Domenica Arguello


"I value passion, a desire to collaborate and creativity above experience even, as this latter can be gained with practice. So, I always encourage my people to give of themselves and, that way, create a team in which everyone feels good and supported."


What made you want to become a chef?

Since I was little, I've seen that my mother's family is full of excellent cooks who love natural ingredients and all things homemade. Well, they made everything from condiments and marinades to the most amazing bread I've ever had. 

From then on, my passion for seeing and learning how to cook grew and my mother encouraged my appetite for cooking. She sat me down in the kitchen and asked me to help her with little things at the start. Over time, I began to take charge of various little dishes, until the time came when I left school and even though I had studied graphic design, I knew cooking was my thing. 


What is your first memory of a dish that made you dream?

The first memory that comes to mind is of a holiday, when I was about 10 years old, with my maternal family in Ecuador. My aunt Mary made me a 'Croque Monsieur' that I still dream of to this day. There was so much preparation to it: layer after layer of ham, cheese, bacon and white sauce. Let me tell you that I enjoyed it twice over, once with my eyes and then, again, with my mouth. I'll never forget that sandwich! When I visit her, I always ask her to make one for me.


Who has influenced you in your cooking style or philosophy?

The biggest influence I have had at home is from my mother. Her teachings are the basis for all my principles: seeking out quality and using natural products were drummed into me over and again, in addition to retaining traditions, culinary in this case. In my case, this latter refers to both my Ecuadorian and Panamanian roots; I came to live in Panama at the age of 3 and a half, so I've lived here almost all my life. So, if it hadn't been for her insistence, this would have been lost. There is a very rich gastronomic tradition in Ecuador: the food produced there depends on which of the three different regions it is grown in, leading to significant variety in what is available. At the same time, I love the Panamanian culinary tradition, which I have also learnt to value. My mentors, Melanie Salazar and Alonso Williams have broadened my awareness in this area. Their philosophy is that with hard work, effort and creativity anything is possible.


What inspires you? or Where does your inspiration come from?

Knowledge is what drives me to learn about new cultures, flavours, combinations and so on, in order to fuse them into my dishes. Also, I have short and medium-term goals: one of these is to set up an informal café or restaurant which will feature a wide range of dishes to express all these sensations.


What is your favourite culinary method or technique?

I have two favourites: sautéing and 'gratin'.

I love Thai and Chinese cooking, particularly the wok and traditional sautéing they use it for. It is a very quick method and there are many things you can do with it and many textures you can use. As for 'gratin', that's mainly because I love cheese and the flavours it adds to a dish.


What is your favourite ingredient?

The onion. It is amazing the variety of possibilities that it gives you when creating a dish – I love it.


What is your favourite cooking utensil?

A good sharp knife is vital.


What material do you prefer for your pans and saucepans?

I think the most effective is if they have a Teflon coating. It's great to cook and have the feeling that nothing is going to stick to the saucepan or pan, so the dish is going to turn out just fine. 


What would you like to change about the cooking schools?

For them to talk a bit more about using products that are grown in the country, aside from the fact that this helps our economy. 

Meanwhile, on the work side, it's very important for us to know how to properly budget the dishes people want, so we can gauge specific proportions and quantities for optimisation purposes, leading to the earnings that we are hoping for.  In fact, this is very important, but I think that some youngsters don't pay much attention to it, which saddens me.


Your advice for young chefs.

Learning and hard work go hand-in-hand, while effort, passion, patience, discipline and love can conquer all. It takes a range of values to bring about success.

This is the key to having and achieving a goal. This profession is exciting and full of achievable dreams, but it also requires lots of effort and hours of hard work.

Think of combinations you like first, how you could make them or improve them, optimise them and don't place limits on your creativity. Always look to learn new techniques and combinations and you'll feel the satisfaction of creating unique products with your own distinctive hallmark.  


What do you look for when you hire someone for your restaurant?

Responsibility, passion, teamwork, empathy and a desire to work and learn.


How do you motivate your team?

I value passion, a desire to collaborate and creativity above experience even, as this latter can be gained with practice. So, I always encourage my people to give of themselves and, that way, create a team in which everyone feels good and supported.

When we help each other through the sharing of experiences and teaching each other, work goes faster and is more efficient.


What would you like to change in the culinary industry?

For the staff to be just as important as the diner; raise the morale of the employees so they feel good at work, which is then reflected in excellent service for the diners.

Training is vital for everyone to be on the same page and greater success to be achieved; a well-trained, motivated worker is your key to success.


What do you do when you have difficult guests?

First and most importantly, stay calm and be very patient so you can listen to their issues and, then, resolve the problem.

Also, offering them something extra, however small it may be, so they feel both listened to and valued seems to me to work very well.


What do you like to do to get away to relax?

I love travelling as much as cooking. My getaway is slipping off to the beach or some new place, where I can see and try the cuisine, see what the people on the street are eating. I also love extreme sports and camping out; I enjoy the rivers, lakes and campfires. 


What pushes you to keep on going?

I set out goals for myself. I think that if you don't look, then you won't find anything, so I am always positive and proactive. For me, anything is possible; using the right approach, I work on how to make things happen.


Which of your dishes are you most proud of?

What I like to make is pasta: it's highly versatile and I am fascinated by the creation of the massive range of sauces possible.

I also like challenges or contests where I am given some items and am on the clock. This gets my imagination whirling and enables to me to achieve very different results. 


What is your favourite restaurant?

None in particular, it depends on the day: one day I fancy Vietnamese, the next Mexican, then a good barbecue or a lovely burger. What I do enjoy is local food with those flavours that have been passed down, really interesting.


Which current chef do you most admire and why?

Locally, two chefs: Melanie and Alonso, who are fantastic in their preparations and presentations.

Internationally, Chef Ramsey, who uses a series of techniques and combination of flavours that leave me itching to try them out in my own kitchen.


How do you think restaurants should be classified? 

Nowadays, we have a lot of places where food of all types and quality are sold, from the highly improvised to the most established of locales. For me, they could be considered like this:

Food trucks

Inns, some of which specialise in breakfasts and lunches and, in some cases, dinners.

Vegetarian or vegan food 

Fast food: including the franchises, pizza joints or places where they make fry-ups or dishes that are unique to these places but have their fast-food menu.

Restaurants with specialised food, e.g. Italian, Mexican, barbecue, etc.

Fusion or international restaurants

Molecular or mixed restaurants