Chef Carlos Estevez is the culinary expert for the Dominican Republic on 196 flavors.
Chef Carlos Estevez originally graduated as an Industrial Engineer with postgraduate studies in Quality assurance and printing. He worked for the packaging industry until he discovered that his real passion and love was cooking. He started cooking at home watching his mother and soon got involved into catering for private events and later opened his first restaurant.
He attended cooking schools in different countries to learn the most diverse techniques and cuisines such as French, Italian, Spanish, Thai, Caribbean, bread making, Neapolitan pizza making and many others. He finally certified as a Chef de Cuisine and has always been under continuous trainings in culinary schools and seminars.
Chef Carlos is today a well recognized consultant for the hospitality industry who has represented the country in many national and international culinary events and festivals. He also shares his time as teacher, researcher and lecturer on Dominican and Caribbean Gastronomy. His latest project www.saboresancestrales.com.do is a book on the history and evolution of his beloved Dominican cuisine.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
My family is from the Cibao Region, an amazing valley in the center of the island with the most fertile soil that produces most of the products that we used in our traditional cuisine. I used to visit every month my family farms at the Cibao Valley and grew up in contact with nature and all sorts of products, from plantains, cassavas, yams, guava, mangoes and passion fruits, honey, free range guinea fowls and chickens, lambs, cows and pigs, as well as all kinds of culinary preparations, from fresh cheeses, to barbacoas, stews, and much more. I think these are the memories that shaped me as a kid and seduced me into cooking years later.
After being in a different career and succeeding in the packaging industry, I changed to where I felt my passion was, in the culinary industry. After studying and working in some well recognized restaurants, I opened my first restaurant, Jasmine with an eclectic cuisine and an asian fusion touch in the year 2000. After that, I worked mostly as a consultant improving operations for boutique hotels and opening new independent restaurants all over the country.
I realized the poor recognition of the Dominican Gastronomy so I joined the newly born Dominican Chefs Association and some years later became Vice President and finally President. With the association, we develop many different projects to rescue, develop and promote the local gastronomy to a higher level. I have since then been collaborating with many other different organizations and associations in order to take the Dominican Gastronomy to be recognized as one of the richest and most diverse of the Caribbean and the Americas.
After some years as a consultant, I opened my second restaurant with my wife’s father, this time a French Caribbean restaurant focusing on the use of local products and a great bohemian atmosphere with jazz and tropical live music. It suddenly became the place to be and dine in Santo Domingo.
Tell us more about your knowledge and experience when it comes to Dominican cuisine
As I started my cooking career, I always had the Dominican Cuisine in my heart. Our cuisine appears as the syncretism between the cultures of our Ancestral Taino Indians that inhabited the island some 300 years before Columbus, the Spanish conquerors that arrived in 1492, the African slaves brought to work the sugar cane fields from the beginning of the 16th century and several other ethnic groups that arrived in the 19th and 20th century, such as the French, Haitians, Afro Americans, Arabs, Chinese and Italians.
I was concerned that having a very fast growing tourism industry, the Dominican Food was almost absent in most of the hotels and restaurants offerings. So I noticed that what the international cuisine offered was at a very high level but our authentic Dominican food was forgotten and very underdeveloped and therefore, that caught my attention.
When I started cooking, there was no formal schools teaching about Dominican cuisine, so I started researching and experimenting on my own with old cooking and history books and lots of information I collected from libraries and the National Archives. I became a teacher at the Hotel and Tourism Management Career at a prestigious local university and years later a subject on Dominican Cuisine was approved at the School and also a Diploma on Dominican Cuisine was also developed with a group of professionals at the National Technical Institute.
With the help of the National Chefs Association, we developed at some hotels and restaurants Tasting Menu events based solely on Dominican gastronomy and that helped to get the cooks and clients focused on our cuisine and started bringing its level up. Later, the Ministry of Tourism showed interest also and we started bringing the Dominican cuisine to important cities like Paris, London, Ottawa and others.
Thanks to that job done, nowadays there is a national movement, both private and through different government organizations, working in the rescue, enhancement and promotion of our Dominican Creole Cuisine. As a consultant in the business, I work everyday with more and more restaurants and hotels interested in creating menus using local and regional products and reinterpreting traditional dishes with an avant garde touch. At the same time I am often invited by national and international organizations to lecture on the subject. Somehow the Dominican cuisine is becoming very trendy.
What makes Dominican cuisine unique? What sets it apart from other Caribbean Cuisines?
As a Caribbean half island in the Greater Antilles, we have a very interesting geography with several diverse climates and soils that lead to a good variety of products from the land and sea, including many ancestral fruits (guava, papaya, pineapple, pitahaya, soursop, cherries, etc), roots (cassava, sweet potato, leren, malanga, yam, mapuey ), different vegetables, legumes and cereals (sweet and hot peppers, beans, peanuts, okra, rice, corn, etc), spices and herbs (annato, lesser and broad leaf cilantro, oregano, etc), goats, cows, raised pigs and wild boars, guinea fowl, free range chicken, lots of fish (kingfish, red snapper, mahi-mahi, colorao, sardines, tuna, etc) and seafood (conch, octopus, squid, crabs, lobsters, prawns, etc) as well as many regional and traditional dishes, instruments, techniques and cooking preparations that make us unique.
As for seasonings (sazón criollo) we flavor our foods with a mixture of garlic, shallot, gustoso peppers, broad leaf cilantro, sour orange juice and oregano. Our sofrito, a starter for making stews is composed of garlic, onions, cubanelle peppers and lesser leaf cilantro. We color our food with annatto or achiote powder, a red Indian seed that the ancestors use as coloring for food and also to protect their skin as repellent. The creole stews are made with a sofrito with tomatoes and beef, chicken, pork or seafood and are very popular throughout the whole country and have so many different variations as regions. It is usually eaten with white rice or moro (rice cooked with seasonings and legumes, such as black beans, red beans, pinto beans, green pigeon peas or corn kernel)
Our Creole food with more than 800 years of history is all about flavors and colors. The sancocho, a hearty root and meat soup with Indian, Spanish and African influences, is considered the national dish and a full meal on its own.
La bandera (The Dominican Flag) is the everyday lunch dish and consists of white rice, beans, fried or stewed meat (beef, pork, chicken or goat), tostones (fried green plantains) and a mixed salad. The whole roasted pork on a stick (puerco en puya), which is a direct descendent of the Taino barbacoa, is the most festive celebrated dish that is always present on weddings, important family gatherings and christmas eve dinner.
What is your favorite Dominican recipe or the most unusual dish in the country?
My favorite local dish is pescado al coco (fish in coconut sauce). A contribution of the African Americans from the southern US who arrived into the northeastern part of the country in the early 19th century as a result of the abolition of the slavery in the US.
The coconut milk is prepared grating the dried coconut meat with some water. Then, it is mixed into the sofrito with some tomato added. The sauce is reduced to a thick texture and the fish pieces or a whole fish are cooked in the sauce until done. It is usually enjoyed with moro de guandules (rice cooked with green pigeon peas) and fried green or ripe plantain.
The most unusual dish on the island could be stewed iguana. A large lizard with two species endemic to the island that has existed in the southwest part since the Taino ancestors. For the Tainos, it was considered a delicacy, food only offered to the kings on special events and ceremonies.
As narrated by Pietro Martyr de Angleria, Chronicler of The West Indies in the 16th century: “Opening them from the neck to the groin, washed and cleaned with care, presented then in a circle as a snake that rests curled, they are laid tightly in a clay pot that fills the whole space, and putting on top some water with the island’s pepper, and setting underneath a slow fire made out of certain wood that those not make smoke”. Unfortunately, the iguanas are now under severe danger of extinction and can not be eaten. I remember a cook who told me that he had cooked and eaten them, saying it was a fascinating and very peculiar flavor, very different to the other meats he has ever eaten.
What other cuisines do you like or influence your cuisine?
I love French cuisine because of the richness in techniques, procedures and methods that I use as references all the time. I follow contemporary French Chefs like Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard for their neat preparations, complex constructions and clean flavors.
The Mediterranean cuisine is another model that I constantly access for the simplicity of preparations, the straight flavors based on the products themselves and because it is incredibly tasty and healthy at the same time.
Thai cuisine has influenced me with its freshness and the amazing balance achieved managing the 5 basic flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami.
What places would you recommend during a visit to Dominican Republic?
Having such a diversity in a half island, it is hard to recommend a short list of places to visit.
On the Northeast part of the island, you will find the Samana Peninsula. A gorgeous place with tropical mountains combined with the most amazing beaches your eyes will ever see. Here you can discover the Afro-American influenced dishes like pescado al coco and the sweet potato bread. In the small nearby town of Las Terrenas, a French people beach paradise, you can enjoy a plentiful variety of French-Caribbean dishes based on local fish with creative fruits and vegetables sauces and sides.
On the Northwest part of the country, in the town of Montecristi, close to the Haitian border, you will find a rough landscape and the main product is goat that eats wild oregano as it pastures, and it is said that it seasons its meat while it feeds. They prepare it baked with oregano or stewed in a hot sauce.
On the southwest part of the country, in the towns of Barahona and Pedernales, you can find undeveloped towns and beautiful exuberant mountains in contrast with unique deep blue color waters of the Caribbean Sea. There you can find one of the best high altitude organic coffees in the country (perhaps in the world) at the town of Polo.
Also Barahona is the biggest producer of green plantain, a staple of Creole cuisine that is prepared in many different ways such as boiled and mashed (mangú), fried as tostones, grated as arañitas, fried and mashed with garlic and pork rind as mofongo and several other preparations.
The whole Southwest coast offers a good selection of fish and seafood dishes and in the mountains areas, a good production of fruits and vegetables. Bahia de las Aguilas, an unexplored beach in Pedernales, is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world in a protected area.
In the central part of the island, better known as the Cibao Central, the most fertile soil in the whole country, you will find the most varied agricultural production of all, with important items in the traditional cuisine such as rice, cassava, corn and all roots, all kinds of fruits as well as many vegetables, cows, pork and chicken.
Also, this is where most of the tobacco fields are and where the cigars are produced as a family tradition in the small town of Tamboril. Organic cacao recognized by prestigious French chocolatiers as the best in the world is grown and harvested in the town of San Francisco de Macoris.
Jarabacoa and Constanza are the main mountain towns in the region that manage a great production of vegetables in open fields and also in greenhouses. You will also find many eco-friendly and adventure oriented resorts and villas. The Cibao Central with open, friendly and always smiling people, is the heart of the Dominican creole cuisine and holds a deep tradition in cooking. Merengue, the national dance music has its roots in the Cibao also and can be enjoyed everywhere.
Which Dominican chef is a reference for you? What are the main difficulties of Dominican cuisine?
Of the Dominican chefs, the one that I admire the most is a woman by the name Ligia de Bornia who, in the 1950’s put together the most complete collection of authentic Dominican recipes in a book called La Cocina Dominicana. She was also a teacher and published several other books based on Dominican cooking. A great legacy to our cuisine and to the country.
I would say that there are not major difficulties in Dominican cooking as long as you know and respect the ingredients you are working with and if you understand the complexity of flavors and aromas that our cuisine is all about.
What would you suggest if you had to prepare a Dominican menu: starter, main course, dessert?
We like to start our family and friends gatherings with some picaderas (or Creole finger foods) that are usually served in a casual way from the beginning of the reunion, before being seated at the table. These could be: pastelitos rellenos de pollo o queso (mini empanadas filled with chicken or cheese), longaniza frita (fried pork sausage) and queso de hoja (Dominican layered cheese) with Creole egg crackers.
As a starter, I would suggest a salpicon de lambí (conch salad) served with sweet potato chips.
As a main course, I would serve chivo liniero guisado (Northwest goat stew) with moro de guandules con coco (rice cooked with green pigeon peas and coconut) and tostones (fried green plantains)
For the dessert, we like to finish our meal with an assortment of Creole sweet bites, such as dulce de leche en pasta (sweet milk paste), jalao (coconut and honey sweets), dulce de lechosa disecada (dried papaya with powdered sugar), casquitos de guayaba (guava in syrup), cocadas (coconut balls), etc.