Mauricio Sarmiento


"My mind is always on the look-out. Ideas come to me when I am exercising outdoors in the early morning and I write them down in my notebook. Equally, when I go to the market, I like to touch some of the fresh produce"


This interview sees Mauricio describing the best moments in his career. His motivation and inspiration when designing one of his delicious dishes and, most importantly, conveying his great sensitivity and passion for his work. Mauricio is constantly evolving. This year he was invited along as an International Juror to the 2nd Edition of Super Chef Panama, with national and international media alike highlighting his participation. He knows the culinary path isn't an easy one, but nothing holds him back because he has unshakeable faith and a clear aspiration: to stand out in the sector he chose and a desire to share everything with the members of his team. This Chef, who is starting to make a big name for himself in Latin American cuisine, states that, "There are no obstacles in life which can hold you back... If you have a dream, you can make it happen". 

What made you want to become a chef?

When I was very young, I had the opportunity to cook and, as the years have gone by, that connection I had with the culinary arts has only grown. I respect what I do and aim to continue humbly and steadfastly to achieve my goals in life.


What is your first memory of a dish that made you dream?

When I arrived in Cartagena in 2010, I tried Black Bream in coconut water, with avocado salad, fresh garlic-fried 'patacones' and the unbeatable coconut rice with raisins. This was a taste explosion for me and, having tried this at the seaside, I experienced a magical ritual which has stayed with me from then onwards. With my eyes closed, I can break down and sense all those flavours that made me dream in that moment. Likewise, I remember a stuffed glazed Duck Breast, whose memory kept me up all night. It brought out something in me. Without a second thought, I grabbed my computer and wrote down the recipe. I developed the idea through that night. From then on, if I've dreamed about a dish, then I don't stop until it has become a reality. I think it is a natural instinct that every chef develops in their own way.


Who has influenced you in your cooking style or philosophy?

My grandmother, Belen Sarmiento Aponte, was a great cook. Sadly, she isn't with us any more, but I know her spirit is watching over me. When I was still very young, she gave me advice and showed me her recipes. My mother, Maureen Gorrin, was also an excellent cook. Those two created a work of art from any foodstuff.


What inspires you? or Where does your inspiration come from?

I love to read a lot, study, create new flavours and travel. I accumulate cultural experiences and add in my own personal touch. My mind is always on the look-out. Ideas come to me when I am exercising outdoors in the early morning and I write them down in my notebook. Equally, when I go to the market, I like to touch some of the fresh produce. With just the feel of these fresh fruit and vegetables, I begin to imagine recipes.


What is your favourite culinary method or technique?

Techniques which achieve great results include natural smoking, flambé and stewing, producing notable flavours that are unforgettable and impact on all 5 senses.


What is your favourite ingredient?

Who can forget the odour of coriander – it is at once mighty yet brings out flavours. Also, my kitchen can never be without oregano, rosemary, white pepper, thyme or sea salt.


What is your favourite cooking utensil?

Undoubtedly, the knife is my best friend. I respect it and keep it in optimum condition.


What material do you prefer for your pans and saucepans?

Teflon and Stainless Steel.


What would you like to change about the cooking schools? Your advice for young chefs.

Don't just be satisfied with a qualification because that's just the beginning of a long road full of victories and defeats. Don't forget you are graduating as just another COOK, not a CHEF. I dislike the gastronomy programmes that, through false advertising, claim you can graduate as a Chef in just two years!! The saddest part of it is that the qualification says "Chef in National and International Cuisine". I think such a qualification requires a lot of respect and commitment. My advice for youngsters just beginning is to keep fighting and pushing past the obstacles they find in their paths.  Only through perseverance will they triumph. Everyone else will find excuses for dropping out.


What do you look for when you hire someone for your restaurant?

Responsibility, honesty, punctuality and respect: these are the life skills I assess when seeking people for my kitchen. I like to listen to them and maintain eye contact, to see into their souls.


How do you motivate your team?

By pursuing skill sets both in-house and outside. I also look for places to get together and cook outdoors, to chat and analyse successful dishes – and those which were less so – to find ways in which we can improve. I'm keenly interested in each cook understanding their responsibility, but I'm not one for shouting, humiliating or verbal aggression. I always teach my team to be sticklers, to know how to listen to a diner and to never forget that the "diner", just like the “customer", is always right.


What would you like to change in the catering industry?

I believe that the catering industry is very well organised. A good gastronomic business, whether a restaurant, bar, self-service place, etc., should work perfectly if good service comes first. Secondly, the options available should be clearly defined, while thirdly, the business mission and vision need to be clear and present. Any business should work if built on these three premises. 


What do you do when you have difficult guests?

Keep calm and professional when uncomfortable situations arise. We must be aware that, nowadays, diners are very knowledgeable about gastronomy and, therefore, are very demanding. My recommendation is never to drop your guard, always work towards perfection. 


What do you like to do to get away to relax?

Travel with my family, read, attend culinary classes and give classes at the University. All this recharges my batteries, giving me the energy I need to keep working at my normal pace. 


What pushes you to keep on going?

My children; I think I'm a clear example of the power to overcome, both to them and to my family. Many people didn't believe in me, but life changes if you want it to – that's my advice to youngsters yearning to join this profession. 


Which of your dishes are you most proud of?

I've had the opportunity to cook for celebrities, with all the demands that implies. I particularly remember an octopus starter which I made for the designer Silvia Tcherassi and a group of major editors, stylists and influencers from magazines such as Vogue USA, Harper's Bazaar Spain, Who What Wear and My Domaine.  It was an enjoyable experience explaining to them all the techniques I used to make the dish. I also remember with great affection "A Mature Meat Rosetta with Edible Flowers" that I had the privilege to prepare for Paulina Vega, the Colombian Miss Universe. Her face lit up with each bite she took. That was very satisfying and, for any Chef, a happy, satisfied diner is the best reward.


What is your favourite restaurant?

Undoubtedly the VERA Restaurant, with Italy as its source of inspiration. I have the honour of being its Executive Chef in Cartagena.  Our diners are supremely demanding and I feel this leads to perfection. VERA is visited by national and international political figures, designers, artists, musicians, film makers, models, etc. All of them choose VERA because of its international prestige. 


Which current chef do you most admire and why?

Chef Rolando González, BERGNER ambassador for Panama, for his great professionalism and charisma. I heed his advice and every conversation with him is like a master class. 

How do you think restaurants should be classified? 

There is disagreement on this point. My view is: 5-fork deluxe restaurants focused on design and menu quality and perfection. First class FULL SERVICE 4-fork restaurants; the difference from the 5 to the 4 is in their sales strategy and reflects a limited variety in alcoholic beverages. Second class 3-fork restaurants, better known as tourist restaurants. These are different from the previous two because access for employees and suppliers is the same as for customers. Third class 2-fork restaurants: offer a basic menu. They may offer 3-4 starters, 5 main courses and 2 desserts; equally, the staff, suppliers and customers enter and exit through the same doors. Fourth class 1-fork restaurants: this type of restaurant generally has the kitchen far from the dining area. Their crockery, glassware and linen are very simple; the wait staff work without uniforms, albeit dressed smartly.