Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2023

Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2023

Mario Castrellón

Maito, Panama City

Panamanian pioneer platforming Central America

The genial chef behind Panama City’s lauded Maito, alongside a small empire of other restaurants in the country, Mario Castrellón is a once-in-a-generation visionary.

When Maito made its debut on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2016, it was the first Central American eatery to ever be represented on the ranking. In the years since, Castrellón has become a figurehead for the emergence of Central America’s diverse culinary influences and communities, which now see an increasing number of people travelling to the region in search of great gastronomy.

As the meeting point of two continents as well as a transit point for thousands between the two oceans that flank it, Panama is the natural meeting point of a myriad of cultures and cuisines. Its resulting culinary landscape is a melting pot of influences – and since Castrellón entered the kitchen, it has been his self-appointed duty to represent the complex cultures and stories histories of his compatriots on the global stage.

At Maito, the chef uses the breadth of his country’s cuisines and communities as his playground, fusing together elements from across the country to paint a masterful tapestry that truly reflects Panamanian diversity. His efforts have gone as far as the creation of a whole new cuisine, which he has monikered ‘chombasia’, fusing together the foods of Panama’s Afro-Caribbean and Cantonese communities.

Castrellón also champions the ‘rainforest-to-table’ movement: a philosophy that guides restaurants to invest locally and work alongside the local terroir to craft a sustainable and mutually beneficial culinary ecosystem, with particular heed taken to the indigenous communities that line his restaurant’s pantry.

While a proven leader of his own kitchen, Castrellón’s efforts in educating, empowering and enlightening future generations of culinary talent looking to break into the industry are just as noteworthy. His work with charities, such as the Calicanto Foundation that aids socially vulnerable women across Panama, further cements his position as one of Latin America’s finest culinary role models.

Castrellón’s work as a culinary pioneer, community leader and philanthropist are just a few of the reasons behind his popularity and resulting new crown as winner of the Estrella Damm Chefs’ Choice Award 2023.