Juan Padro, one of the founding partners of Señor Bear (as well as Bar Dough, the growing Tap & Burger group and the soon-to-open Morin), has spent more than eighty days in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit last fall. While much of his time has been spent on relief and recovery efforts and visiting family, he's also had time to do a little recruiting. As a result, Señor Bear will soon have a new chef in the kitchen. Sebastian Ramirez-Lohner just moved to Denver last week and will officially begin chef de cuisine duties on June 1.
"We met four years ago," Ramirez-Lohner recalls. "I had just opened my restaurant [Parcela] in San Juan."
The chef spent those four years building relationships with Puerto Rican farmers and food producers and creating a supply chain for his restaurant, eventually creating a menu that drew more than 90 percent of its ingredients from local sources. But the hurricane ended all of that, destroying farms, orchards, roads and communication lines, and Ramirez-Lohner and his team closed the restaurant rather than trying to make do with inferior and imported products.
Padro invited the chef to Denver in March to participate in Señor Bear's first Escape Series dinner, which was to have a Puerto Rican theme. After Ramirez-Lohner and Señor Bear chef/partner Blake Edmunds met and shared notes, they realized that their culinary philosophies were similar and that working together would be a great chance for both of them to grow. And so a new chapter began for both the restaurant and Ramirez-Lohner.
"The core values of what the restaurant is will stay the same, but he has far more knowledge of the food down there," Edmunds says of his new chef de cuisine. "With his cooking style, it will be a cool extension of what we already are. He's set up for success."
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"My idea is to build around people," Padro adds. "I look for empathy, intellectual curiosity and emotional maturity. And I feel it's important to let people know there's that kind of talent in Puerto Rico."
Ramirez-Lohner comes from a long line of restaurant people. His Swiss grandfather moved to Puerto Rico in the 1940s to open a restaurant, and Ramirez-Lohner followed in his footsteps, working in his family's establishments before attending Boston University, where he studied hospitality administration. He also graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked for chef/restaurateur José Andrés at Jaleo in Washington, D.C., before going back to Puerto Rico.
The chef has built his career on carefully sourced ingredients, using the bounty of Puerto Rico to develop his own style, he says, rather than relying on Caribbean standards found in so many tourist restaurants in San Juan. That style is in keeping with what's happening in Denver, where chefs are giving Colorado farmers and ranchers more exposure. Now Ramirez-Lohner will add his knowledge of Puerto Rican cuisine to Señor Bear's menu of pan-Latin American dishes.
"It's about how to use local ingredients in different ways," Ramirez-Lohner explains. "I'm looking forward to doing that here."