Executive Chef at Royal Isabela Golf Club and Resort, Isabela, Puerto Rico
GK: We hear that you were a great junior player in Puerto Rico. How did you become involved in golf?
When I was eight years old, I used to ride in the cart when my father played golf. When I became more interested in the game, my father asked Daniel Santiago, who was the best player on the golf course, to teach me to play golf. Daniel even came to live with us for eight years. He was like a brother to me. In 2003, I became Puerto Rico junior golf champion. I represented Puerto Rico six times for six years in a row.
I travelled to the United States to try out for golf mini-tours, but it was too expensive for me to sustain. I quit playing golf when I was 18. My father and mother got a divorce, and it was very hard for me. I could no longer concentrate on the golf.
GK: Where did your culinary interest come from?
When I was in the United States, I went to see my cousin, Nagib Sued, who was a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu [College of Culinary Arts] in Atlanta, and became quite interested in his work. I was very inspired by the culinary scene at the school.
When I returned to Puerto Rico from the U.S. I studied accounting. I was living alone at the time and didn’t have a lot of money. I started making hamburgers, creating my own recipes, and sold them at a street stand. When my burger became famous and I started to make money, I quit studying accounting and, with the encouragement of my father and my girlfriend, Magda, enrolled in culinary school. I still kept making and selling hamburgers, but I also started to get requests for catering. I was not an expert, but I never say no! I always try to take every opportunity that comes my way.
After I finished culinary school, I continued to sell my burgers and added chicken and steak kebabs. A restaurant owner offered me a job, which I accepted, but I quit after seven or eight months. I went back to my catering and my burgers. A lot of people were also hiring me to cook for them in their homes.
My cooking improved, and I was still playing golf on the side, but more for fun. While playing in a tournament, I met Miguel Suárez Igartúa, Director of Golf at Royal Isabela. He asked me to work with him as a caddie. And, I said yes, because I never say no!
I was the first caddie at Royal Isabela. There was no restaurant onsite at that time. One day, everyone was playing golf and they were getting hungry. I offered to make burgers for Stanley and Charlie Pasarell, the owners. After that, they allowed me to cook in addition to my caddie job. I was very happy.
Image by Joanne Dost courtesy Royal Isabela Golf Club
GK: How did you land the job as sous chef?
When Stanley and Charlie were interviewing for the position of executive chef of the new restaurant, the first one to interview was Alex Yates, who was the Executive Chef at Leverick Bay Resort in the British Virgin Islands. He needed someone to help him cook for Stanley and Charlie as a part of his interview.
Alex got the job and immediately hired me as sous chef. I worked for Alex for one year, and it was the best experience of my life. He is a visionary who taught me a lot about classic cuisine. Nobody knows this, but Alex told me that he would train me to eventually take over this kitchen. He even took me to New York to meet Dave Pasternack at Esca, where I worked in the kitchen. Dave Pasternack likes to visit Royal Isabela.
GK: When did you get the executive chef position here?
Alex had some personal problems and had to leave suddenly. I think Stanley and Charlie were a little worried to offer me that position, but Stanley offered me the job regardless. Everything happened so fast for me.
I always work with fresh food. We even have our own huge garden. The garden allows me to have the very best ingredients available at all times. Our proximity to the ocean also gives me the very best fresh catches of the day. I can even take things off the golf course and use them in my recipes. Everything is organic and natural.
GK: How much time do you spend creating your menus each day? I notice you change them daily.
I have a system in place; I have all my recipes documented, except for my hamburger! That is my secret. I also create new recipes every day and document them as well. I might change two or three ingredients depending on availability and the season. Thinking and planning might take me two or three hours every day, but I never notice the time because I love my job and my work. I also give my cooks the opportunity to become involved in the planning and make some decisions so they can feel good about their job as well. We are a team.
GK: What are your plans in the future?
I want to stay here, and I want to keep learning. There will never be another place where I have my garden, the ocean and the best fresh fish right at my fingertips.
GK: What are your experiences working with the Pasarell family?
It is a privilege. They are very nice people who want me to improve. They always talk about the good things I do, but they will also tell me if something is wrong. That is what I like; I need honest feedback from my guests and my bosses. They are my teachers.
Updated Interview with José Carles - February 2016
After we spoke in 2013, I hired my old friend Edwin Roberto Valle for the executive sous chef position. Roberto studied with me in culinary school, and then I worked for him in 2008 for eight months in a little restaurant in Cabo Rojo. When Roberto arrived at Royal Isabela it bought an even more positive feeling to my kitchen. He respects my work and everything I do. Roberto knows the way I cook and the way I like my dishes to go out to my guests.
Valentina and Daniella
GK: You have had some extreme challenges to overcome in the past few years.
In July 2013, my wife and I received the news that we were going to be parents. Our daughter, Valentina Carles Toro was born on the 26 February 2014. On the 31st of October 2014, at eight months of age, Valentina was diagnosed with Cancer, Neuroblastoma. I think it was the most disturbing news a parent can receive. In Hima Caguas Hospital in Puerto Rico, Valentina had surgery to remove an eight ounce tumor, the Doctors thought she was going to be fine, however, after many tests and biopsies, they found that she had high-risk Neuroblastoma cancer in the bones. Valentina went through a standard protocol for a high-risk Neuroblastoma cancer patient.
Valentina has had ten operations, six cycles of chemotherapy over six months, two bone marrow auto transplants, and 12 rounds of radiotherapy. We lived in the hospital for 11 months. I have to thank my second family Stanley and Charlito Pasarell, Edwin Perez and Juaquin Lopez for all the support during this difficult process.
In January of 2015, my wife and I got the news that we were going to be parents for the second time. Daniella Carles Toro was born (September 13, 2015). I think this was the best thing for my wife and family because we had to be strong for all that was coming with Valentina’s treatment.
In September 2015, Valentina received every exam to detect cancer and everything was clean. This experience that we are going through has shown us that we have to believe in Faith and to be positive at all times.
Stanley Pasarell - "When Jose and his wife Magda became pregnant, she was unable to be exposed to the radiation treatments that Valentina needed to receive. Jose held Valentina i n his arms through her chemotherapy, as well as many other treatments. Valentina will be two on February 26th 2016 and she is happy, strong, beautiful and very active. Valentina definitely inherited her dad's fortitude, resiliency and determination to live."
GK: You created a fundraiser for Valentina's treatment; please tell us about it.
On February 7, 2015, 25 top chefs in Puerto Rico hosted a private dinner for Valentina. It was originally for 100 people. We sold out in one day! The following day we sold another 200 tickets, so we decided to have a 300 people dinner to raise funds for Valentina’s Treatment. This Dinner was so impressive; I could really see the hearts that the chefs and my friends and guests have.
I want to thank the Intercontinental Hotel of Isla Verde for the donation of the ballroom of the hotel. We called the top wine imports of the island and every company to donate wine for this cause, the same with food suppliers. The Food and Wine Industry came together for this very special night.
GK: You are a great golfer; tell us how you are playing now?
In 2015, I didn't play much golf because of everything that was going on with my daughter. However, I can still beat my boss Stanley if he puts some money on the table. I know I will be back playing tournament golf in the future!
I choose to entertain myself with “fishing”. In our back yard, we have had our boat on the ground for two years, so I began to fix it.
I went fishing for to help with the despair of all we were going through. I thought that if I catch something, maybe I can bring the catch to the restaurant and show my guests.
The funny part of the first day I went fishing, I went with my sous chef to look for some fish, we went for three hours without any fish, and then my sous chef got one little blue runner fish, and we started celebrating because we go
t a fish! He was celebrating so much that the fish got out of the hook and jumped back into the water. You had to have seen our faces. It has been eight months since that day, and we have caught many large, great fish for the restaurant. I go every week with my sous chef or my dishwasher. With my sous chef Andreas Gonzalez, I go fishing and with my dishwasher Roberto Ortiz I go to catch some Spiny Lobster or Conch.
The good thing about serving the fish we catch is that you can taste and feel the freshness of the product. It's the same with our organic farm, you feel that, and you get all the nutrients of the product.
I don’t catch everything I serve in the restaurant, but I hope one day to do that. It's my new goal, but I believe and trust in my local fisherman as well. Ever since I became interested in fishing, I want to learn more of what the ocean has to serve up for my recipes. I think it is very important to educate people just how abundant the ocean is and what it can give us if we take care of it.
GK: You were recognized with some awards 2013-2015.
Yes, here is a list of my awards and some special events I have been participated in since we last spoke.
2015 - Royal Isabela 4th July BBQ Challenge Peoples Choice
2015 -Guisando la Feria Culinary Competition - Silver Medal
2015- Festival Porta Del Sol - Silver Medal
2015 - Qualified for the Final of Puerto Rico Culinary Team Competition (Top 10)
2015 - Participated in the Privilege Dinner of the Best 20 Chef of Puerto Rico
2014 - De Norte a Sur Cooking Competition Silver Medal
2014 - Participated in the Privilege Dinner of the Best 20 Chef of Puerto Rico
2014 - Ex Alumno Distinguido de la Escuela Hotelera Award
2014 - Festival Porta del Sol - Bronze Medal
2011 - Present - Wente Vineyards Wine Tasting Dinner by Erick
2014 - Present - James Beard Award winner Dave Pasternack's Wine Tasting Dinner
2013 - De Norte a Sur Cooking Competition _ Gold Medal
2013 - Saborea Puerto Rico Peoples Choice Award
2013 - Golf Club World Behind The Gates Book by Diana DeLucia
4 Signatures Recipes and Chef full biography
2013 - Chef Puerto Rico New Promise Award by Food & Wine
GK: Tell us about the special dinner that you hold every year.
The last two years Royal Isabela and I have been hosting a Dinner with Dave Pasternack called The Whisperer Dinner. We go fishing before dinner and what we catch is what we serve, he has been great to me. We do this dinner for the charity of el Pastillo Conservation Trust.
We look forward to updating Jose's story later in 2020 along with a very special announcement.
The Royal Isabela Clubhouse, image courtesy Royal Isabela