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  • Writer's pictureCullen Heater

Chef Special: Rafael Villanueva

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Part 1: The Relentless Optimism of Chef Rafael Villanueva

I'm going to be honest with you. These days, I find it hard to be optimistic about the future in Panamá. I don't consider myself to be a pessimist. I'm more like a frustrated optimist. Often, the realities of everyday life fall far short of expectations and it is easy to become cynical. Like Don Quijote, I am cursed to see the world not as it is, but as it ought to be. We are currently coming out of our second lockdown in Panama City, and nobody really knows what to expect. The rules change so often that I've stopped checking. With so much uncertainty, it is tempting to fall into the trap of pessimism, to give up hope. That's the thing about hope, though; it lives on like a spark from a dying fire. And when you find that glittering spark of hope, it catches in your mind and spreads. I met Chef Rafael Villanueva in between the quarantines when he was working as the head chef at Pucci Food Park. I could see that fire of hope in his eyes, an enduring optimism that made a lasting impression on me. His story reminds me that anything is possible as long as we keep hope alive.

Pucci Food Park was a shipping container food park in the Bella Vista neighborhood of PTY that took on a symbolic quality for me. I watched it grow and develop from my window during the first quarantine, what feels like forever ago. I watched a dream take shape and become real. And ultimately I watched it end because of the narrow-mindedness of a landlord who saw more value in an empty lot. I went back to Pucci Food Park shortly after it closed. The mood was somber as they packed up the shipping containers, but Chef Rafael Villanueva was in high spirits. He is a man of a million ideas, and he always has a new side hustle. He makes and sells different styles of chef’s aprons under the brand name Moreno. Ostensibly, that was why I was there that day, to buy an apron. It was full-length, made from thick, sturdy denim, with plenty of pockets. The real reason I went that day was to find out his next move. In order to keep eating his delicious food, I would need to know where he was cooking.

“You just have to keep moving forward,” replied Rafa when I asked him about his plans for the future. “There’s always a new opportunity. Besides, a lot of people are in much worse positions than we are right now. I have a friend who’s in the hospital with cancer. It could be worse, you know? We are the lucky ones.”

The contrast in our perspectives was striking: two immigrants in Panamá- the Gringo, here by choice, testing the waters and secretly planning an exit strategy, and the Venezuelan, unable to return home, secure in the knowledge that the only way was forward. But mostly, I was struck by the relentless optimism of Rafael Villanueva. He had every right to curse the heavens, blame the government, or complain about the landlord. He was losing his job, packing up his kitchen, and smiling through it all, in the face of adversity. Where did that kind of hope come from? Was it born out of experience? or necessity? The one thing that was clear was that it would take him far, and that I was going to follow.

Part 2: New Kitchen, New Opportunity

Rafa found his next opportunity in an unlikely place. A friend of his owns a smoke shop in Bella Vista called Freshland. In the back of the long, skinny store there is a full kitchen, and Rafa was hired to run it. Before the second lockdown, Vicmar (my girlfriend) and I walked into Freshland and past the glass display cases filled with colorful bongs and pipes. This hidden treasure won’t be in any tourist magazines or on TripAdvisor, and that’s part of what appealed to me about it: the feeling that I was discovering something new.

“Buenas tardes. Is Rafa cooking today? I'm a friend of his,” I mumbled through my mask. Rafael was hard at work in the kitchen in the back, pumping out orders for delivery. He poked his head out for a quick second when he heard his name. "Hola hermano! What can I get you?" We took our seats at the counter and placed our order: two ice cold Balboas, tequeños to share (obviously), bbq chicken wings, and the chef's special, a chicken and quinoa wrap. Rafa's food was comforting- rich but unpretentious. The kind of food that reminds you what a fun night out used to feel like. The perfect bar food, or food from your favorite food truck.

Rafa's kitchen career started out on a food truck on the "calles del hambre" of Maracay, Venezuela, streets lined with food vendors and filled with a thousand different smells. When he talks about his time cooking in the cramped, sweltering kitchen of his food truck, you can tell that was when he felt the most free. They were rockstars; "People would come from all over town for our food," he told me. Those glory days ended in tragedy, however, when his friend was shot and killed while closing up the food truck- another victim of the hungry streets of Venezuela. Rafa couldn't bring himself to reopen the truck; it wasn't safe. He sold it, and made his way to a food festival in Caracas. He showed up early in his chef's whites and apron, not really sure what his plan was.

"Oh good, you're here early," said an official-looking woman with an official-looking clipboard. "Are you ready to work?" Sensing an opportunity, Rafa jumped into the kitchen and started prepping. From there, Rafael enrolled in culinary school in Maracay and continued his journey to resorts in the Dominican Republic, and eventually to Panama City in 2013. Like many Venezuelans, Rafael left his country in the second wave of mass migration looking for stability and opportunity. He found that stability in Panamá, and the opportunity to continue his career as a professional chef in the growing restaurant industry in PTY.

Hours after stepping off of the plane, Rafa stepped into his new role as a cook at The Red Lion, a notoriously sleazy sports bar. He worked hard, and waited for his opportunity. Eventually, he spotted an opening at Ciao Ragazzi, a gourmet pizzeria and began climbing the restaurant industry ladder. An ambitious chef tends to step on people's toes on his way to the top, and Rafa was no different. He developed a healthy rivalry with the head chef at Ciao Ragazzi. They worked together to organize and maintain the kitchen, to create their ideal workspace, all the while wondering if the other was going to stab them in the back. Then Rafa landed a gig at Bruttito and quickly accepted. He was the only one who could handle the extensive menu, and the fast pace. The owners knew it, and increasingly relied on his expertise in the kitchen. When his old rival from Ciao Ragazzi was tapped as the new head chef for the long-anticipated opening of Chèvre, he immediately called up Rafa, knowing that he was the only person that could be trusted. Together they prepared Chèvre for its grand opening. And then the pandemic hit, and restaurants closed.

I don't know what drew Rafa to work at Pucci Food Park at the end of the first lockdown. I think he missed the freedom of his food truck days. Maybe he wanted to try something different, be the master of his own domain. Maybe he saw the same potential that I did. Or maybe he had no choice. The only choice is to keep moving forward. And when Pucci closed, Rafa seized his next opportunity at Freshland. Maybe that's what hope is- always knowing that there will be a new opportunity. And optimism is the resolve to be prepared for it when it comes.

As I paid the check and stole the last french fries off of Vicmar's plate, another couple came into Freshland wearing masks and motorcycle helmets. "¿Rafa está cocinando hoy? Somos amigos," the man said excitedly. Wherever Rafa went, there was something about his energy, and his cooking, that made people follow. It's more important than just food; Rafa serves hope as well as hamburgers. Food is a medium through which we can express culture and create community.

Part 3: Creating a Food Community

Rafa and I connected because of our shared belief in the power of food to bring people together. We both have big dreams and ambitions. We both believe in the possibility of creating a community through food. My vision of a food community is beginning to take shape through the digital pages of The Food Moves Blog.

After I finished my service in the Peace Corps, I came back to live in Panama City for many reasons. Love was the most important reason. Opportunity was another. I saw something- a glimmer of potential in the nascent and fast-growing PTY restaurant scene. I saw it again through Rafael's eyes when he shared his story with me. When you find that spark of hope, it's your responsibility to keep it alive, to help it grow and to spread it to others. So I'm going to keep searching for hope even when I feel like giving up. I'm going to keep sharing people's stories in an effort to build a food community. And together we are going to continue moving forward, looking for the next opportunity, because that is the only choice that we have.

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