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Wilo Benet: Owner of Pikayo, Payá, and Museum Restaurant Group is more than a chef
BY PEDRO VALLE JAVIER of Caribbean Business
July 28, 2005
The word "multimedia" refers to the capacity to handle different types of media. According to that definition, Wilo Benet is a multimedia chef. Benet, the president & owner of Museum Restaurant Group, not only had conquered the food industry through his innovative dishes and keen business sense, he also has ventured into other media, such as television, print, live entertainment, and art. Even when exploring new venues to express himself, Benet always manages to communicate his warmth and deep passion for what he does. Today, Museum Restaurant Group includes two restaurants, Pikayo and Payá; catering; and many of Benets creative outlets.
Benet was introduced to the food industry when working as a dishwasher. It was in this environment that he first was exposed to the business of restaurants. "When you work as a dishwasher, you get to help with little things, such as peeling shrimp, slicing vegetables, and things like that. It was that manual aspect of the business that attracted me," the restaurateur said. His father enrolled him in the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 1985. After graduating, Benets work experience included working in restaurants in New York and Boston. He also was Chef De Cuisine at La Fortaleza from 1988 to 1990.
Benet established his first Pikayo restaurant in 1990. "My venture into the restaurant business wasnt planned. A cousin of my wife saw a location for rent in front of the Doña Fela Parking in Old San Juan and commented that it would be an excellent place for a restaurant. I went to the place, saw it, and liked it," Benet said. The chef took a huge risk and signed the lease for the locale without even having the capital to begin operations. "I convinced my dad to help me by co-signing a loan with his house as collateral. It was a lot of pressure," he explained.
The restaurant later moved to Condado and spent nine years at that location. Pikayo then moved to the Puerto Rico Museum of Art in 2001, a year after the museum opened its doors. This move proved to be a great success for the restaurant. "We have tripled the sales we had in Condado. It was an excellent move," Benet said. The chef attributes this success to Pikayo becoming a destination in itself. "If you arent a local and dont know there is a restaurant there, you dont even imagine Pikayo is there," he said. The restaurant doesnt even have a sign. According to the restaurateur, people simply know of the restaurant and want to visit it.
Recently, Benet launched Payá, a new casual-dining concept. "Casual dining is designed to be in high-traffic areas. We made the daring act of once again creating a destination, but this time for casual dining," he explained. Payá is located at the City View Building in Guaynabo. According to Benet, the restaurant has been very successful. The gastronomic concept of Payá is to offer tastes Puerto Ricans enjoy but with the best ingredients and quality of preparation. "You can have a tripleta [pork sandwich] at Payá, but I guarantee it is going to be the best tripleta you are ever going to have," the chef said.
For Benet, one of the main reasons the restaurants have been a success is the employees. "We have a high-retention rate, which is important and seldom seen in the industry. We also try to promote from within the company, which is very important to me," he said. "They arent employees anymore. They are my family."
Benet has gone beyond restaurants. The chef wrote a book for Rums of Puerto Rico titled Puerto Rican Rum & Cooking. The book explores 40 recipes using rum as an ingredient. As part of that promotional campaign, Benet traveled to many cities in the world showcasing the recipes. He also participated in the book Puerto Rico: La gran cocina del Caribe. Currently, he is in talks to publish another one.
Benet has conquered another medium, television (TV). Last June, he appeared in an episode of Epicurious, a show on the Travel Channel. He also has participated in a televised contest sponsored by Martha Stewart, as well as other TV shows. "Television is the medium we are pursuing. In the next five years, we should have a presence in television," the chef said, adding he is already in conversations to establish a show on national television.
The restaurateur also "discovered" a new art form. He takes artistic pictures of food. He calls this art "gastronomic impressionism." He sets up food items in layers or with interesting patterns, takes a picture, and then digitally retouches it. Benets "gastronomic impressionism" has been well-received by critics and has been included in several expositions.
Even with all these artistic endeavors, the venture that truly marks him as a multimedia chef is Acuarelas de un Chef (Watercolors of a Chef). Acuarelas is a live show that includes music, magic, and Benets cooking. "I cook on stage, I do magic tricks, we have special effects, its great fun," he said. The public also is treated to live music that includes Benets drum playing. After the show, the public gets to sample his dishes. Acuarelas was performed for the Association of Food Editors at Bacardis request. "Editors for any newspaper you can imagine were there," Benet said. He played the drums for the group after only 12 lessons. "We have never been short of taking huge risks in the business."
Benet doesnt consider himself a businessman; he considers himself an artist. "I made that transition from artist to businessman to make sure I had the means to continue to be an artist."
This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.