Ariel Zebede, a culinary artist in Casco Viejo

‘A to Z’ or Chef’s Table is located in a pink building called Casa Perez Aleman in Casco Viejo. This building has been characterized as a cultural space with exhibitions by Olga Sinclair and then the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. In April of this year, they got a new tenant, Ariel Zebede, who is also an artist but of the culinary sort.

To visit this exclusive restaurant it is necessary to make a reservation. It can serve a maximum of 20 people per night, 14 at the counter and the rest at the tables. Through a page called TOCK, which has the best restaurants in the world, the number of people is placed and payment is made. All the additionals are charged directly on the web. In this way, diners simply enjoy the experience.

The beginnings

Ariel Zebede is from the capital even though many people think he is from Chiriqui because of his last name. He is 26 years old and has been cooking since he was 15. He says that at 13 he was already “making disasters in the kitchen of his house.” He traveled to Miami with his family and tried Cinnabon, when he returned he decided to replicate them. That was the beginning of his love with pastry. At age 15 he began working in the restaurant of the Hebrew Club during his school holidays.

He finished high school and went to Israel to work in kitchens for two years including ‘Rafael’. He had to learn to communicate in Hebrew. Then he went to Barcelona and worked in a restaurant called ‘Hofmann’ which has one star in the Michelin guide.

He decided that is what he wanted to do and moved to New York to enroll in the Culinary Institute of the Americas in Hyde Park. He worked at ‘Dominique Ansel Bakery’ and ‘Per Se’ in New York and ‘Ink’ in Los Angeles. Per Se is owned by Chef Thomas Keller who is the only one with three Michelin stars on the east and west coast of the United States.

He returned to Panama and wanted to open a gastronomic laboratory where he could bring diners. But he realized that to open a restaurant he needed capital and to make himself known. 90% of the restaurants in the world close so it was important to do things right. He decided to be a chef at home to “take the restaurant to people’s homes”.

He makes a fixed menu prepared in advance depending on the preferences of the customer. The idea was to do it for one or two months. People liked it so much that it did it for two years and still continues to do so despite having the restaurant. Home bookings can be done at any time as long as they have between 14-30 people. Prices range from $75 to $125 per person.

Fresh and local ingredients

A tasting of 10 experimental dishes with a welcome drink and a glass of wine with the main course is what Ariel Zebede offers. All products are fresh, therefore they have no cold room. He partnered with a farm in Volcan called Madre Tierra that sows unique crops for this chef.

One of the dishes, called “wasted” uses an ingredient entirely, usually vegetable. I was served an artichoke, which I didn’t know was planted in Panama. Most are imported from Colombia and California. Ariel says he prefers to use local products since “they are harvested on a Sunday and brought to me on Monday. If it is imported, they harvest it on Tuesday in California and bring it to Panama two weeks later. It takes away the taste and essence of food. ”

The menu changes every 4 months. Local ingredients vary as the seasons change. For example, there is a season for tuna, mango, red plum, guavas, etc. In August is the next change. Certain dishes change completely, while others remain.

A menu of traditions

The menu was inspired by Ariel Zebede’s traditions. Dishes that he shared with his grandmother, eating with his hands… For example, why use a knife with meat if you can use a spoon? The Wagyu meat is cooked for 24 hours with a smoked BBQ Texan style until it is super soft like his grandmother and mom made for Shabbat.

Each menu begins with a salty cone and ends with a sweet one.

Then they served us a mushroom tea, which he says it was the first dish he made for the home menu. Chef’s Table has a more elaborate version that uses mushrooms and more mushrooms. The presentation is different including a mushroom ‘chicharron’.

His version of tuna is inspired by one of his favorite dishes, sashimi but he uses Panamanian ingredients. Instead of soy, sesame and sake he makes a cape gooseberry sauce, which is one of their favorite fruits; green papaya and star fruit pickles.

The dessert is a mixture of his family’s history in the Middle East and his training in French cuisine. This dish accumulates all those memories. A sweet croissant with natural catuai coffee from Elida Estate and cardamom, so that you feel that you are drinking Turkish coffee in an Arab town, accompanied by a sorbet of orange blossom water. Another dessert they gave us was a cold chocolate for adults with rum and chocolate made by Kotowa Chocolate Victoria.

You can eat dessert with a knife and hand, instead of a spoon. The cutlery changes through the dishes. In total, the experience includes four entrances, two main courses, a ‘palate cleanser’ and three desserts. He doesn’t like linear foods, he prefers to play with flavors. Let them be assertive flavors.

A to Z Chef’s Table

A to Z, is to go from the first to the last letter of the alphabet, but in reality it refers to the initials of the chef and owner, Ariel Zebede. This intimate restaurant is open every day with a minimum of six people.

The concept is a ‘Chef’s Table’ where you can sit and watch while the chef prepares the dishes. Each dish is explained when served.

Before the visit, any food preference should be notified. They can accommodate all allergies, intolerances, restrictions, keto diet, gluten-free, without salt, vegan, vegetarian, etc. Reservations are only rejected if the person has an allergy that could be life-threatening. Since it is a tasting menu it is important that people feel included.

Who knows what the future will bring for Ariel Zebede. While listening to the Beatles in his restaurant I asked him about a balloon with pins. He tells me that they are places he has been or has cooked and some are part of his ‘bucket list’ which includes Japan, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam.

At the end of the experience I asked Ariel why Panama didn’t have any Michelin-starred restaurants? He replied that inspectors do not come to our country. This young man who is not yet known, like Jose Olmedo Carles de Donde José, would be on the short list of Panamanian chefs who, in my humble opinion, deserve this star.

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