The Cuba Factor
A shift in diplomatic relations suggests portentous results for restaurant dining.
Months after President Barack Obama met with Raul Castro, discussions about the consequences of travel and trade reconciliation abound, especially in Cuban immigrant communities in Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. But the rapprochement’s outcomes have not made themselves known entirely. Among them is the question of how the aftershocks of such a political earthquake are affecting the culinary communities in both the U.S. and Cuba.
What is already known—based on accounts from those who have gone back to render aid to relatives throughout the years as well as from chefs, like Douglas Rodriguez of Alma de Cuba and Guillermo Pernot of Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, who have led culinary tours to the island nation—is that the Cuban cuisine scene that emigrants fled starting in 1959 is not the same one that exists today. Those exilios brought over heritage recipes from more prosperous times, passing them down to new generations. Many who lacked the linguistic skills to continue in their previous professions opened restaurants, introducing Americans to dishes such as ropa vieja, a beef stew that translates literally to “old clothes” because the meat tenderizes to the point where it appears shredded, and camarones a la criollo (shrimp Creole), the shellfish sautéed first in the sofrito (a holy trinity of onions, bell peppers, and garlic) that is the base for many of the culture’s dishes, then simmered in wine and tomato sauce.
But where items like vaca frita, a popular steak whose name means fried cow, are commonplace in cities with big Cuban populations in the U.S., beef virtually disappeared on the island after Castro came to power. Like meat, shrimp immediately became an unheard-of luxury, served only to foreign dignitaries and Communist cronies. After decades of the economic embargo, deprivation, and rationing, even food staples were, and still are, hard to come by.
Rodriguez, a James Beard Award–winning Cuban-American chef known for his Nuevo Latino fare in both Miami and the Northeast, has visited Cuba 12 times since 2013. He leads gastronomy trips via his business, D-Rod Culinary Adventures, cooking while he’s there in a private restaurant (as opposed to one that’s run by the government) called a paladar, which has a pantry. Still, he says that basics like flour or sugar could run out. He may not even be able to find what’s grown or made on the island, including coffee or tobacco, and he might have to go to four different markets to find a single egg.
Sometimes, the gas will be turned off in the middle of cooking a meal, and the Cuban chef that Rodriguez is partnering with will have to improvise by bringing out a propane stove. Kitchen tools as simple as strainers, which are taken for granted just about everywhere, might be nowhere to be found. “The true ‘Iron Chefs’ are Cuban chefs,” he asserts. “There’s a lack of equipment and connectivity to other chefs around the world, not to mention an inconsistency of product.”
To that end, Rodriguez brings gifts for the chefs and asks those who come with him on his tours to also pack anything from “a Japanese mandline to a squirt bottle to a grater. My goal is truly to help them. And the reaction I get is tears. I’ve been seeing this since the first time I went, and it hasn’t changed.”
Otherwise, however, he cooks what he finds, and that can be plenty. The fruits and vegetables are mostly organic, and the local seafood, which includes eels farmed in Matanzas as well as sea urchin and tiny river shrimp that he says fit about “30 to a fingernail and that inflate as they absorb oil and taste like clean bacalao,” is abundant. And with great excitement, he has also discovered that—thanks to Columbus dropping off livestock back in the day—the pigs on the island are descended from the black Iberian specimens that feast on acorns in southern Spain and make the finest Serrano ham.
In addition, he’s already noticed some heretofore unheard-of amenities that have emerged since the renewed relations. On his last trip, he went to an organic market, which he says was like a storefront at the lip of a 2-acre field. Not only was he astonished by a charcuterie section making fresh chorizo, “it was like going to Palacios de los Jugos [popular Miami fruit-and-vegetable markets],” he says. “There was peeled boniato for fries. Malanga, yucca, calabaza, and corn were already cut up and in a bag together. Nothing was processed, but it was clear they were going for convenience.”
Pernot, an Argentine-born chef who is married to a Cuban-born woman, has likewise been visiting the island since 2010, leading culinary tours with a Florida-based Cuba travel service, Cultural Contrast, and spending time with his wife’s family twice a year. (During one felicitous trip, he and Rodriguez, who both have restaurants in Philadelphia, bumped into each other at the Hemingway House near Havana and cooked together spontaneously, to the delight of both tour groups.) He, too, brings items such as knives or a Microplane grater, perhaps particular spices or chocolate—“some things I want or need,” he says—as well as a lot of cash, because the government won’t accept credit cards associated with U.S. banks. But like Rodriguez, for cooking he depends on what he can find.
“You don’t have to be a little flexible; you have to be a lot flexible,” he jokes. “No lettuce? Use radish or leeks. Find something different.” He has also remarked on the lack of meat. “If you do have it, it is very expensive. But why go to Cuba to have beef when in the U.S. you can have the best from Uruguay, Argentina, Japan, Colorado, or Texas?”
In fact, he remarks, food tourists should go to the island specifically to dine on pork: “You cook the whole pig like it was a fried chicken,” he says. There is also a great variety of fish, including dogfish, bonito, and emperador, or swordfish, as well as snails from the rivers. In the provinces west of Havana, he mentions, farms provide guests with lunch within 100 meters of where the food is grown. “And, of course, there’s mango season,” Pernot says. “In Cuba, you only eat seasonally. If you don’t have something you want or need, you trade with somebody.”
He adds, somewhat humorously, “Americans think they want to eat like this, but when they get here, they complain.” Those objections stem, in part, not just because Americans are spoiled by year-round availability of imported product, but also because Americans’ experiences with Cuban food and how it has developed in the U.S. are far from the reality of what it has become on the island. For instance, even how Cubans heat their food has taken a turn simply because, as Rodriguez acknowledged earlier, gas and electricity became unreliable. Instead, in places like Baracoa, Pernot notes, everybody utilizes wood and charcoal. “They even fry fish on it, putting pots of lard on the fires, which is extremely dangerous,” he says. But the dishes, such as the tiny fried fish bathed in coconut sauce, are famous, and delicious enough to beckon tourists.
Translating Cuban Techniques
Pernot has been so convinced by the Baracoa restaurateurs’ methodology that he is adding a wood-burning grill to Cuba Libre’s Atlantic City location, where 25 percent of the menu will be cooked on it. His Philadelphia location will follow suit, although the other sites, in Orlando, Florida, and Washington, D.C., will have to be evaluated to determine if burning wood complies with regulations. Indeed, since 2010 he has been retooling his dishes to jibe with how he imagines Cuban cuisine would have continued to evolve past the 1950s.
Meanwhile, he says, business has increased in all his establishments because “everything is Cuba, Cuba, Cuba.” This is a far cry from when he began cooking Cuban cuisine and consulting for Cuba Libre in Philadelphia in the very early 1990s. (He officially joined Cuba Libre as a chef-partner in 2006.) “People didn’t know what a plantain or a yucca was. I had to educate the purveyors, take them to the markets in the Latin section of the city.” Still, despite customers confusing Mexican and Cuban food, Cuba Libre quickly became popular because the fare wasn’t spicy and it was both inexpensive and plentiful.
Rodriguez, who partners with uber-restaurateur Stephen Starr at Alma de Cuba, likewise says business is increasingly visible enough that he can now introduce some more authentic dishes on the menu, such as goat in red wine sauce. In fact, he mentions that he’s had an easier time selling upscale Cuban fare in Philadelphia than he’s had in Miami. He mentions his first restaurant, YUCA (Young Urban Cuban American), which he owned with Efrain Veiga at a tender 24 years old, and which brought him national attention and a slew of culinary awards. But Miami Cubans “were stunned and bothered by it,” he says. “YUCA was plagued by Cubans who wanted to know why they had to pay $4 for an espresso when they could get a colada for $1 in Hialeah or Little Havana. They wanted their cafeteria food.”
Indeed, Cuban culture is so prevalent in Miami that it’s tough for a Latin restaurant not to be influenced by its presence. Chef Miguel Rebolledo, who opened the second Bulla Gastrobar in Doral in April (the first of these Spanish eateries is in Coral Gables), adapted the Cuban sandwich to serve at this location. His influence? The infamous Versailles, which was the first restaurant he dined at when he moved to Miami, and which is an epicenter for visitors and locals alike to check in on the temperature of the exilio community—and grab some moros y cristianos (black beans mixed with white rice) at the same time.
“Cuban food is very popular in South Florida, and it is not surprising that a large number of restaurants have been influenced by it,” Rebolledo says, especially now that it’s all over the news. In fact, it’s widely acknowledged in the Miami restaurant industry that many tourists can’t seem to differentiate between Latin cuisines and expect almost anything Hispanic to also be Cuban. As a result, Rebolledo compromised and came up with a winning combination. “When working to create menu items for Bulla Gastrobar, I wanted to incorporate some of the same flavors [for the Cuban sandwich] by using traditional Spanish ingredients. Instead of using Cuban bread, I opted for pan de cristal. I also swapped out Swiss cheese for Tetilla cheese, pickles for piparras, mustard for Dijon aioli, cooked ham for bellota ham, and roasted pork loin for pressed bellota. Then I went a step further and cooked it in the Josper, our charcoal oven, to create the ‘Cubano Ibérico.’”
In regions where Cuban restaurants aren’t common, such as Louisville, Kentucky, restaurateurs like Marcos Lorenzo are realizing the American dream. Having immigrated in 2000, this previous civil engineer worked in the hospitality industry to make ends meet and discovered he had actually found a new career.
In 2004, he debuted the 16-table Havana Rumba, only the second Cuban restaurant in town. (His competition would close within the year.) It proved so immediately popular that he had to expand in 2015. “People from Louisville go to Florida on vacation, so they know Cuban cuisine,” he explains. “We had no bar, only wine and beer, and no waiting area. So we’d fill up really quick, and have a line out the front door.”
By 2007, Lorenzo had also opened a Spanish restaurant called Mojito Tapas Restaurant, and 2010 saw another location of Havana Rumba. Altogether, he now owns four restaurants, and at press time was about to sign a contract with Kroger to supply five of the markets with Cuban sandwiches (he currently services one store).
While Lorenzo says there’s some argument about the size of Louisville’s Cuban community—some say it’s 3,000, others say it’s closer to 6,000—what is undeniable is that it’s growing. “A lot are moving here from Miami for job opportunities,” he says, especially in the restaurant business. “Nobody will work for less than $9, $10, $11, and they tell me in Miami it’s more like $8.”
He also notes that not only is Louisville a foodie city, where regular customers have been taking stock of the U.S.–Cuba relations and asking relevant questions, but his restaurant is the only one in the region, also providing fare for nearby Lexington, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. To cope with the demands of multiple sites that cater to commuter patrons who stay and linger, drinking and eating for hours while also listening to music, he is building a central commissary. The employees at the commissary will make the labor-intensive items, such as empanadas, croquetas, papas rellenos, and tamales. They’ll ship it for finishing to each location, then knock off around noon or early afternoon each day. “That way, I won’t have to train everyone at every place,” Lorenzo says. “All they’ll have to do is cook and fry.”
Rachel Kennedy, the owner of Plantain District, a Cuban food truck and catering company in Kansas City, Missouri, says that she, too, has noticed an enormous leap of interest in Cuban cuisine. “We have seen many more customers in the age group of 50-plus who recently visited Cuba and were excited to eat food from our food truck, drink cafecito shots, and share their experiences,” she says.
“When we opened our food truck, there was not a dedicated Cuban restaurant [in the city]. Now there are a few restaurants that offer typical Cuban dishes, and whenever our truck is booked for events, we direct fans to those restaurants,” she adds. “We have had some conversations in regards to increasing our visibility, so we have some important decision-making to do in a few months!” Those decisions include visiting the island with her Cuban-born and –raised husband, who immigrated with his immediate family to the U.S. in the mid-1990s.
Interestingly, the current political and dining climate is proving to be fruitful for chefs and restaurateurs who don’t have ties to Cuba as well. Salsera, a “World Latin” establishment in Dallas, was launched because of owner Wilson Chan’s love for salsa dancing. General Manager Carey Chan says the place, located in what’s known as the “Deep Ellum,” was first a coffee shop, then in 2015 it transitioned into a fully operating restaurant that turns into a Latin club on weekend nights.
As far as the fare goes, Chan says, “Our dining climate was, and still is, very diverse. Cuba has always been an interesting destination spot with the retro aesthetics and music and culture. With the new diplomacy, it is the perfect time to add some more Cuban dishes in our already diverse Latin menu. The renewed relationship [between the two countries] does play a role in people’s interest to check out our establishment.”
While the Chans, like Rachel Kennedy and her family, have not yet had a chance to visit Cuba, they look forward to doing so. “When the business settles down and traveling to Cuba becomes more feasible, we’ll then be able to get a chance to visit this beautiful country that inspires us so much,” Chan says.
Rodriguez, who is currently writing a bilingual Cuban cookbook and making plans to visit the island again this summer, is determined to be the first Cuban-American to open a restaurant there, and Pernot encourages cultural exchanges with Cuban chefs coming to the U.S. to cook, as well. They would both find a compatriot in Lorenzo, who travels to visit his mother and sister every year, and who, in the last three years, has seen improvements. “I’m impressed every time I go now,” Lorenzo says. “There are little restaurants doing a very good job. Standards are going up little by little. The food is getter better. Anybody who wants to see change should want to see [Cuba] open up. If it continues to be a closed country, nothing will happen. I wish one day the Cuban people can travel and work and do well like everybody else.”
Photo credits in this story: page 2 is Flickr.com—Tammy Gordon; page 3 is Salsera; page 4 is Guillermo Pernot.