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.”