Restaurants come and go with breakneck speed in Boquete. When I go away to be on a ship for a few months and come back home to Boquete I know that almost all the “new” restaurants that were here when I left will be gone, or changed names, or owners. Boquete is a tough town for restauranteurs. Getting and keeping staff, dealing with the Labor Board and town officials, developing dependable lines for provisioning, and coping with a “season” for tourists that runs from September to April is challenging, but you still have to try to make a profit and still deal with Panama’s Pensionado discount law. Panamanians from Panama City flock here during the holiday season, but only during the holiday season. And gringo tourists and expats can be very fickle.
So when I came back from a month in the States and discovered that the little house next to a property I own on Avenida Central was being converted at what for Panama is breakneck speed into a very upscale-looking, but comfortable … even in the midst of total renovation! … Italian restaurant, I thought to myself, “OK, here comes another one. Six months, maybe a year.” But, since I’ve been looking for good, authentic, Neapolitan pizza in Boquete for almost eleven years, hope springs eternal!
So I dropped in to meet my new neighbor, an enthusiastic, young Italian guy … real Italian … with an engaging personality and winsome smile. He showed me around, showed me his new wood-fired pizza oven. I couldn’t believe what he had accomplished in a month, in Panama! I guess foolishly, wondering if he would survive, asked if he’d worked in a restaurant before. People come to Boquete and say, “Let’s open a restaurant” or “I’ve always wanted a little B&B” and if they survive a year, and can find local psychiatric support, it’s a miracle. Davide assured me that he’d been “cooking for a while” and had worked in restaurants in Singapore and China where he met his lovely wife, Ziling Meng. Davide reminded me of a lot of the guys I work with on ships, they were new in Boquete and I thought it would be nice to have them over. I figured I’d also invite our friends Brad Abajian and Jackie Kuo, knowing that Jackie enjoys anyone with whom he can chat in Mandarin. Intimidated with the idea of trying to cook for someone opening a restaurant, we invited them for wine and cheese.Davide accepted the invitation and said, “I have a portable wood-fired pizza oven. Why don’t I just bring it over and make some pizza?” Wow! What a way to entertain!
So we enjoyed a fantastic evening and enjoyed Neapolitan pizza surrounded by the beauty of our gardens without the smog and noise of Naples! Lots of pizza and wine later I get Davide talking about his passion, food, and find a little about his background … molecular cuisine which I’d heard about but about which I knew nothing, and his experience running one of the top restaurants in Asia, which didn’t take reservations from anyone, so you’d have a line with sometimes hundreds of people, including the A-list designers and celebs, waiting outside in line for a table.
So now, with a little Google help, I discover that my new friend, Davide, is in reality Chef Davide Care and really is a “celebrity chef” who has decided to leave the hectic, big-time world of chefdom to open a small, very nice, Italian restaurant named retrogusto in Boquete serving affordable “Italian comfort food” and what Davide enjoys most, pizza.
So here’s a little background on Chef Davide from an article in SHANGHAI WOW! …
After graduating from the Culinary Institute in Formont, Chef Care’ worked in Turin, honing his skills in the kitchen and finding his feet in the restaurant industry. At 21, he set off for Germany, working at a trattoria in Berlin, but wanted more and to do fine dining; so he picked up a guide of the best restaurants in Berlin and walked in to the award-winning Enoteca Reale and asked for a job. One two-week trial later, he was made Sous Chef. Enoteca Reale couldn’t have been more different from traditional Italian cuisine; the restaurant was renowned for mercurial molecular gastronomy at the time, creating dishes with siphons, and liquid nitrogen.
Davide moved to Singapore in 2006 to join the award-winning Garibaldi Group. His well-travelled experience brought him special insight into creating innovative dishes. After settling in Shanghai, he joined Italian restaurant Va Bene in Xintiandi as executive chef, before presiding over the opening of Tavola on the picturesque Binjiang Avenue.
His success at Tavola got him noticed by the Jing’an Shangri-la, who requested his services to helm Calypso, and Chef Care’ joined when it was little more than a building site and a grand idea. Davide crafted the menu from the bottom up, jetting around the world with Jing’an Shangri-la’s modus operandi ‘spare no expense, find the best’, a model that has propelled the hotel to the standard it is today.What’s your story, why did you choose to become a chef?
I started working in my family restaurant when I was 13 years old, just for fun and because I enjoyed being there, being in a restaurant all the time made me really passionate about food, eating it, making it, so that’s why I chose this career.What keeps you passionate about food?
I love food because it’s a culture and part of our history and tradition; at the same time because it is something that you can share with anyone. Cuisine is like music, take jazz, it’s quite sophisticated you need to be quite knowledgeable about it to appreciate it. It is similar to the classic cuisine that I make, a little bit funky but not too much. You also have a big responsibility as a chef, because like a musician, you have to adapt to the different environment and the crowd. When you are working for the public, you need to meet their expectations and make sure they’re happy, this is the biggest job for any chef.
How important is travel to your food inspiration?
Traveling for the sake of discovering another culture is key to culinary traditions. For me, it is a source of inspiration and which can make you see how different combinations of flavors, preparations and techniques can work well. I love to travel, because it was the best job —to be a chef and travel the world — this is my life’s dream.
What changes have you observed in the restaurant industry since you started out here?
Chefs have become more popular thanks to reality shows, also people are more concerned about food quality than before , customers are more knowledgeable about food and follow social media and like to share and review and the Internet helps a lot.
Aside from salt, pepper and oil what is one ingredient you can’t live without?
Extra virgin olive oil.
If you’re feeling down, what’s your favorite dish or drink that will perk you up no matter what?
David makes his own … fantastic!! … mozzarella cheese, his own pizza dough, and his own delicious tomato sauce. Outside his new Boquete restaurant he has a little garden that will provide fresh herbs. Both Davide & Ziling have traveled extensively and wanted to live in Latin America. They spent a year living in Mexico, Cuba, and Costa Rica before coming to Panama. They lived six months in Casco Viejo before deciding to call Boquete home. Davide has designed his restaurant with individual tables and also a “family” table where you can meet and socialize with others. He’s developed his own source for lemoncello made right here in Panama. And he plans to offer a cooking school as well.
Great people, and I can’t wait for retrogusto to open!