The temptation of truffles enticed us to Wild Common on Spring Street in Charleston where Chef Orlando Pagán’s talented hand did not disappoint. The chef’s zen approach to dining at the 2nd annual Truffle Tasting dinner led us to ask about his Puerto Rican roots and the cross-country path that whisked him through Michelin star rankings to the Lowcountry.
WHERE TRAVELER CHARLESTON (WT CHS): Many aspiring cooks wonder if they have what it takes, and how to make their dreams a reality. What led you to culinary, and how did you know your aspirations would be successful?
CHEF: Wow, that’s no pressure! (Chef laughs lightly) I don’t recall wondering whether I had what it took; I just knew I enjoyed being around food, cooking, experimenting, and collecting memories of experiences. I came from a humble family. Spam and eggs aren’t high on the gourmet food list but those ingredients gave me thrilling discoveries when I first experimented with preparing dishes. I was already working in a restaurant as a busboy. I knew I was going to do the same thing for much of my life, or I was going to make the sacrifice and find my dream.
Conviction Cooks Up Culinary Excellence
Young Orlando’s dream was bigger than the island he called home. At age 21, with a pillow and a blanket packed in his suitcase, his mother drove him to the airport and tearfully waved goodbye. Orlando landed in Miami where he attended Johnson & Wales University and spent three years at the Ritz Carlton Coconut Grove. Next, Chef Pagán traveled west to fill roles in top-rated kitchens. He worked as Chef de Partie at Gary Danko, Chef de Cuisine at Mandarin Oriental’s Silk, and Executive Chef at Ame and the Village Pub.
WT CHS: That was a big move cross country when you were getting started in the industry. What was it like for you?
CHEF: Honestly, I was scared, but I had to move where I felt the best chefs were and to be closer to Asian influences, especially Thai food. It originated centuries ago from southern Chinese immigrants, and it brings a welcome challenge to get the sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy blend just right. Something inside of me knew I had to be—wanted to be—the best. I had a chip on my shoulder being Puerto Rican, so I had to expose myself to the best and learn from them to knock it back. We’re a proud people, and I placed tremendous pressure on myself to put my homeland on the map.
WT CHS: With all that success, why did you leave the west coast?
CHEF: My wife is from Miami, and we both grew up in close-knit families. We wanted our children—ages 3 and 6 months at the time—to experience the same extended bond, from birthdays and holidays to the special excitement of “Grandma and Grandpa are coming for a visit!” The west coast was too far from either of our families to maintain that kind of connection. Plus, I’d been diagnosed with MS and wanted to be near family in case things got bad.
WT CHS: Wow, Multiple Sclerosis is a big hit for anyone, but in culinary it has to be extra difficult.
CHEF: The disease can debilitate suddenly, and though I’m fine now, I had a really bad bout years ago. I lost all feeling in my left leg. You literally could punch me with all your might and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. Thank god it only lasted a few weeks. I’m lucky I haven’t had any bad symptoms for a long time. I can’t let worry control my life though; each day is what it is and meditation is a big help.
WT CHS: So you literally shifted direction in the name of family. How did you transition back east to Charleston's burgeoning culinary scene?
CHEF: I started at McCrady's in 2017 as Chef de Cuisine under Chef Sean Brock and was promoted to Executive Chef a year later. From there the Easton Porter Group asked me to open Wild Common restaurant in 2019 to expand services for their event space at Cannon Green. Here I am! It's a great combination for a chef, upscale catered events for small to large groups, and a fine dining restaurant—from weddings and other celebrations at Cannon Green, to creating intimate Chef's Table experiences and seasonal Tasting Menu for Wild Common. A bit like the best of both worlds!
WT CHS: Yeah it's obvious you have passion for what you do, what fuels that?
CHEF: (Pausing to reflect,) I think you either have it or you don’t. Everyone has a dream, but the question is what are you gonna do about it? None of us have the right to be entitled, and you can’t sit around whining or waiting for an opportunity to fall in your lap. You have to work for what you want by setting yourself up for success. I'm fortunate to be where I can express my passion for cooking in so many different ways.
WT CHS: And what is success to you? Are you there yet?
CHEF: For me, it’s when you’ve gained the respect of the people in your kitchen to where they will drop everything to follow you anywhere. I’m a fairly calm easygoing person and I’ve read a lot about mediation; ways to bring things down many notches without losing the ability to be a deserving leader.
In my early days, I heard a lot of chefs yelling and carrying on. But I knew it just wasn’t me. It demoralizes and limits the growth of my staff. You gotta lead in the kitchen, but do you have to humiliate others to do so?
I can’t succeed if they’re not growing. If I want them to follow me, I have to respect their abilities or limitations and foster their passion. Together, we make memories with food. I’m proud to say I do feel successful. But I don’t like to boast, so ask me your next question (laughs).
WT CHS: Ok, we’ll give you a pass there. Where do you find inspiration?
CHEF: Oh wow, that’s a bit difficult to answer because it can come from anywhere, but fundamentally, it’s the memories of my experiences. A lot of what I cook is inspired by memories of a past meal. They speak from different senses, and I want as many of the senses involved as possible. I want the plate to have a good aroma before it reaches your table. I want your eyes to feast and your mouth to salivate in anticipation. And when you taste it, I want you to love it!
These kitchen walls are a sanctuary for my staff. The outside world can be going to hell, but we’re tight in the kitchen, feeding off memories and using them to create new ones for our guests.
Preferences and Learning Curves
WT CHS: Culinary moves in cycles; what would you like to see reemerge from the past?
CHEF: We’ve lost respect for Mother Nature and our bodies. I’m a big advocate of clean eating with lots of vegetables. I don’t cook with a lot of fat. It’s what I like about open kitchens; people can see clean cooking and know what they’re getting. More thought needs to be given to what is presented and how you feel when you stand up from the table. My goal is for you to feel pleasantly full after a meal and for your body to feel good the day after.
WT CHS: Do you like what you see trending in culinary today?
CHEF: It upsets me when I sense a chef is being lazy. You’re sitting at a beautiful table in a fantastic restaurant with impeccable service and here comes a dish. You anticipate how good it’s going to look, smell, and taste but when you gaze down there’s a single carrot and radish on a plate. You’re like “What?!” And they say, “It’s about the product. . . . ” This is one trend I hope disappears.
WT CHS: Prep is important in order to serve more than sparse vegetables. Do you have a favorite gadget you rely on?
CHEF: Oh gosh, this is another question I’m often asked. I can’t pick just one! Let’s see … I use the Vita-Prep blender and the circulator a lot. I love to sous vide vegetables, building flavor profiles on top of flavors, pushing for how we can make it taste better by developing those layers. I use the Robot Coupe (a commercial-grade food processor) a lot because sauces are important to me too.
WT CHS: What would you say to a timid, home-cooking enthusiast? What should they cook?
CHEF: Don’t be afraid to try things. Have fun with it. You're gonna mess up, and that’s how you learn. Don’t worry about making mistakes. I still do. Laugh at them!
Try to cook a whole chicken. It’s one of my favorite things: simple food that can be elegant in flavor. Put lemon inside, sprinkle some thyme, and roast it. There are worse things than an overcooked chicken.
WT CHS: What’s a recent mistake you made?
CHEF: Ah, this is a good one! (laughs) I set the flat-top on fire (laughs harder)! The other day we were closed to prepare for a banquet. I cranked it really high to sear steaks and forgot about it. As soon as I dripped oil on it, I knew! Ahh! Of course, it was too hot. Flames burst up. While I was extinguishing the little fire my sous chef grabbed his phone and started videoing, threatening to share it on YouTube. We laughed a lot.
Home cooks, remember, it’s hard to start with confidence, but you just do it. There’s a point you’ll get familiar and know when something is right. But keep a fire extinguisher handy if you’re gonna leave a pan on the stove too long (laughs).
Indulgences, Memories and Mindfulness
WT CHS: What is your guilty pleasure? Food or otherwise?
CHEF: I play golf, but I’m usually not on the green. The rough and I know each other well. I also drink bourbon. Yeah, I love whiskey.
WT CHS: Is there a guilty food?
CHEF: Bacon and potato chips. I try to not buy them too much because I’ll open up a huge bag and end up eating it all. It used to be ice cream, but about 6 years ago I took dairy and gluten out of my diet.
WT CHS: Let’s keep the indulgences going here. Imagine you’ve chartered a sailboat in the Caribbean with friends. It’s your turn to cook. What would you want to pull from the sea?
CHEF: Oh that’s easy. I grew up in a very humble family. My step-dad has been very influential in my life since I was little. I’m lucky for that. We used to hang out with his brother-in-law, and he had a boat we fished from all the time. My uncle caught this Mahi, cleaned it right there, and did the simplest prep. He was a good cook and knew to let this beautiful fresh fish shine. He just seared it in butter, with thyme, and lemon juice. Then he sliced ripe little cherry tomatoes on top. I can still see him cutting them and watching them fall onto that glistening fish. The smells, the sights, and tastes, they come back like yesterday.
WT CHS: Your smile right now says a lot. You were how old?
CHEF: Eight, maybe 10. It’s still one of the best things I’ve eaten in my life. I think our best food memories go back to our upbringing: simple ingredients in simpler times, flavorful, fragrant, beautiful.
WT CHS: I’m learning as we talk food for you is more than cooking, combining flavors, wowing the table; it’s deeper. Where does that come from?
CHEF: Food is so much more than taste. It goes to the experience. To be a true chef, you have to be trusted with flavors and combinations some people have never tasted. I love the look on my guests’ faces as flavors build on their palate. They turn to me like I’ve taken them to nirvana! Trust is also very important with the people you work with. Easton Porter (owners of Wild Common along with Cannon Green, Zero George Hotel, and Zero Restaurant) is the best company when it comes to that. I mean it! I don’t need to say this. My job isn’t in jeopardy or anything. At least I don’t think so! The trust they give me provides room to grow, for myself, my team, and our guests.
WT CHS: How do you get your group to focus when the pressure is on?
CHEF: I try to not let things get so hectic that focus is lost, but it’s inevitable. When things get too fast, I tell them to stop, step back, breathe your belly. It’s just food, what we’re doing is not a life or death matter. It’s also important my team knows I’m here with them. I believe in leading by example. I do dishes. I’m in that pit. Every day at 4 o’clock, I sweep the kitchen. Someone will come try to take the broom, and I say “No, this is what I do.” It’s part of my schedule, like brushing my teeth. My staff needs to know I’m not above mundane tasks. Plus the routine takes me inward to a calm place like my meditations.
This is who I am. You’re not gonna get something fake here. If you like it, great, if not, well then. . . .
From Modest Beginnings to Proud Accomplishment
WT CHS: It is obvious family and homeland are a big part of you; they flow into your culinary passion.
CHEF: People shape us, even inspire and motivate us. When food is a part of that equation the best memories are made. My family and Puerto Rican homeland are very important. They’re with me every time I step into the kitchen.
WT CHS: Any closing comments?
CHEF: I don’t need accolades or fanfare. I’m just me doing what I love. If that brings a memorable experience to our guests, then I’ve succeeded.
Some wear their hearts on their sleeves but Chef Pagán wears his on the front of his apron, a military patch from his grandfather’s Korean War service—a Borinqueneer in the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry. From family heritage to culinary sensations, Chef Pagán is humbly true to his roots.
The result? The only thing wild at Wild Common are the flavors.
Don’t miss Chef Pagán’s new four-course tasting menu, or for intimate gatherings enjoy the signature five-course chef’s table experience. Open Wednesday through Sunday; indoor and outdoor seating is available. Reservations required.
Wild Common, 103 Spring St., Charleston, 843.817.7311
Please verify opening hours, reservation policies, health requirements, and other variations as the months progress.