A Natural Cook: executive chef Armando Paniagua
Having inherited his mother’s natural touch for creating incredible flavors, executive chef Armando Paniagua displays his talent every day while cooking authentic Italian-American dishes at 1856 Bar and Grill. He has never received formal education for how to cook, nor has anyone shown him the perfect way to mix and match flavors; Paniagua’s position was earned through his natural ability to produce quality food and maintain lifelong friendships.
Paniagua will tell you he has no secret formula for being a successful chef, but while growing up he got to witness his mother often cook for the entire family. She may not have had a direct hand in introducing him to the skill, but Paniagua believes she passed down her talent via genetics.
“I think I just got [my talent] from [my mother], because I never went to culinary school, I just learned [to cook] by reading books, travelling and watching people,” Paniagua said. “I never really had someone who taught me how to cook, it’s just inside of me. And it’s not hard, I swear to God; I’m just doing it.”
Paniagua began his career by working his way up from the bottom of the culinary field in San Francisco, working alongside one of his role models in cuisine.
“I just started at the restaurant [Rose Pistola] back in the days with one of the best chefs in San Francisco, [Reed Hearon],” Paniagua said. “He travelled to Mexico and then opened a mexican place in San Francisco, so I started working there as his washer.”
I’ve learned how to cook a lot of different food,” Paniagua said. “But everything I try to do, I try to do it right.
Learning the English language helped open up opportunities that allowed him to obtain his ideal position of working in the kitchen amongst the construction of foods and flavors rather than the dirty dishes.
“I used to go to school to learn English, so once I started speaking a little more English I just became a line cook right away,” Paniagua said. “Then, I became a chef at the same place. From there, I have just been working at different restaurants and every single restaurant that I work at I start as a line cook and then I become a chef.”
Paniagua originally stayed planted in San Francisco after his longtime companion Alejandro Lule flew to the Midwest, but he knew he could not stay away forever. Lule and another of Paniagua’s friends, Subarna Bhattachan, were able to pull him into the town of Lawrence so the trio could start their own restaurant.
“Alejandro is kind of my brother, we both have family from Mexico. He was in San Francisco with me and then he got married and moved to Lawrence, so I used to visit him all the time …” Paniagua said. “Subarna and Alejandro always tried to convince me to come here to Lawrence to open an Italian restaurant back in the days, and finally I said [yes]. I came here and opened a restaurant; it was called Genovese before 1856.”
Over a decade after the restaurant first opened, Paniagua is hesitant to recommend just one single item as the very best offered by1856 Bar and Grill’s menu. He believes it depends on what the customer is looking for. He does admit, however, that his personal favorite dishes are the various skillets.
“The chicken skillet, or beef skillet, it’s one of the best I can recommend to people,” Paniagua said. “It’s not going to be a problem for anybody.”
Paniagua’s food recommendations are especially meaningful — he’s an expert on different flavors. Paniagua and Alejandro have adventurously trekked across the globe to taste dozens of unique cuisines. From South American countries such as Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Chile, to Europe, Paniagua’s encounters with these cuisines have contributed to his skills, motivation and general rule to live by as a chef.
“I’ve learned how to cook a lot of different food,” Paniagua said. “But everything I try to do, I try to do it right.”