Timeless Lowcountry Discovery

An Interview with Chef Pagán, 2022 James Beard Best Chef Nominee

The temptation of truffles enticed us to Wild Common in downtown Charleston where Chef Pagán’s talented hand did not disappoint. But it was his sincere, humble approach and Zen-esque dining experience at an Annual Truffle Tasting dinner that whet our appetites for an interview.

Read on and learn how young Orlando Pagán, a Puerto Rican native, rose beyond his homeland to America’s shores — from Miami and San Francisco, through the ranks of Michelin star establishments and top-level positions — to land him in our fortunate city.    

A Young Chef-to-be Heads Stateside

CG: It may be obvious to ask, but many aspiring young cooks wonder if they have what it takes, and how to migrate their dreams to reality. What specifically led you to culinary, and how did you know your aspirations would be successful?

 CHEF:  “Ahh, the beginnings, no pressure!” 

Responding through light laughter, “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. From there I just went with my gut. I was already working in a restaurant as a busboy.”

I knew I was either going to do the same thing for much of my life, while watching many of my friends be up to no good, or I was going to make the sacrifice and find my dream.

Chef Pagán tends details of final plating, a consistent talent that led to his James Beard Foundation Best Chef of the Southeast nomination.
Childhood memories with family inspire the passion so evidently seen, and tasted, in Chef Pagán’s culinary talents. ©Jonathan Boncek

Young Orlando’s dream was bigger than the island he called home. Strongly motivated to make his family and birthplace proud, at age 21 with a pillow and a blanket in his suitcase, his mother drove him to the airport and bid farewell through loving and encouraging tears. Arriving in Miami he attended Johnson & Wales University. Thereafter he spent 3 years at the Ritz Carlton Coconut Grove before heading west to work with top-rated restaurants, including Chef de partie at Michelin starred Gary Danko, Chef de Cuisine at Mandarin Oriental’s Silk, and Executive Chef at Michelin starred Ame and The Village Pub.

CG: That was a big move cross country when you were just getting started in the industry. What was it like for you?

CHEF:  “Honestly, I was really scared but I knew I had to move where I felt the best chefs were, and close to the Asian influence I always appreciated. Especially Japanese. And oh I love 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. But 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.

Chef Pagán rose from the ranks of Michelin star restaurants where he learned culinary excellence.
Chef Pagán learned in his early culinary days to feed the eyes first, with meticulous and artful plating detail. ©Charleston Gateway

CG:  With all that success, why did you leave the west coast? 

CHEF:   “My wife is from Miami, and as you know my homeland is Puerto Rico; 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 close connection. Plus I’d been diagnosed with MS and wanted to be near family in case things got bad.” 

CG:  Multiple Sclerosis is a big hit for anyone to deal with, but in culinary it has to be extra difficult. 

CHEF:   “The disease can debilitate quite suddenly and though I’m totally 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; each day is what it is and meditation is a big help.”  

Chef Pagán Lands His Own Restaurant

The best dining in Charleston is with a James Beard nominated Chef, like Chef Orlando Pagan of Wild Common restaurant.
The best seats in Wild Common restaurant are those at the Chef’s Counter with direct sightline into Chef Pagán’s kitchen. ©Charleston Gateway

Drawn back to the east coast and a burgeoning culinary scene, Chef Pagán moved his young family to Charleston where he joined McCrady’s restaurant in 2017. First working with Chef Sean Brock as Chef de Cuisine, he was promoted to Executive Chef a short year later. With Lowcountry accolades under his belt he caught the wise eye and attention of the Easton Porter Group (whose portfolio of properties include Zero George Hotel and Zero restaurant) who beckoned him to open the new Wild Common in 2019.

CG:  It was obvious at your Truffle Tasting dinner you’re very passionate about what you do. What fuels that Chef Pagán?

CHEF: Taking a humble pause and reflection, “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, how are you going to get there? No one is going to land a restaurant in your lap. None of us have the right to be entitled and you can’t sit around whining about it. You have to work for what you want by setting yourself up for success.”

None of us have the right to be entitled … You have to work for what you want by setting yourself up for success.

CG: And what is success to you Chef Pagán? Are you there yet?

CHEF:  “For me it’s when you’ve worked with people in the kitchen and gained their respect to where they will drop everything to follow you anywhere. I’m a fairly calm easy going 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; it led me to believe that’s how it had to be done. But I knew it just wasn’t me; it demoralizes and ultimately 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 current abilities, or limitations, and foster their growth. Then they will follow my leadership. That is success. Then, together we make memories with food. So yes, I’m proud to say I do feel successful. But I don’t like to boast so ask me your next question.” More gentle laughter and smiles from his banter.

Chef Pagán's Pork Buns hold an extraordinary finesse of flavor at Wild Common in Charleston SC.
A finesse of flavor is tucked delicately around shredded pork in Chef Pagán’s tantalizing pork bun. ©Charleston Gateway

CG: Ok, we’ll give you a pass there; next, where do you get your inspiration from?

CHEF: “Oh wow, that’s a bit difficult to answer because it can come from anywhere. But I think fundamentally it’s the memories of my experiences. A lot of what I cook is inspired from memories, and a past great meal somewhere. Those memories speak from many different senses and I want as many of the senses involved as possible.

I want the plate to have good aroma before it reaches your table, to be welcoming upon delivery because it’s already caught your nose. When it is set before you I want your eyes to feast and your mouth to salivate in anticipation. And of course when you taste it I want you to love it!

 These four walls are a sanctuary for us, for my kitchen staff. The outside world can be going to hell but here we’re making memories, feeding off our memories, using them to create new memories for our guests. The experience is what you will remember; your mind will take you back to a good time through the food memories.”

Chef Pagán's swordfish dish plating looks almost too pretty to eat.
Fresh local ingredient are the mainstay of Chef Pagán’s dishes. Artful plating adds to the anticipation of flavor. ©Jonathan Bocek

CG: Speaking of food memories Chef Pagán, culinary moves in cycles; what would you like to see re-emerge from the past?

CHEF: “We’ve lost respect for Mother Nature, and for 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 to leave. I don’t want my guests to be so stuffed they’re uncomfortable. My goal is for you to feel pleasantly full after a meal and for your body to feel good the day after.” 

CG: 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 really 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 that I hope disappears. As a Chef, I always try to tell a story with my dishes! 

I’ve been lucky to have dined at about a dozen 3-Michelin star restaurants. My wife is a hard-working mom and I want to treat her on our anniversary. It’s nice to have the tables turned, to be pampered — to let other culinary teams wait on us, to shine their abilities and make memories for us. It costs a lot of money that we’ve worked hard for, so when a dish comes out with just a carrot and a radish I get really upset. There’s no room for that in fine dining!”

Cocktails at Wild Common are hand crafted creations that complement Chef Pagán's menu.
Fresh, hand-crafted cocktails perfectly complement Chef Pagan’s seasonal tasting menu. ©Charleston Gateway

 CG:  Prep is obviously important in order to serve more than sparse vegetables. Do you have a favorite gadget Chef Pagán? And it can’t be a knife!

 CHEF: “Oh gosh, this is another one I am asked often; one guy wanted to know if you had to lose your hand, what tool would I want to replace it with. Ah, gosh, when you get over the visual… I can’t pick just one. I use the Vita-Prep blender and the circulator a lot; oh and I love to sous vide vegetables. Building flavor profiles on top of flavors, always pushing for how can we make it taste better by developing those layers. I use the Robot Coupe a lot (a commercial grade food processor) because sauces are really important to me. 

There are worse things in the world than an overcooked chicken.”

CG:  What would you say to a timid home cooking enthusiast?

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!” 

CG: What would you encourage them to practice cooking?

CHEF: “Cook a whole chicken. Get really good at it. It’s one of my favorite things, simple food that can be elegant in its flavor. Put a lemon inside, sprinkle some thyme and roast it. There are worse things in the world than an overcooked chicken.” 

James Beard Best Chef nominee Chef Orlando laughs at the memory of setting his cooktop afire.
Even the best chefs make mistakes, as Chef Pagán humbly shares in retelling how he accidentally set the cooktop afire. “Don’t leave things unattended and always keep a fire extinguisher close by!” he added. ©Charleston Gateway

CG:  Chef Pagán what’s a recent mistake you made?

CHEF: “Ah this is a good one”…laughter…. “I set the flat-top on fire!”….more laughter…”The other day we were closed to prepare for a banquet. I cranked it really high to sear some steaks and forgot about it. As soon as I dripped oil on it I knew, ahhhh damnit! Of course it was too hot and flames burst up. The first thing my sous chef did was grab his phone and started videoing it, threatening to share it on YouTube. We laughed a lot. 

So home cooks just remember, it’s hard to start off with confidence but you just do it and there’s a point you’ll get familiar and just know when something is right. But keep a fire extinguisher handy if you’re gonna leave a hot pan on the stove too long…” bursting aloud with laughter…

CG: What is your guilty pleasure Chef Pagán? 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.” 

CG: Is there a food?

CHEF: “YES! 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 in one day. It used to be ice cream; I’d buy a pint of Häagen-Dazs and go to town but about 6 years ago I took dairy and gluten out of my diet.” 

CG: So you’re just like the rest of us, over indulging, then suffering the stuffed consequence.

CHEF: “Definitely! That why I don’t buy those often. But oh when I do, I definitely enjoy those guilty pleasures.” 

CG: Sounds like you’ve got a great new ice-cream recipe Chef Pagán, caramelized bacon and potato chip chunk with bourbon swirl.

CHEF: “Ahhh, god you’re killing me.” 

Delicate sauces embellish a perfectly seared sea scallop at the talented hand of Chef Pagán.
Delicately infused sauces complement a perfectly seared sea scallop over risotto. ©Jonathan Boncek

CG:  Let’s keep the indulgences going here Chef Pagán. Imagine you’ve chartered a sailboat in the Caribbean with family and friends; it’s your turn to cook. What would you want to pull from the sea to serve?

CHEF: “That’s the easiest question you’ve asked, a lot of people wonder about my favorite dish. 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 a lot and he had a boat that 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 in butter, with thyme and lemon juice and then he sliced these 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; so basic with beautiful simple flavors.” 

CG:  And you were how old?

CHEF: “About 10, maybe 12. It was the best thing I ever had in my life. That’s definitely something I would cook on a boat; I think our best food memories go back to your upbringing, simple foods in simpler times, flavorful, fragrant, visually beautiful.”

Chef Pagàn often serves diners himself, adding an understated elegance to the entire Wild Common experience.
Chef Pagàn’s heritage shines through at his Puerto Rican Pop-Up tasting dinner.

Memorable Experiences, Trust, and Leading by Example

CG: So food for you is way more than cooking, combining flavors, wowing the table; it’s deeper. You want your guests to fall into it, not just eat, get up and make room for the next diner. Where does that come from?

CHEF: “Food is so much more than taste, like I have said, it goes to the experience. To be a true chef where you can create those experiences you have to be trusted, with flavors and combinations some people have never tasted or seen. Oh but the look on their faces as flavor profiles build on their palate and they turn to me like I’ve taken them to nirvana! That is why I want to be a chef, to impart the truly memorable experiences to them on a plate. 

CHEF cont’d: Trust is also very important with the people you work with. Easton Porter (owners of Wild Common along with Canon Green, Zero George Hotel and Zero Restaurant) is the best company when it comes to that; they’re phenomenal in their faith and trust. 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!)…” laughter… 

“Seriously, the trust they give me provides room to grow, for myself, my team, and ultimately our guests.” 

Chef Pagan’s mindfulness and perspective keeps his team at a calm, consistent kitchen pace. ©Wild Common

CG: 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 sometimes. When things get too fast paced, which kitchens have to be to put out orders correctly, and timely, but when it gets too fast I tell them to stop, step back, breath, really breath from your belly. It’s just food, what we’re doing right now is not a life or death matter. 

It’s also important my team knows I’m here with them on this. I won’t ask them to do something I wouldn’t do. I believe in leading by example.

I do dishes, I’m in that pit. Every day at 4 o’clock sweep the kitchen. Someone will come try take the broom as if it’s beneath me 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 the most mundane of tasks. Plus the routine takes me inward to a calm place like my meditations.” 

CG: You’re bringing more than good leadership Chef Pagán, you’re allowing some vulnerability and authenticity to come through. 

CHEF: “Yeah, this is who I am, you’re not gonna get something fake here. If you like it great, if not, well then…” as he breaks into another of his affable smiles. 

Chef Pagán of Wild Common in Charleston SC was destined to be a James Beard Best Chef nominee.
From his kitchen at Wild Common, Chef Pagán shares early culinary experiences that shaped him to become a James Beard Best Chef nominee. ©Charleston Gateway

Heritage Shapes Chef Pagán’s Culinary Passion

CG: You’re definitely far from fake Chef. I’m guessing that patch on your apron has sincere meaning? (a military patch brandishing the halberd weapon)

CHEF: “Oh that… yeah, my grandfather…softening and looking aside as if speaking to him personally … he was in the Korean War… the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry, a regiment of the US Army. Their nickname was The Borinqueneers—the original Taino Indian name for Puerto Rico; their motto, “Honor et Fidelitas” means honor and fidelity. He definitely upheld those qualities. 

Click here to view the brief video clip of Chef Pagán explaining the meaning behind the Borinqueneers’ patch.

CG:  After talking with you this past hour Chef Pagán, it is obvious family and homeland are a big part of you; they flow into your culinary passion. 

CHEF: “It goes back to experiences; people shape us, even inspire and motivate us. When food is a part of that equation the best memories are made. So yeah, my family and Puerto Rico are very important; they’re with me every time I step into the kitchen.

CG: Any closing comments for our readers? 

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 truly succeeded.”

True to his roots, Chef Pagán remains humble through every approach, every dish, and every memorable experience. His calm reflects on the entire staff, from servers and sous chefs to dishwashers and expediters. The result? The only thing wild at Wild Common is the flavors. 

I’m just me doing what I love.

Open Wednesday – Sunday, 5 PM – 10 PM
Reservations Required. Visit Wild Common, or call 843-817-7311.