Chef Wilo Benet

Restaurateur, Entrepreneur, Optimist

“When life gives you lemons, make ceviche.”

For Chef Wilo Benet, it’s a philosophy that served him well when the one-two punch of a hurricane and then the pandemic disrupted his growing culinary empire.

Credit years of elite training for enabling this Puerto Rico-based restaurateur–whose flagship San Juan restaurant, Pikayo, earned him worldwide recognition–to brush himself off and come back bigger and stronger.

Benet is the ultimate culinary multitasker: restaurateur, entrepreneur, Top Chef Master and cookbook author. His latest book, SaltySweet, was published last year “I’ve always got something going on,” he says.

Benet’s early days zigzagged between the Southeast and Puerto Rico. He was born in Columbia, SC, and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He returned stateside to study photography in Florida. When he got a job washing dishes at a Florida restaurant, however, he found his calling. “I told my father I wanted to pursue the culinary arts back in the times when telling your dad, you wanted to be a chef was not as cool as it is now,” he says. With the blessing of his parents, he eventually enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating in 1985, Benet worked at destination restaurants like Le Bernardin and the Water Club in New York, at one point working in both kitchens simultaneously.

In 1988, the woman who would become Benet’s wife told him about a plum position available: the chef de cuisine at the executive mansion for the governor of Puerto Rico. Benet got the job. It was a demanding, all-consuming role where he could be called upon to whip up meals for hundreds of people at a moment’s notice. “You have to say, ‘yes’ to everything,” he says. Benet called the experience “a lot of fun and a great steppingstone” to opening a restaurant of his own.

That restaurant was Pikayo. It opened in its first location in Old San Juan with a menu inspired by Cajun Creole cuisine. Pikayo would go on to have a celebrated 27-year run, cut short by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which devasted Puerto Rico. “Life slaps you in the face from time to time,” Benet says, “but the closing of Pikayo gave way to a bunch of other things.”

One of those ‘things’ was a new concept offering both casual dining and prepared foods called Wilo Eatery that opened in Guaynabo, an affluent suburb of San Juan, in 2019. At Wilo Eatery, diners feel comfortable arriving in a suit and tie to order caviar or in flip flops for a plate of fritters. And while it opened on the cusp of the pandemic, Benefit is proud that Wilo Eatery, with its prepared meals, “did not close for a single day.”

The casual approach is a departure from Benet’s fine dining roots, grounded in French technique. But he’s quick to add that great cuisine “can be a lot of different things.” He’s a rules-breaker, driven by curiosity and a passion for reinvention. His recipes tweak the traditional rustic fare of Puerto Rico, sometimes by incorporating exotic, imported ingredients and sometimes by adding ingredients from a can. “I find the good in everything,” he says.

In addition to ingredients and technique, Benefit says there’s an intangible that is the “essence of deliciousness” of every dish. Love. “Most of the time great cooking comes down to love. In food, love is a transferable emotion, and cooking is crafted in it.”

Why Mercer Culinary

“I love my knives; I love collecting knives. Knives are a critical component of the success of any meal, but it’s important to have a good, sharp one. Otherwise, it’s more of a weapon than a tool.”

– Chef Wilo Benet