Interview: Carlos from Paladar Venceremos

Carlos from Paladar Venceremos

Carlos has been running his restaurant, Paladar Venceremos, for several years but I’ve discovered his place more recently and I’m glad that I did! He’s a top-notch chef and Kigali is lucky to have him. To learn more, follow the Paladar Venceremos Facebook page, check out their website, or read my restaurant review.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in Havana in the heyday of Cuba’s socialist revolution. One of my first memories of food was sitting on the floor next to my mother in the kitchen, something I regularly did because I loved the smell so much. My mother dropped a spoon she was stirring with and I immediately grabbed it off the floor and put it in my mouth. Instead of tasting that wonderful smell, all I got was a terrible burn

I wasn’t put off of cooking for long though. At the age of 10, I made breakfast for myself every day during summer break – hot, garlic bread pressed on a grill and fresh lemonade. I learned how to be quick because I needed to have it ready before the cartoons started. Gradually, I started cooking more and more and would cook for my family on holidays. When I married Anna in 2001, I cooked for our wedding reception, which was about 60 guests. We got married in the U.S., and at the time I spoke no English, so cooking was my best means of communicating with everyone.

My first professional venture into cooking was when we were living in Cali, Colombia. I was working in a laboratory, a continuation of my molecular biology career initiated in Cuba. As a scientist, I always enjoyed mixing different things together and seeing the result, but the advantage with cooking is that I could then taste it!

The lure of cooking convinced me to engage in a series of two-month internships with different restaurants in Cali – they got free labor and I got to learn cooking! From there, I applied to Le Cordon Bleu London and secured a scholarship to attend. When we returned to Colombia, I worked at the restaurant of Harry Sasson, Colombia’s most renowned chef at that time. Later, my wife, son and I moved to Washington DC where I worked at Galileo, Citronelle, Bistrot Lepic, and eventually Nora Restaurant. Working with Nora Pouillon was one of the most influential experiences in my cooking career. She had a deep impact on my cooking style and values which I still apply today.

What brought you to Kigali originally?

After Nora Restaurant, I was four years as Head Chef at Carmelita Restaurant in Seattle, rated the best vegetarian restaurant on the West Coast in 2011. In 2012, my wife got a job to head a US Aid project on land rights in Rwanda and we landed here in June of that year. .

Where did you get the idea to start Paladar Vencermos?

When we first came to Kigali, I did a few consultancies for area restaurants like Sol e Luna and Bourbon Coffee as well as offering cooking classes. Then, one morning my wife and I were eating breakfast on our terrace and the idea came that perhaps we could open a small restaurant in our home, like the “paladares” in Cuba. A quick check at RDB assured us that we could and the next thing you know we were a registered business. We started with offering a six course dinners to our friends in exchange for them telling and giving our card to at least five of their friends. And that’s how it began, offering a six course dinner every Friday and Saturday evening, promoted purely by word of mouth.

What does the name of your restaurant mean?

In Cuba, a “Paladar” is a home-based restaurant. They began to flourish in the 1990s when people sought ways to earn additional income to support them during the economic crisis that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union. They continue to serve some of the best food in Cuba and are a favorite for tourists “in the know.” “Venceremos” is one of Fidele Castro’s most famous refrains, “Patria o muerte, venceremos!” meaning “Country or death, we will overcome!” Whenever my wife and I ran into difficult times, one of us would say to the other, “venceremos!” and we’d both smile. So, the name was born out of our own private joke.

Your changing menu is unique to Kigali. Why did you decide to do it this way?

When I worked at Nora Restaurant, we changed the menu every day. She, the chef, and me as the sous chef would sit together every day to plan the evening’s menu depending on what we had that was in season. It was challenging, but very exciting! I love cooking like that, and get bored if I have to cook the same thing all the time. Also, in Kigali, products constantly come and go, so it fits well with some of the inconsistency in the market here.

What is your favourite fresh local produce to work with?

I like the spinach that is grown here but what they called in Seattle “New Zealand” spinach. There it was a specialty item. Here, it is in abundance. I love it because it sautes really well and doesn’t lose its body or color. The filet mignon is also excellent — very tender and flavorful – especially when compressed with herbs. It is also much more affordable here than in the U.S. – one of the few products that’s like that.

What are some challenges you face running a business in Kigali?

Electricity! I have an intern working with me and he even came up with a rap song he sings whenever the power goes out or there’s a surge and some piece of equipment gets burned. It’s called, “Wha’s up, EWSA??!!”

What are some of your favourite Kigali restaurants?

I love Middle-Eastern food, so Pascha is a favorite. We particularly enjoy the fireplace there which lends a lot of ambiance. We also like the pizza at Sol e Luna, the sushi at Sakae, and the chicken soup at Zen.

What does the future hold for Paladar Vencermos?

We will be here in Kigali at least through the first half of 2015, maybe longer. Our idea though is that wherever we go, Paladar goes with us.

About Kirsty

A Canadian who left in 2001 to wander around the world in search of sun, beautiful views and goat brochettes. Found Kigali in July 2010 and it seems like the perfect fit. I expect to be here until I get kicked out for defiantly walking on the grass while wearing flip flops.