Arturo Paz is the new executive chef at Phillips Seafood at Harborplace, the flagship restaurant for a family business that has been going strong in Baltimore (and throughout other locations in America) for more than 50 years. Paz has been a chef at some notable restaurants in some decidely chic spots, including Baleen in Miami, Republic in Hollywood and The Clevelander in South Beach, serving up inventive cuisine to many, including some of today’s hottest celebrities. Style sat down with Paz to ask him about what he plans to bring to Baltimore.
You’re the new executive chef at Phillips Seafood’s flagship location. How do you plan to mix change into the traditional?
The fresh seafood that Phillips has always had will now be enhanced by bringing a bit more of a flavor profile to the dishes, and complementing them with some new ingredients and local produce. With the crab cake— I’m really not going to deviate from its taste. But we can still complement what’s there with side dishes, and we can make the dishes look more interesting than the standard crab cake presentation.
How did the presentation of food become such a big source of passion for you?
I have a varied background. First, I went to architecture school, then dropped out to work at Commander’s Palace— the restaurant where Emeril and Paul Prudhomme and all those guys made their Creole/Cajun cuisine. I began to realize that some of the stuff I was learning in architecture school I could actually implement into the dishes. Textures, colors, elevation, flavor profiles. There was more instant gratification in cooking because I could see the creation instantly and get feedback from the guests. When I went to cooking school, I saw a lot of parallels.
You’re from Puerto Rico. How did you develop a sense of cooking that enabled you to translate that to American kitchens?
Back in the early ’90s, when South Beach was starting to be developed, I was going down to Miami and checking out the new restaurant scene. There was a movement called New World cuisine—“Floribbean”— Floridian and Caribbean. There were all these flavors and all these products from Latin America, Central America, that were being introduced into mainstream U.S.A., and into Miami, which is a melting pot of culture. I used a lot of these items with my grandmother when she was teaching me to cook. But suddenly all of these products were being introduced and it became a large movement with chefs in Miami exploring this new fusion, mixing Latin ingredients with Cajun preparation and French techniques. It kind of defined what the Miami restaurant scene was. Then it slowly got transported to New York and L.A., and now we see it everywhere.
The Baltimorean palate— does it serve as a challenge to you?
You have to be receptive to surroundings. You can introduce somebody to items, but at the same time you have to be aware that for most people in this area in the mid-Atlantic, they are not very familiar with things from where I come from. I’ve learned a lot about the mid-Atlantic culture and eating habits from my three years at Phillips in Caesars Palace in Atlantic City. A chef is an educator, and I like teaching people and showing people new things. When I was younger and was being introduced to new restaurants and new scenes, I figured that the best way to gain knowledge was to move and see different places. West Coast, East Coast, and do a little bit of New York and Caribbean cooking. It’s helped me round out my pool of knowledge and that’s how I can come up with certain things that people like to try.
So what’s it like going from celebrity fame to Baltimore?
I did it, it was fun, I enjoyed it, I met new friends— Cameron Diaz, Kevin Bacon, Drew Barrymore. Drew loved my Crab Mac n’ Cheese Lollipops and my Lobster Corn Dogs. She’d come into Baleen and bring her friends and order six of each for everyone. I loved making unique and whimsical things, but I can make them here now. This is a time of simplicity and people are looking for comfort food and they have a home-style mentality. And that’s good for me, because I have a new baby now. And my wife is a chef, too. She was trained in New York out of the Cordon Bleu and she comes up with things at home and I implement them here. I have like three items on the menu that she came up with. It’s just being part of a family, because Baltimore is a family town.