How many people can say they’ve got their dream job? That they make their living as a kitesurfer, or a chef, or a distiller, or a restaurateur? Not a majority, to be sure. But Paul Menta? Well, he spends his days doing all of those things.
A pro-kitesurfer, instructor, entrepreneur and food- and drink-loving globetrotter, Paul Menta was born and raised in Philadelphia but has been a Key West resident for the last two-and-a-half-odd decades. We caught up with Paul to learn more about his adrenaline-pumping adventures, his culinary pursuits, and just how he manages to balance it all.
You’re a kitesurfer, a kitesurfing instructor, a chef, an author, a restaurateur, and a distiller. How do you manage so many careers while still enjoying the laidback, Key West lifestyle?
“The thing is, they’re all my passion – whether you’re paying me to do them or not, I’d probably still be doing them. They all go together, they all interact. For instance, a low-pressure day without wind is great for distilling, but the opposite is true with kitesurfing. It all ends up meshing together really seamlessly.”
What were the challenges (and the advantages) of turning pro at kitesurfing at the age of 30?
“I started with the sport from day one, when very few people were doing it – I’m actually working on a book about that right now. It’s different from starting at 20 because then you get sponsorship, you get just enough money for beer, going out to eat etc.”¦but I had my son and a family, so I had to make it into a business. I’d been cooking for about 10 years at that point and was doing pretty well with it, and took a year hiatus to go travel around the world and go kiting – a big risk, but it really defined my career. I also ended up doing trainer videos and demos – my company was called Kite Surf the Earth, and that was the idea, to travel all around.”
What are the most incredible kitesurfing moments you’ve had while travelling around the world? And the riskiest?
“I never consider any of the stuff risky, but my family would tell you a lot about my version of risks! One of the most incredible things was flying into Guatemala – I was brought over there to teach a bunch of kids to kitesurf. I told them I wanted to go somewhere unique and I was taken to Lake AtitlÃ¡n, which is a lake in the base of three volcanoes way up in altitude. The water there was so blue because of all the sulphur – it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. I convinced someone to take me out on his fishing boat and I got up on the roof and pumped up my kite and was able to launch in the gusts over the lake.
Then the following year I went to Tulum, Mexico, and had great experiences there. I was talking with a shaman and I got to kite right in front of ruins there, which are dedicated to the god of wind.”
What advice would you give to those considering trying kitesurfing for the first time?
“The biggest setback I see is having the conditions. If you’re sitting around in the winter and can’t get to a kiting destination, it can be a great excuse for a vacation – it’s not something you want to do on your own.
If you’re stubborn, it’s a big waste of money – you’ll save money having someone teach you. In 15 years, I only told two people it wasn’t for them – if you want to do it, you will. It’s a mental sport; the physicalities only mean that if you’re in really good shape your duration in the air will be longer. I’d say you need about 15-25 hours of kite flying time before you become proficient. You have to build a muscle memory, and once you do, it’s like driving a car.”
Moving on to food: Tell us more about your ethos as a chef and what inspires your cooking.
“I have a book out that’s called Key West Native Fuel, and I teach people the way my grandma taught me, so there are no real finished recipes. My theory is if it tastes good then you did a great job, and once you understand the ingredients, you know how to cook them. I’ve included recipes from my grandma and my aunt, and from people I’ve met around the world.”
Any amazing food memories from your travels?
“The best is when I’ve been invited to people’s homes, and they show me how to make their special dishes. The next best thing is to go to a market. I was in a market in China, and the language barrier was intense: even “˜yes’ and “˜no’ weren’t working. But this woman took a shine to me and was just throwing things together for me to try, little tiny dishes she probably makes all the time for herself. I still don’t know everything I ate, but I appreciated it because they were special things I’ll probably never get again.”
What inspired you to set up your own distillery, Chef Distilled? What makes your products special?
“I wanted to get away from the standard of what was being done, which for rum is distilled molasses. But Florida is full of sugarcane, so I used pure raw crystal from the cane. And when it comes to the barrels the rum is aged in, most people fill them first with fresh water to get the wood to swell. But I decided to fill my barrels with ocean water, and basically salt cure them: I wait until salt crystals form, and then I pour the rum in and let it sit and age. There’s a lot of science about how salt lowers PH and smoothes things out and helps open up the flavours.
I wanted to use the local ingredients, and the elements that you can’t reproduce anywhere else in the world: this is Key West rum. There’s never been a legal distillery here ever, so being the first one is quite intimidating.”
What’s the best way to serve your rum?
“With our Legal Rum, put it in the freezer because using Florida sugarcane means a buttery, floral flavour comes out, and in the freezer it takes on a creaminess. For the barrel-aged rum, the yeast that I use is also present in spores in black truffles, which means it works surprisingly well with black truffle cheese!”
What do you think all visitors should see or experience when they come to Key West?
“The must-do is to rent a bicycle and get lost – even though the island is only four miles long, geographically it’s laid out crazily. For the perfect day, go to one of the Cuban coffee shops, have a con leche and a cheese toast, and then pedal to the cemetery, where you can learn all about the history of Key West. Once the sun gets stronger you can see the iguanas come out and sun themselves on the graves, which is a really wild and hidden thing.
I would then go to a state park like Fort Zachary Taylor, get out and go snorkelling. What you’re gonna see is amazing: there’s so much sea life here, and we’re so lucky it’s being preserved and protected. Finish it off with a sunset, since they’re amazing here. Then go out to eat and see what happens: that’s the thing about life here, everything’s at a moment’s notice in Key West.”
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Miami from London Heathrow, making it easy to discover the best of Key West.
Have you been to Key West? Have you tried Paul Menta’s Legal Rum? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Claire Bullen