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A Conversation with Wilson Dávalos
We talked about his career changes, the various accessibility of fresh produce in Puerto Rico, and the uncertain future.
Wilson Dávalos and I had our first conversation in 2015, for The Awl. It was a depressing talk about the difficulties he was having sourcing greens for his restaurant CLMDO (a stylized take on “colmado”—a bodega in New Yorker parlance), which was then located in Isabela, on the west coast of Puerto Rico.
We would talk more over the years, even through the devastation and damage caused by Hurricane Maria, and the last time I saw him, it was a very happy occasion: The Ocean Park location of his restaurant was about to officially open, and I’d wandered in straight off the plane from New York to eat ají dulce charred and served like shishito peppers, hummus dressed with local eggplant, and other small plates on the vegetable-driven menu. A kitchen fire would close the restaurant permanently a month later.
Most recently, he’d been preparing to reopen in Isabela, but the pandemic put those plans on hold. We talked about his career changes, the various accessibility of fresh produce in Puerto Rico, and the uncertain future. Listen here, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Wilson. Thank you so much for being on here with me.
Wilson: Well, thanks. Thanks for having me. I've known you for a few years, and it's always great to catch up with you.
Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
Wilson: So, I was born in Puerto Rico, was born in Isabela. And before I was one, or by the time I was one, my mom had moved to New York. And as many Puerto Ricans during that time, we moved to the South Bronx. And then I lived all over New York. Also in New Jersey. I lived in Newark and Montclair.
We were pretty poor. So if you look at that era of the late ’70s, early ’80s, there's an era called ‘The Bronx Is Burning.’ And literally, the Bronx was on fire. A lot of building owners were putting their buildings on fire just to collect insurance money, and they would just abandon the property. So, it looked like a war zone. And as a little kid, that's what I saw.
We ate a lot of rice. I ate rice and a lot of fried foods mostly. I do remember getting school lunches in the summer. And when my mom started working—a Portuguese family, I was staying with them. They were my babysitters, the Gomes family.
And food completely changed when I was when I was with them. They got any little piece of land that they had, and they actually would grow food. And they had rabbits, and I remember being seven, eight years old, and they were actually slaughtering rabbits. And they would eat tons of beans, chickpeas and lima beans. And food that I didn't have at home. Like I said, mostly at home was rice and some sort of fried food.
Alicia: So, how did you end up working in food? I know you took a kind of circuitous path to opening a restaurant. Can you explain that one?
Wilson: Yeah, so I've had a few different careers.
So originally, I had a career in tech and I worked under a bunch of tech startups. I worked at AOL, on projects at Google. And for about ten years, that's what my life was, and it was fantastic.
The only thing was, I basically lived out of airplanes and hotels. When I would go back to my apartment and I would open up the fridge, it would just be—basically be—water bottle and ketchup. I never cooked. I never did any of that. And I wanted to do something different.
And I wanted to go into media. So I went into media. And I started as an intern at Complex magazine. Financially, I was fine. So I left technology, and I was able to live off some money that I had saved up. I worked at Complex magazine, and after a few months there, I started working at Interview magazine.
And a lot of my heroes in New York were, at the era of the late ’70s, early ’80s, were where the punk, hip-hop and the art world meet. So, I got to work with a lot of my heroes. One was Glenn O'Brien, and Patti Astor—all these people that to me were these superstars in this very niche, underground scene.
I had an opportunity, because of Interview magazine. So, at Interview magazine, I worked in photography. And literally, I had full access to Andy Warhol’s archives. I literally could just open a drawer and grab his photos. It was an amazing opportunity for me.
And then we had the recession around 2009, 2010. And basically all magazines died. So all print went to digital. And I remember Interview magazine, at one point—let's say there was 80 people working there? By the time 2010 came, the entire magazine was run by maybe about four or five people. Things were really, really bad. And I needed to do another change.
So I decided, ‘Well, let me go to Puerto Rico. This was where I was born. Let me put some roots down.’ So, I came here and I wanted to open up a business. And I got this building where I live. It's in the plasa in Isabela. So I needed something where I can live and have a business. So, downstairs was a commercial space and upstairs was the home. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was just thinking, and thinking, and thinking, and I'm like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna do some food.’
And I had never worked in a restaurant. I wasn't even a dishwasher. I never worked at all in a restaurant. It took months to get my permits here. During that time was my, I guess, schooling. I taught myself how to cook.
Another thing that I did was—since I was in tech, a lot of stuff that we do in tech is testing. Everything's tested. So, a simple way of doing the test is AB, so version A versus version B. And I would just teach myself how to cook. I would do, let's say, one dish one way, and then I would tweak it and that would be version B. And I would keep going back and forth, back and forth until I got something that I liked.
So, it was really different. I took a completely different route. And at this point, I couldn't afford a staff. So for the first year of the restaurant, I was everything. I was your cook, I was your waiter, the dishwasher. I had an open kitchen so everyone could see what I was doing, and that—people really enjoyed that. It was really interesting. And working on the fire, I think it's a great way to learn. And that's how I started the restaurant.
Alicia: And how did you arrive at your style of cooking, though? Because it wasn't Puerto Rican food. It was pretty Mediterranean-influenced.
Wilson: Yeah, this family that took care of me, the Gomes, everything they did had olive oil and beans and greens. First time I was eating, like, kale and greens was with them. There's a famous Portuguese soup. We have it here in Puerto Rico, so—in Puerto Rico, it’s called Caldo Gallego, and in Portuguese is Caldo Verde. And it's very similar. It's soup with beans, has kale. And they do chorizo in it and tons of paprika.
So, that was the food that I really enjoyed. I really enjoyed that type of food. You can actually see an ingredient, see what it was. And when I came here, a lot of people were hesitant of what I was doing. I also didn't call myself a chef. I was barely a cook. So I felt that stuff that I can do like stews, things like that, were easier to do.
And I felt that I could build flavors. It was easier to build flavors by getting good ingredients and spices. My food was pretty simple. I kept everything really, really simple. At one point, I was even making my own salt. I would go down and evaporate seawater. I would filter it out, evaporate it and get that salt. And just, all these little ingredients built flavors. And that's what I really enjoyed.
Alicia: And was it difficult to source high-quality ingredients in Isabela when you opened the restaurant? It can be difficult even now even in San Juan to get everything one might want to cook anything. Did you have any difficulties during that time?
Wilson: It was really tough. It was difficult. Things that I wanted just didn't exist here. Isabela has—it's a different population than San Juan. Population is older here. And the young people do kinda gear more towards fast food.
So, a lot of the food vendors at that time, I didn't meet their minimums to make food orders. My restaurant was small, seats 20 people. I have an open kitchen; I don't have storage. So what you see is, it’s what you get. So, I would call up companies, they would come and then they would say, ‘Oh, well the minimum order is this.’ If I bought that, where would I store it? All my food would go bad.
So, one thing that I would do is I would go out and source food. So, San Germán, which is the town next over, they have a big market on Friday. So I would go there in the morning. Or, on the side of roads, you'll see people selling fruits and vegetables, and I would get those. And I literally will go out every single day. And what I could find is what my menu would be. So my menu might have had, let's say on a typical night, may have six items. That's the entire menu: six items. I never had a paper menu. Or if I did, it wouldn't last more than a week or so. So, what I would do is I would just have boards and write out what the menu would be. It was really, really tough.
I remember once there was a barge that sank, and that barge was bringing food to Puerto Rico. And people on the island didn't really realize there was a shortage in food until McDonald's ran out of French fries. And I was going everywhere just to find—to be able to make a salad. Right now I feel that it's difficult finding ingredients in Puerto Rico, but this is—you can find it right now.
When I first started the restaurant, it was difficult. It just didn't exist. And one of the great things that I love right now is younger people—that punk movement, that DIY movement where people are actually farming. You can find pretty much anything in Puerto Rico. Maybe not at scale. It's not at the supermarkets.
And unfortunately Puerto Rico, the majority of the people, nearly 50 percent of people live below the poverty line. So if it's not at a supermarket, a lot of people just don't have access to—because of food stamps—to buy a lot of fresh vegetables or something more exotic than that red onion. But it's growing in Puerto Rico, and to me that's exciting. I'm happy that it's available and stuff is available now.
Alicia: Yeah. No, I think it'll be really a big game-changer if people are able to use their EBT at farmers’ markets here the way you can in New York City. People should be able to, but that's a whole other ball of wax.
But when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, you left Isabela for Texas, I believe, or...?
Wilson: I left Puerto Rico via humanitarian flight and it sucked. My wife is—she's from San Antonio. So, we were able to land in Texas. So, we were in Texas for about a month to regroup.
And I started doing pop-ups all over the country, just to bring awareness of what was going on in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, we didn't hear any news. You know, we had no idea what was going outside of Puerto Rico. And it was a devastating time. It was really, really probably one of the most difficult choices I've ever gone through.
So yeah, we were in San Antonio for about a month.
Alicia: And did you expect not to reopen CLMDO in Isabela, or?
Wilson: Well, one of the things that happened is that I—we had water damage. This hurricane lasted nearly 24 hours, and the eye of the storm left Isabela.
Like I said, our house was on the second floor. And water was coming through the windows and was coming through every crack. And after the storm was over, when I went downstairs, water had just destroyed all of my equipment. My restaurant was tiny. I didn't have vents and gas, or typical equipment. I had a lot of home equipment and all of it was electric. All my equipment got damage. I lost everything.
And my entire staff, for just about—two or three people were the only people that stayed in Puerto Rico. Everyone left. An entire island left. So tourism was also down. It was a difficult time. I didn't think Isabela was going to recover for a few years.
Before the hurricane, I was building out Ocean Park. So I had the space that—CLMDO opened up in Ocean Park. I had gotten that space in May, before the hurricane. And the place had to get construction on it. The previous owner, they had done some damage on the building. So we had to do construction, and it took quite a long time. And then after Hurricane Maria, there was just no building materials on the island. So it took another long time to be able to open up. It took me about two years to reopen in Ocean Park, and Isabela still hadn't recovered after Hurricane Maria
So, it was pretty difficult.
Alicia: How did your approach to opening the Isabela—I mean, the Ocean Park location differed from Isabela, obviously. It was years later, you knew how to cook, you were able to have a staff. But were there bigger changes to how you were approaching it from that learning experience?
Wilson: So, Isabela was tiny. As I said, it seated 20 people. Ocean Park was much larger. It was two floors. I was gonna have a bar for the first time. In Isabela, I didn't have a liquor license. And I had storage.
I had to hire—that was one of the big things, of hiring people. Isabela, our staff—we had a rotating staff because I had a lot of students. So maybe seven or eight people. In Ocean Park, we might have had a staff of 20, 23 people, and nearly all of them were full-timers.
[The] construction delay made a lot of delays. And one thing that I wanted to keep from Isabela was having a small menu, and then going out and finding stuff, which in San Juan was incredible. I had farmers coming to us every day bringing us stuff. I had different farms. And that was just exciting. You know, I was working with produce that I hadn't worked with in Isabela.
Again, I kept a lot of things similar. If I did rice, I—it wasn't the main focal point. I didn't do anything fried. One thing that I did love is working with vegetables, so I do like keeping things recognizable. So, I had a dish, let's say it was an eggplant, when you ordered your dish you actually would see that it's an eggplant.
So San Juan was exciting. I could do a lot more things that I couldn't do in Isabela.
The other main change for San Juan, Ocean Park, was I had a partner for the first time. And this partnership was the reason why I was going out to open up in San Juan. Lot of my customers were from San Juan, or people—or tourists. The Isabela market was completely different than what San Juan was, so I was gonna do something in San Juan and Isabela.
Isabela has a lot more of a season. The surfing season is what drives tourism here. My prices were incredibly comfortable. Applebee's was more expensive than my restaurant. And one thing that I really, really enjoyed about Isabela was we made it known. On my Instagram, when food was being brought in, I would film it, or—and I would film the process of how we cooked stuff. So people would actually go out and come to our restaurant, and we had tons of regulars and they would take care of my staff. It was really, really exciting.
The one thing I did love about Isabela was I had an open kitchen, and people would go and tip our cooks and our dishwasher. And that was incredible and amazing to me, something that I hadn't really see in anywhere else. San Juan, Ocean Park, was—we had a closed kitchen. So those were the main differences.
San Juan, I had a lot more ingredients to work with. And I was gonna have this bar. I never was able to open up the bar. The day that we had our fire was actually the day that the second floor was gonna open up, and our bar was actually going to open up. So, I never was able to open up the bar in Ocean Park.
One thing that really, really hurt me was I'm a big fan of Negronis. And 2019, with the—was the 100 year anniversary of the Negroni. And I had been talking about it for a while. I'm like, ‘I'm actually gonna have a Negroni in my own bar for the 100th anniversary of Negronis.’ But that never happened.
Alicia: [Laughs.] I'm glad I got to eat there once. When did you open in 2019? In Ocean Park?
Wilson: So, it was May, we opened up in May. The beginning of June is when we had the fire.
So, you actually came really early on. You came, maybe, second week?
Alicia: It was in April, actually. Yeah, it was, I think, the end of April. So, you were-
Wilson: We weren't even open. That was our soft opening.
Alicia: Yeah, yeah. It was still very good, so.
So, you've now experienced these two closures of your restaurant due to two very different things. But now we're seeing how the pandemic is having quite a detrimental effect on restaurants here, as well as in the States. And what hope is there for the industry from your perspective, from having endured a couple of catastrophes of your own? And especially in Puerto Rico, how do you see the restaurant industry coming back from this?
Wilson: I actually was rebuilding for the third time. There's thousands of dollars invested in this building that I'm working on. And I don't think I'm going to be able to open up if I do. It may be quite a while.
I'm here in Isabela, and that's where I was going to reopen. And the way that restaurants are just eking an existence right now is just doing food delivery or takeouts. It's gonna kill a lot of businesses.
So, outside of San Juan, it's completely different. In San Juan, you do have your food deliveries. Outside of San Juan, that doesn't exist. Restaurants here are suffering in Isabela, or just basically outside of San Juan. A lot of places don't even know technology, and how to—people make an order other than a phone call. Things are really difficult.
People need to change their business by being able to do deliveries or takeout. When restaurants are able to open up regularly, a lot of people are going to be wary about sanitation and what's the protocol on washing hands and wearing a mask. That has to become front and forward, to have a sanitation station at a restaurant or hand-washing stations, things like that.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of restaurants just aren't going to be able to open up; it's been going on for months now. Restaurants are short-staffed. All those people lost our jobs. A lot of people are just not going to be able to return to their jobs. It does look a little grim. I feel that it looks grim in Puerto Rico. I wish it were different.
I mean, what do you think would need to change for the outlook to be different?
Wilson: To be honest, it might be the anti-restaurant. So I feel like people—to have a place where they cook, or more people are cooking at home. The restaurant is just—it's not going to change, it’s not going to be the same thing.
For me, it's difficult to answer this because I—this was my industry. But I feel that people in, and specifically in Puerto Rico, on the outskirts or outside of San Juan, I feel people are weary. People don't have a trust on, ‘Is this place clean? What's the protocol they're doing?’ That's what I'm seeing.
And are you planning to reopen still, if it does become safe?
Wilson: I don't know. I don't know what's gonna happen.
So my wife and I were on one income. She's a professor, and she's able to teach online right now. We have our son who's one and a half and I’m his main caretaker. I don't know what's going to happen.
To be honest, right now at this point I don't think I'm going to be able to open up. I don't know what a few years from now is going to bring, but today I'm happy raising him. And it's been pretty difficult for us. The pandemic is—it's been a few months, but this situation that we are right now, my wife and I have been going through it nearly three years. Three years, with one income and me building.
So, me building for the third time right now and taking this big hit, it—we really have to examine what we’re going to do. We've had some very difficult moments. Either I make a career change again, but I think in Isabela it's going to take quite a while for things to rebound.
Isabela, it's a town that's shrinking. Our population every year shrinks. More than half of the schools shut down in Isabela. For the last few years, they've been shutting down the grammar schools and the high schools. The one thing that keeps Isabela is surfing, and
there's just less and less people coming here.
And, for you, is cooking a political act now, even though you're not cooking for customers?
Wilson: Yeah, I—cooking to me is 100 percent political.
One of the main things that you can easily do is cook yourself. And by cooking yourself, you're able to move away from these massive corporations that are managing your food. So, by being able to make your own choice by getting your own vegetables, getting your own ingredients that you want, you're able to change that look of food.
One of the big things in Puerto Rico, why Puerto Rico is—I see it as it's in a bad situation was because a lot of the things that were done in Puerto Rico were—was forced upon us. Up until the 1940s, agriculture was number one thing in Puerto Rico.
Of course, we didn't own the agriculture. Since Puerto Rico existed, Puerto Rico didn't have control of the land. So it was the Spaniards, and then after the Spanish American War in 1898, the U.S. took over. We didn't own the land. But we did farm the land. And I feel that one of the main things that you do is by farming and producing locally.
I don't have land here in my home, but I have buckets. And I have buckets full of dirt, and I have potatoes and I have beans and I have tomatoes. I grow a lot of my food, and I would do that for the restaurant as well. A lot of my spices and herbs—cumin, they're beautiful. Get these little seeds, dry them out, and that's your cumin.
So, I say food is definitely political. Controlling what food you eat. And then I feel also that when you buy local, or you grow local, money stays locally in Puerto Rico. There's just so much fast food, and all that money just leaves the island. We import nearly 90 percent or even higher at this point of the food that's consumed in Puerto Rico.
And I think a big statement is by growing your own food or buying local. I think that's a massive political statement that you can make. And also spreading knowledge on how to cook. A lot of people see cooking as something magical, or something that I can't do. And they'll spend time watching the Food Network and like, ‘Oh, that's something that they can do and I'll just eat this microwave meal.’
Those were the magic of the restaurant, CLMDO. People come and would see us cooking. But I would cook simple stuff and I would show people like, ‘This is what I'm doing. I'm doing this, and then doing that.’ And I believe, food is 100 percent political.
Alicia: Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Wilson: Alicia, thank you. The last three years have been pretty difficult for me personally, so I apologize if I sound a little somber during our interview.
Alicia: [Laughs.] I mean, I do feel like crying, but I don't think it's necessarily your fault. I think this is the state of things, and I'm happy to have an honest conversation about that. So.
Wilson: Thank you. It’s great speaking to you. Thank you.