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Wilo Benet on Mio, 'Top Chef' and his Creative Process

Photo: Wilo Benet

While the World Cup has put on a spotlight on global culture, D.C. got a unique international visitor in the world of food this past week. Chef Wilo Benet, who has become an unofficial ambassador for Puerto Rican cuisine, did a guest chef stint at Mio (several of his dishes will be available there throughout the summer). He also designed a special Father's Day menu for the Latin-themed eatery. Benet, whose flagship restaurant Pikayo has been open for 23 years in San Juan, rose from dishwasher to cookbook author and TV host and now has an empire of restaurants.

During his visit he sat down with Eater for more than an hour to talk about his two times on Top Chef, the ingredient Tico has him craving and the unorthodox next book that he'll be writing, photographing and self-publishing about geometry in plating dishes. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

On how he knows Mio owner Manuel Iguina and what brought him to D.C.:
We know each other from Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is essentially like a small town that doesn't know if it's a country or a territory. (kind of like D.C.) You know a lot of people. There's a small-town feel to it. It's like a city in that there are hour-long traffic jams —and people probably don't perceive that for a little island. Manuel and I, we knew each other before we had restaurants. And we have friends in common, so we kind of rekindled our friendship. [Also] my son is a student at American University. Manuel and I started talking about possibilities and we're still talking about possibilities, because we don't have anything concrete. It's not like we have a set plan. In essence, Manuel asked me to come, do some dishes, create some specials, teach his guys a few new presentations [and] recipes. I'm a guest chef, and we'll see [what comes next].

On food inspiration and visits while in D.C.:
I like Zaytinya, and I'm friends with Jose (Andres). Here, I also went to the Old Ebbitt Grill, believe it or not. I like some of the classical elements there. There aren't a whole lot of places where you can dine past 11 for some reason. Oysters and that platter they do is phenomenal. We went to Doi Moi the last visit to D.C. That was actually really cool. There, I got inspired by one of the fried fishes they had there for a photograph that I'm going to do. It's not so much about the dish but about the visual element. The most recent one was, we went to Tico. It was the third day. I've got to tell you, it's hardly ever that you go to a restaurant that's been open three days where every single dish we had was really delicious and beautifully presented. The one [ingredient] I liked the most and I was inspired to go home and tinker with was mustard seeds. In the ceviche section, it was escabeche oysters. There were very tiny oysters with like a dimple of this vinegar-ish mustard seeds that I just could not get enough of. It was like, man, this is lovely. So I will be doing something with mustard seeds. What dish or how? I have not come to that conclusion. But mustard seeds are in my head.
Sometimes it's not even about discovering things but about the reappearance of things in your culinary experience. Like romesco [sauce]. I've made it a billion times but not in a while. But [Tico's Michael Schlow] had another dish that was fried oysters with romesco and that was also very delicious.

On being a judge on Top Chef and then a competitor during Top Chef Masters:
This is my approach [as a judge]. I would never, ever want to offend anybody from a karma perspective. I could not be Gordon Ramsay. I'm not criticizing him. I've worked with chefs like that. But I tried to be as careful as possible. Make my point and tell the truth. [For] the judging part, it was long hours of shooting. We were shooting til like 5 in the morning. Oh my god.
I think, when you go to Top Chef Masters — I was in the very first edition of that show — I found myself with people as senior in the business, even more senior in the business than me and a little less senior. Ludo (Lefebvre) was the youngest, and the camera loved him because he was giving them all the drama that they wanted. In my case, I'll give you smiles and I'll give you action but I'm not going to be the clown. So Rick [Bayless, who won the season]and I are probably similar amounts of years of experience although then he had a far greater empire. At the time I had three restaurants. I think he had something like five. In the case of Cindy Pawlcyn, our senior-most member, I remain in touch with her. I keep in touch with most everybody.
You find out in these competitions what you're made out of. And you really find out if you're a senior member of the community.
Unlike Iron Chef where you're told you're going to be the challenging chef and they'll say, "It's going to be octopus, potatoes or calf's brains. You need to submit all three menus." That's why you never see them huddling for like a game plan. Everybody knows what they're going to cook already. Versus Top Chef Masters. It's actually, "Lift up the pot and you have 30 minutes to cook." It's as real as it gets. By all means, you have to have your shit together.
The thing is you see so many people on B roll. Let's say the challenge is to flip an omelette while walking on a wire. And then there's people who are like, "I don't know how to cook omelets." It seems to be the younger generations that are on the lighter side of technique. Everyone seems to be more interested in how they'll be the next Emeril Lagasse in two years....There's lots of layers to it but Top Chef was a wonderful experience. I'd absolutely do it again.

On what's happening in food that's exciting:
I think North America has been unjustly criticized or described as a place where it's steak, broccoli and a baked potato. But American regional food is rich and diverse. In the last 20 years we're getting out of that perception finally.One thing that has happened is the fact that palates are growing more. It used to be that something was too spicy. Let's say it had too much cumin. And now it doesn't have enough cumin to people. Now they want more spice. It's like wine. Once you know good wine it changes everything.

On conceiving dishes both for Mio guests and generally:
I'm actually writing a brand new book, and it's on my creative process. For this project, I talked to Manuel and found out how many specials he runs. I sent him a list of ingredients. Some he was able to get, some not. For the most part everything was here. Improvising? Yes. I definitely do it. I had no intention, for example, of using corn mash but it looked so beautiful so I had to use it. So, some improvising is always there. Some, because an item looks better than you could have imagined it or something didn't arrive and you have to replace it. But still you're keeping the integrity as much as possible.

On how this will translate into a book:
So I have ideas that I write down for projects in a booklet. I write down recipes. I'll write down some things, and then I go to the drawing part. I have to see it (how the dish will be presented on the plate) on paper. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but I have to see it. I'll draw it evenly. I use gold or silver markers and draw and draw and draw. To me, the presentation has to have a uniformity. When you have peasant food like rice, beans, things without real shape, a piece of meat, it's delicious. It's workers' fare. But it doesn't look inviting. Geometry helps you go to the opposite side. I'm not saying you have to do anything with a ruler, but it has to be eye precise so it looks right. You want that neatness to speak of a higher level, of hand crafting and consciousness on the plate.
The book will have drawings. I was initially a photographer and went to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. I do what I call gastronomic impressionism, where I do photographs of fruits and vegetables. But this time around I'm photographing the entire book and I'm doing it in artistic lighting. It's not going to be about recipes. I have one of those books already. The new book is about miniaturizing everything. It's a way to beautify. Not everything will be about Puerto Rican food. It'll be about things that I like, of which there will be Puerto Rican dishes.
It'll be a small print, like 2000 or so probably more for professionals, aspiring young chefs [no release date yet].
By the way, this is all done by me. I don't have a publisher. I see this as presenting myself to the world as a food photographer. This will be my very sophisticated business card. I'm also doing this because I think I can portray Puerto Rican and other dishes I like to do. And it's a fun project for me, which is a lot of what I do. I've never, in the course of my 32 years in this business, done anything to please anybody for an award. I try to be pleasing any time someone comes to the restaurant. I want to make sure they have as good an experience as possible.
—Dena Levitz
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Mio Restaurant

1110 Vermont Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005 202-955-0075