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Chef Craig Miller shares culinary secrets at Madre Tierra Restaurant. Rancho de Caldera - Boquete, Panama
Craig, you are the Chef at a clean energy, off-the-grid eco-resort in the remote hills of Boquete, Panama.
Where did your journey begin, how did you discover your passion for creative food preparation?
Chef Craig: Well, I actually began cooking at a very early age when I was given "The Encyclopedia of Creative Cooking" by Charlotte Turgeon.
I would thumb through the pages, seeking out the most difficult recipes and put on dinner parties for my sisters and their friends. Later, in collete, I was given my first official restaurant job at Saddlepeak Lodge in Calabasas, CA. Since then I have worked in kitchens along the west coast of the United States for the last fifteen years without ever having attended a culinary school.
After much trepidation I have grown increasingly comfortable with that fact and I believe that the loose structure of my culinary education has molded my style and approach to food.
What inspired you initially to express your creative talents through nutrition?
Chef Craig: I'm involved in food because I - much like my mother and my grandmother - love to make others happy through nourishment. I'm not involved because I am an adrenaline junkie or because I feel the need to cleaver my way to the top of any kitchen hierarchy, but because to me - although it may sound trite - food is the ultimate expression of love.
It is also a dying skill as people spend less time doing it and more time watching people do it on TV. With the removal of cooking in our daily routine comes the dehumanizing of our primal core and my wish is to help preserve it by educating people about food.
The lack of culinary education may be partly the reason that I have never chosen to work in a large hotel or coporate kitchen although it would have done my bank account some good! Instead I have focused on small-scale operations that tend to create their own families and communities and where quality of life supersedes financial gain.
Your career has been guided by some personal philosophy?
Chef Craig: yes, you see, I believe that each of us has a certain amount of energy that our bodies can expel, some of us more than others. That energy is divided among work, love and play. When work taps more than its share then family and sport suffers.
When love is taking more than its fair share then work performance drops and stress from lack of a pleasurable outlet goes up. Anybody involved in a new love, fanatical about sports or trying to make partner at their law firm can attest to that.
Compared to a restaurant in a big city, how do you like working as a Chef at a remote natural location like Rancho de Caldera?
Chef Craig: at Rancho de Caldera I can focus on assembling ingredients, whose histories I've had a hand in, in order to build flavors into dishes that I am proud to serve. So when that green curry comes back to the kitchen untouched because it's a little too spicy, I am heartbroken knowing that our lemongrass and lime leaves were plucked in vain. The seeding, transplanting and care; watching the weather, the months of growth, the harvest, the cleaning, the chopping and blending, cooking, plating and presentation of our ingredients represent countless hours of care that cannot be translated into dollars and cents accurately. If the true price of the food set before you were actually calculated, most of us would never be able to afford it. This is why so many restaurants operate at a loss and margins are so thin. It is why the majority of others take short cuts in order to bring prices down. Integrity and profitability make irritable bedfellos and while convenience is often a welcome relief to integrity it is the later that separates the germ from the chaff.
How do you feel about modern trends in food production and preparation?
Chef Craig: corporate agriculture has tried to solve the riddle of thin margins for the last fifty years and only now do we know the enormity of their miscalculation. There is always a trade-off when we push plants and animals to perform much beyond their natural range. Let me repeat that because it is so important: there is always a trade-off when we push plants and animals to be exceedingly productive. Environment, quality of life, personal health, aesthetics; one or all of these are damaged in some way, however slight, when we force unnatural amounts of energy into a food system. And so I'm always looking for the maximum output with the least energy input when it comes to food. Sometimes it means finding ordinary things and making them palatable. That is why I have a curiousity for all things edible, however inane.
Would you care to share examples?
Chef Craig: sure. Take Chickweed. It is a weed... its in the name but clipped fresh and tossed in a salad it becomes a crisp green adding texture and volume to salads. A spring bouquet of bunched tulips is quintessential but to my eyes their petals are rigid vessels, like tortilla chips, begging to be filled with crab salad or hummus.
Also, here in Panama, Algarrobo is the name of a tree whose hard seepods litter the ground and are left for animals. I have discovered that they can be boiled into a cloudy green tea, mixed with cardamom, cinnamon, clove, peppercorns and honey. Over ice, mixed with milk ir resembles a spiced chai.
Thank you for the interview Chef Craig!
About Madre Tierra Restaurant at Rancho de Caldera eco-resort, Boquete, Panama
Madre Tierra - under the care of Chef Craig Miller - is the on-site gourmet restaurant at Rancho de Caldera, the new off the grid eco-resort, retreat and seminar venue about 25 minutes outside Boquete in the Chiriqui province. Some guests have claimed Chef Craig's culinary arts as one of the most satisfying dining experiences in Central America...
For more on Madre Tierra visit: ranchodecaldera.com/madre-tierra.php
For Madre Tierra samble menus visit: ranchodecaldera.com/our-menu.php
A small town at 4000 feet elevation, Boquete attracts locals, expats and eco-travelers with its spring-like climate, pleasant, welcoming people and natural splendor.
For photos and more information on activities, lodging and fine dining in Boquete, western Panama, visit: ranchodecaldera.com