“Every day, as you’re doing, you’re imagining. Every day is a challenge and a lesson. Every dish a fresh chance to please with something new.”
This is quintessential Chef Oliver, the skilled and resourceful man we’re honored to call our resident chef at The Resort at Isla Palenque’s Edén restaurant.
Not every chef can handle the unpredictability of living and working in a wild island paradise, nor can just anyone put on an apron and tap into our deep commitment to communicating the unique “spirit of place” at Isla Palenque. But after his first few weeks serving guests of our newly-opened resort, it is apparent that Chef Oliver Blond is a genius at creating a dining experience befitting its one-of-a-kind locale.
After studying the culinary arts in Chile and Mexico, Blond got his start working as an executive chef in several popular restaurants in Panama City, the city of his childhood. While his experiences in the capital led him to become proficient in a variety of different cooking styles, it was not until he moved to Chiriqui Province that he really developed his own philosophy about food.
“Living in Chiriqui changed the way I cook,” says Blond. “Here, I found friendship with other chefs; we’d sit talking over meals about the things we wanted to try, exchanging ideas; I got to know the producers and see where the ingredients came from. In the capital, you go to the supermarket or call to have ingredients delivered – you don’t have direct contact with the producers like you do here in Chiriqui.”
Now at home on Isla Palenque, Chef Oliver couldn’t get much closer to the source of his ingredients if he tried. The rich earthy rows of our organic farm fan out behind the employee housing at basecamp, and the local fishing community draws fresh seafood from the very waters that lap our island’s shores for Chef Oliver to render irresistible at Edén. A couple of prime catches served during our first week came from a pair of avid anglers, Amy and Kevin, who took their poles out to sea or to good rock fishing spots on Isla Palenque’s coasts almost daily throughout their stay – and all our first guests were very appreciative:
“The freshest seafood at dinner was a perfect finale to a day of exploration. I wish I could find seafood that fresh in LA!” said Michael Assofsky, a friend and project adviser who shared our opening week.
I had the delicious privilege of taste-testing Chef Oliver’s cuisine during the final days prior to opening and have never oohed, ahhed, mmmed or snapped gratuitous photos of food so much in my entire life. A few of my favorite plates: robalo with pigeon pea risotto and a smidge of curry-and-herb butter, yuca gnocchi in a creamy carbonara, “Isla Palenque Sancocho” (fresh corn-on-the-cob, tender chicken and a spear of ñame in a mouthwatering broth)… I could go on but I’m saving room for dessert. Have you ever seen or tasted beet ice cream? Oliver’s house-made beet helado is the color of a pink sunset and tastes like something out of a dream.
He lets his food do the talking, so I made a special request to steal him for a few moments after lunch at Edén to pick his brain about all the culinary originality he’s come up with in such a short time as Isla Palenque’s resident chef. What follows are a few choice bites from our conversation at the table in the Great Room:
RK: What’s your idea of the perfect meal?
OB: La cena ideal, for me, is much like the 7-course tasting dinner we did as a treat to our first guests. Dinner begins at six-thirty in the evening at sunset, with soft jazz playing. In the middle of the music, a live saxophonist comes out: una sorpresa.
RK: You like jazz?
OB: Yes – and rock, salsa… I like many different things, the same as with food.
RK: What are some new tastes or techniques you’d like to experiment with?
OB: New ideas all day long, every day. I try to combine things fresh every day, because one tasteless or bad experience is stronger than a thousand good experiences. People remember the bad and forget the good quickly.
RK: I’m sure I have never tasted anything you made that was lacking in flavor.
OB: Sometimes, it’s not the same flavor that I had in mind before I started cooking, so I know to combine differently next time.
RK: I didn’t realize that cooking was like that – like a painter who envisions what they will paint before creating.
OB: Yes, it’s the same, both in taste and in presentation. Dining has a lot to do with the way it’s plated. Never create a dish that doesn’t say anything when you bring it out.
I can attest to Chef Oliver’s success in making a statement with each daily rotating menu item. Whenever I was so lucky to have one of Chef Oliver’s distinctive dishes appear before me, whether a piping-hot breakfast hojaldre or fresh salad piled with giant grilled shrimp and crispy octopus, it has always said loud and clear: “You’re hungry.”