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Karla Deleon: “Always be enthusiastic”

Make others feel the way you would want to feel at an establishment. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have the support both mentally and emotionally because a lot of things come into play — from your initial idea all the way to the official opening of your restaurant doors. It is important to […]

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Make others feel the way you would want to feel at an establishment.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have the support both mentally and emotionally because a lot of things come into play — from your initial idea all the way to the official opening of your restaurant doors. It is important to have those near and dear to you to see your dreams be turned into a reality.


As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Karla Deleon.

Panamanian born and raised, Karla Deleon is living out the American dream. As owner and chef of New York’s only Panamanian restaurant, KC Gourmet Empanadas, Deleon strives to bring authentic Panamanian cuisine to delight the palates of all.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I have had a long history and love with food. My mother and my family’s food history throughout the years is what inspired me to be a restaurateur in New York.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Yes, I specialize in Panamanian cuisine. I’ve always wanted to share the flavors and traditions of my family with people. Since I was little, I was always involved with my mother in the kitchen, learning and cooking Panamanian food. She was the biggest inspiration for this venture.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Funny enough, before becoming a restaurateur, I attended culinary school and I accidentally dropped a large sheet of bacon with hot oil that fell on me. I burnt myself so badly that I swore it would be the first and last time and made the decision to leave culinary school.

This is a funny reminder that you always get up after you fall and you do not let the dream and illusion be brought down by anything or anyone. To this day, this continues to be my motivation.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Definitely the most difficult time for me while on my journey would be the Covid-19 pandemic that affected so many businesses like ours. The restaurant was so new and this was something that I didn’t know how to handle — much like everyone else. I was frightened in so many ways of how I could cut my journey short if I did not adapt to the new style of dining and offering my good spirit to my customers, keeping that same motivation to adapt and keep pushing along.

I feel lucky to have had an incredible team and an incredible fanbase to continue to support our business. We worked to ensure the restaurant followed the proper safety procedures while giving customers the best experience.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

A dish my customers go crazy about will be my fried red snapper platter that we call “Colon-C3” which pays homage to Panamanian culture. The key to creating this dish (and all dishes for that matter) is to make it memorable for customers — whether it’ll be the first time experiencing Panamanian taste or feeling like you’re in Panamanian soil through the memorabilia of the plate itself.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

A refreshing passion fruit drink and a house Corn Empanada is the perfect go to combo and can have it anytime of the day.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

My inspiration will have to be my mother. I watched in awe as she successfully owned and operated her own restaurants in Panama and I loved being by her side learning and watching her craft. I want nothing more than to keep her tradition alive in my own restaurant — keeping the authenticity of Panamanian culture alive in New York.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Yes! I have several new projects in the works, some still under the rug but definitely thinking of recreating a carnival special from Panama in New York, again. It was a small piece of Panama in New York City and the customers Panamanian or not enjoyed it a lot and learned more of keeping the Panamanian culture and tendencies present around the world. The carnival is once every year in Panama for a few days and we want to offer that here at KC Gourmet Empanadas, where live music is played while eating great foods and surrounded around good energy vibes is what we want to continue offering our customers and the community.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

If you do what you love, it won’t ever seem like work.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Having an emotional support system in place before launching an idea into reality is a must

2. You must be mentally prepared for good days and bad days. Because there will always be good and bad days

3. Have time, discipline, and the will to make that initial jump

4. Always be enthusiastic. Don’t forget to love and cherish the journey from beginning to end

5. Make others feel the way you would want to feel at an establishment

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have the support both mentally and emotionally because a lot of things come into play — from your initial idea all the way to the official opening of your restaurant doors. It is important to have those near and dear to you to see your dreams be turned into a reality.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

This is a hard one because I am biased — but if I had to choose just one, I would say the Colon-C3 — a fried red snapper platter. The dish pays homage to Panama and is a must-try for those wanting to experience traditional Panamanian cuisine.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could inspire and influence a group of people it would be single mothers and women over the age 40. We are taught to believe or are mentally influenced that our window of opportunities are up and that we’ve missed our queue but that is not the case. As long as you have the willingness and the desire to push ahead and grasp your dreams at any age you can still achieve your goals and dreams. It is never too late for improvement and growth regardless of the past. You can only focus on the present and the future. My movement will be to empower women who feel that time has run out without discrediting that men can also achieve and facilitate the dream in the culinary field of work where people can demonstrate their happiness, sadness and past experiences through culinary art.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!


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