The Dominican: A Vegan’s Paradise
As its tourist slogan claims - Dominican Republic “Has it all!” From its icing sugar-like sandy beaches, to its nightlife, I counted myself extremely lucky when my office for an entire week was the world famous Bavaro Beach in Punta Cana. For those 7-days, I had full access to the world-class kitchens and luxurious amenities of Iberostar Bavaro Punta Cana. My first culinary experience working in Punta Cana with the Iberostar management and culinary teams, and I have to admit, I was excited!
A kitchen like a football field
Before I even stepped through those double hinged swinging kitchen doors, I had heard what I had expected to be exaggerated rumors about the size of the Iberostar kitchens, this was not my first Iberostar experience, but I can tell you they definitely didn’t underwhelm. Forget almost anything you have ever experienced before, these kitchens are of a different scale altogether. They easily dwarf football field sized complexes, they have every kind of kitchen you can imagine. Setups dedicated to anything and everything - from local Dominican cuisine to Japanese sushi. At such a massive scale there is no place for so-called improvisational cooking. It just doesn’t happen. The kitchens are highly organized and meticulously run, like the crew of a submarine, the dozens of staff work and move in unison, with no time or room for error. For me, it took a few days just to get and then keep my bearings in this vast space - and even then, while my inner compass pointed the way, I was an amateur compared to the navigational skills of the hundreds of staff: cooks, bakers, chefs, cleaners and dishwashers and of course the massive flock of waiting staff. Army of many, all working with one goal - efficiently producing high-end and delicious meals for hundreds of hungry guests every day. Despite the daily tsunami of dinners, their attention to details was, even for me, an eye opening experience. I have always made an effort to remember people by name, but that’s in a room of just 30 business professionals, now try this with hundreds of families who change every few days, and these amazingly cheerful people seem to do it easily, and with a smile.
The people, the food
Turning this chaos into culinary excellence is the resort’s Executive Chef Angel. For the last 2 years, he has had his finger on the pulse of every facet of the Iberostar kitchens. Outside of cooking, this sharp dressed happy man is known for his large and impressive collection of luxury watches. Not surprising because under Angel, everything runs on time. He’s laser-focused and a stickler for perfection when it comes to delivering an exceptional guest experience. And despite his list of responsibilities, he manages to stay very involved and attuned to everything that comes out of the kitchen. For me, our daily meetings were always quick, productive and definitely motivating. While I was there, I had the pleasure to work with my own team of 6. From the onset, they were both curious and eager to learn everything they could about this “vegan business”. Keep in mind, once I left, they would then have to turn around and train their peers for mass production.
Chef Mohan and Chef Patrizio led the “vegan team” and graciously immersed themselves in vegan everything. Our objective was to execute 15 new dishes every day and our daily cycle was simple: prepare/demonstrate, taste, adjust, substitute, plate, serve, and photography. Then repeat.
Now, did I mention taste? Absolutely. We tucked into dozens of different dishes every day. What can I say, it was the perfect dietary regime - just 35 small meals a day! Chef Patrizio was my right hand for the week and I admit, he blew me away! His love of cooking coupled with his insatiable need to learn and to teach was awe inspiring and truly a glimpse into the type of person he was. Add to that, he was one of the easiest people you could ever work with. His Italian mannerisms and hand gestures were fun and very familiar to me. Not surprisingly, he quickly became my number 1. Now, if you know me, you know, I have visited and consulted at countless resorts before, seeing all kinds of different food programs, that said, the Grand Bavaro buffet is in a class of its own, operating daily at an extraordinary level. And it’s not just the food that tips the scales, clear labeling and top notch table service sets the standard extremely high. For me, standing out amongst the array of high quality cuisine, was the Indian section run by and exclusively prepared by Chef Mohan. Did I mention he is originally from India? His station’s centrepiece is an authentic clay oven which Chef Mohan used to make naan bread right in front of me, while we were planning our day. He even tossed a variety of the most spicy and flavourful curry dishes I have ever tasted. There’s not much better than the rich bold flavours of curry, especially when accompanied by the soft, warm and delicate texture of fresh naan. I’m drooling just thinking about it. Another admission on my part, Chef Mohan’s curried eggplant is a regular go-to meal at my home. The secret is using no less than 10 spices, the main ones being coriander, cumin, and garam masala. A good clay pot also helps, as does an empty stomach because it’s near impossible to leave leftovers of this spicy delicacy. Chef Mohan’s guidance and insight into Indian cuisine is something I will always be grateful for.
Where’s the nutritional yeast?
Any time I travel outside of North America, I face challenges in preparing many of my dishes. During almost every project I am forced to travel into town and to local markets in search of an emergency ingredient: whether it be garbanzo bean flour, the other quinoa, shredded vegan mozzarella and of course nutritional yeast. In fact, that’s usually the first serious question I ask, where is the nutritional yeast?
Amazingly, the market experience in Punta Cana had everything I could ask for. The Supermercado Nacional had more vegan options than I would have expected. It had every ancient grain I typically use, including both farro and freekeh, as well as vegan yoghurt, cheese, Hummus and of course nutritional yeast. It was then that I realized there were no barriers in following a pure plant-based lifestyle in the Dominican Republic. Most, if not all, typical vegan ingredients are accessible and even affordable.
Delicious for all the senses
Inspired by the treasure trove of finds in the market, the drive back to the resort passed quickly and we were keen to get back to work. Still, as we headed down the walking paths towards the kitchen, it was impossible to ignore the striking and opulent architecture, lush vegetation and of course relaxed and joyful looks on the guests' faces. To top it all off, the resort has a full size ship planted in the pool for bathers to sit on, take photos and get an elevated view of this architectural marvel. As for the beach, it is an experience of its own. World renowned Bavaro Beach is by far the most luxurious and pristine strip of whitesand beach in all of Punta Cana and the Iberostar finds itself perfectly placed on the very best beach real estate.
Time to impress corporate
As if perfectly planned, on day 2, I was informed the top Iberostar executives were on site and I was asked to give them a sneak peek at the upcoming menu in a private dinner service. I revel in these opportunities. I love leading a new team in a high pressure situation to cement and ingrain their new skills early in the project. That said, cooking a 5 course plant based spread for 40 non vegan guests is no easy feat, and not something you want to attempt without thorough planning. I stayed up late through the night pulling together my five best dishes that would not only taste amazing but would also plate spectacularly to impress a room full of decision makers and influencers. Keep in mind, they are used to critiquing top quality dining and have experienced nearly every kind of cooking. Well, almost everything. Fingers crossed! My top three dishes were: a mini lentil and beet slider dressed with mango salsa and drizzled with chillies in adobo cashew creme, a crispy cauliflower taco coated to perfection, topped with beet slaw fresh cilantro and finished with a jalapeno lime cashew creme, and last but not least, a slow cooked creamy pumpkin curry served with basmati rice cooked in coconut milk.
Chef Mohan and Chef Patricio led the team from prep, to plating and together, if I do say so myself, we pulled it off. No matter how many times I have done this, and how much effort I put into a service, there is always one question that leaves a pit in my stomach - will they love it? You always hope so and I enjoy the wait and expectation while people taste and form their impression. Once we were done serving the mains, I handed over the reins and was invited to join the special guests for the remainder of the meal. When I walked into the room, that question was answered instantly. Their smiling faces and anticipation of what was coming next said it all. As for the winning dish, it was unanimous, cauliflower tacos were the favorite.
We’ve got the hang of this vegan thing now
As the saying goes, early success breeds confidence and creativity and I could see instantly what this win did for the team. The next day, we were cooking more dishes, faster and more consistently than before and as if on cue, the team started bringing more of their own experience and ideas to the kitchen. The following few days were a joy as we grew, we learned and even sang together. By the end of the week we had perfected the entire menu and even had time to learn and cook up some bonus dishes.
It’s a wrap
After a week, I have to say, the Iberostar Punta Cana truly lived up to the high end “all-inclusive” promise. A place with something for everyone with a wide range of luxurious adults-only activities and services including concierge/butler service, a 2 storey beachfront spa, a golfer’s paradise 18 hole course surrounded by breathtaking panoramic views and a cool ocean breeze. And don’t forget the coffee! In my mind, the best coffee the Dominican has to offer. The crema foam on top with a drop of oat milk is pure liquid perfection. Having had the opportunity to add plant-based dining options to this already perfect adult playground, made me feel like a small but important part of this resort's overall luxury. Iberostar Punta Cana, you have won my heart. Next stop is Jamaica! I’m feelin’ irie!