Interview with Avi Barak

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Avi Barak, partner and chef of the restaurant OAK, talks about his cooking recipe: Mediterranean Latin fusion of my past and present

MyGuide Panama spoke with Avi Barak, coOwner and chef of the OAK restaurant, who seeks in his kitchen the fusion between local raw materials, new techniques and his own Israeli culture full of its flavors and aromas of his past.
How did the whole idea of ​​the restaurant start?
The idea of ​​the restaurant was to have a place where I can experiment with the flavors. I am a catering chef, in Panama and abroad, I needed my game court. And there is no better than a restaurant where you can do things and receive feedback from people. Also the people who went to our events where asking us to taste our food on daily basis. This is why we created OAK restaurant.
How have the customers received the project?
Very well, the idea of ​​this restaurant challenge was to make a fusion of my past with my a present, which is the Mediterranean world, where I come from, mixed with the Latin world that is where I live since 17 years ago. It is a fusion with techniques from here, with a wood oven, and raw material from other places. We tried not to put anything Asian, which is now fashion everywhere, and put together a menu among all that concept. If for example we make a pita, it will not be wheat, but white corn flour, and it will be oven beaked. We also made fusion with a white corn arepa stuffed with shawarma and avocado, which are materials that we do not have in Israel, Syria or Lebanon. There is no corn flour and here in Panama it is used as a basic raw material.
How did you get that fusion?
Wanting it! I wanted to eat something new. One day I made patacones (Panamanian special), everyone likes them. We made an old lamb's clothing in the Moroccan style, we assembled it with the Moroccan lamb, a crispy patacon and yogurt. From the fusion of the flavors, an explosion comes out ... Flavors explode in different combinations ... As I travel a lot, outside of Panama and America, North and South, because I do many events outside, I am also exploring other cuisines. I just made an event in Peru, where they have a different kitchen as well as raw material. We went to Colombia, to Mexico ... Now we have a taco with cauliflower in tajine, it is the same Mexican taco but with cauliflower in a tajine. The idea is to combine culinary cultures.

Are you a dictator in the kitchen?
I have a military past experience, but cooking is team work. I usually have a saying of a lifetime: a chef without his cooks is just another cook. Just that. So I'm not worth anything without my staff, if I'm alone I'm just another cook. Teamwork. It happened with the corn, which is new to me, I did not know it before. My team is showing me techniques that I do not know, and we put them together to create a new dish. 
Was it difficult to get the team of people for your kitchen?
The truth is a difficult part yes, here at OAK restaurant we work with a different environment, there are practices of respect. I come from another culture, and it was very difficult to get people with passion. In Panama people still want a chef's title, but do not understand that behind it there is hard work. I really find many guys who come for the title and not for the passion. It does not matter what title you may have, you still have to to work.

Do you have problems finding the ingredients to work with?
Today the world is small, you can get what you want from wherever you want, no problem. More than anything there is a problem with the weather, and you have to adapt. We have very good paprika, we bring it from Morocco. Over there they store it outside and nothing happens because the environment is much drier. But if I leave it out here in one day, it will lose it’s strength. So I do get my material, but most of all you have to know how to keep it in the humid environment of Panama, which is difficult.

In one sentence: how will you describe your kitchen:
Mediterranean Latin fusion of my past and present.

What do you expect from the future?
New ideas in which to combine culture with food. For example, now we want to make a shared table every Tuesday and Wednesday, with homemade food from different cultures for a fixed price. The idea is that you try homemade food from other countries all night long. Remember that with the homemade food the cost is not that high. We want that for only $15 or $18 per person you can eat sharing at the table with others. We are also going to make a Sunday bruch, with Mediterranean and local fusion. And, there is another project that I am working on right now, which is the combination of cocktails with local food, with our bartender Benny, there will be six cocktails with six dishes. We are also changing the cocktails depending on what you are going to eat.

How do you see the future of cooking in Panama?
I see it on the right path, growing. I see the new generation focused on the local raw material, which is very good. They just need to put together and define the menu based on their own culture and the raw material; do not look outside, but what is inside and exploit it.
How do you see the change of the kitchen, when you have to sell more experiences than food?
Food is important, but to have a complete experience, that is, when thinking about a dinner for a couple or a family you have to think beyond the food. You have to think about the environment, the service, the theme that you play next to your menu. Everything together creates an unforgettable experience.