañas, of course. The sea is here rich and artisanal fishermen provide a steady supply of yellowfin tuna and other fish. Using everything he learned working with Madueño, he is growing yuca, otoe, and microgreens. He’s making salt and brines from the ocean.
There’s no menu at Panga. Whatever is available from from the Azuero peninsula is served, though the infrastructure to do everything he wants still needs to be developed. Other restaurants in the area have set a low bar.
“There’s bacon here, but it’s terrible. There’s cheese, but it’s plastic,” he says.
Yet there are cows, so he’s making his own cheese and breaking down whole animals himself. He showed the farmer the ahumado (smoked) and Oaxaca style cheeses he is making and his mother wants to learn. Morataya will just pay her for it. All of the beef needs to be dry aged and there are other unexpected expenses, so he needs to order more equipment that he didn’t expect. He’s starting a Kickstarter campaign to help.
There’s already an energy surrounding the restaurant. The rest of Panama is rallying around him. In Panga’s first days he held a pig roast and then a Sunday brunch with steamed buns stuffed with oxtail, prawns, and ropa vieja. He is searing beef right on charcoals and cooking oxtail stew in a cauldron over a wood fire. Venezuelan chef José Ragazzi came for a few days to hang out, so did Riesen’s Hernan Riesen from Panama City. José Carles from Donde José? might come do a takeover for a month. Carlos Chombolín Alba, the chef of Intimo, gave him beehives. Morataya says he’ll pay him back in honey.