Chef Guillermo Pernot is a nationally-renowned chef and restaurateur who currently runs Cuba Libre, with locations in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Orlando and Washington D.C.
Chef Pernot, who grew up in Argentina, has received two of the most prestigious awards given in the food industry: The James Beard Award for “Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic Region” and “Best Single Subject Cookbook” for Ceviche: Seafood, Salads and Cocktails with a Latino Twist. In addition, he was named Esquire’s “Chef of the Year.”
Pernot has traveled to Cuba several times over the past year to absorb everything he could about the culture, particularly the cuisine, and bring it back to his restaurants. He has updated the menu and helped revamp the décor, making it more authentic based on his travels.
This month, Pernot will host a native Cuban chef, Chef Luis Alberto Alfonso Perez, for a series of dinners he has named Pop-up Paladares. Paladares are small restaurants, typically set inside a chef’s home in Cuba. The first chef is set to come to Philadelphia on January 11 through 13. He will then travel to D.C. Pernot will host two more chefs in 2012 to continue the dinner series. Chef Perez’s visit marks the first time a Cuban chef has cooked in the U.S. since the embargo was placed 40 years ago.
Also, slated for spring, Guillermo will lead culinary trips to Cuba with his wife, a Cuban citizen whose great-great grandfather was Cuba’s third president. The two will grant guests an all-access pass to Havana, eating in the most renowned kitchens, touring famous landmarks, and stopping in the local’s low-key favorite places to eat.
Q: You obviously focus on Cuban cuisine now, but you grew up in Argentina. What dishes do you enjoy eating and preparing from Argentina? And do you have other favorite Latin cuisines?
A: When I was young, my mother used to cook all sorts of empanadas. Some were traditional with beef or chicken, and some were more unusual with artichoke and even lamb. I love making these and and on our menu at Cuba Libre I’ve included some variations. We have a traditional beef picadillo as well as a shrimp and spinach, which are takes on what I remember from my childhood. I love working in all Latin cuisines and I’ve dedicated a lot of time to ceviches. I’ve even written a book, ¡Ceviche! which focuses on ceviches that are more traditional to ones that are more out-of-the-box.
Q: How is being a leading Latino chef different from other chefs you've worked with? Has being a Latino worked to your advantage?
A: When I first started cooking in Philadelphia, there were not many Latin restaurants. It was a challenge to get diners really into it, but they came around and I can proudly say I helped introduce Nuevo Latino cuisine to the Philadelphia area through one of my first restaurants, Vega Grill. When I opened my second restaurant, ¡Pasion!, it was well-received. After people began liking our flavors, being Latino was an advantage because what I was bringing to the table was new. Today, Latin food is very popular in Philadelphia and there are so many great places serving various cuisines that the focus has changed to “how can we stand out and be more authentic.” It’s very different than when I started and it’s exciting.
Q: How would you describe your culinary style?
A: I like to think of my culinary style as passionate, flavorful and true. No matter what type of food I am preparing, I want the flavors to burst in your mouth and make you say, ‘Wow!’ Obviously, I am very dedicated to my roots, not only my Argentine heritage, but since my wife is from Cuba, Cuban food is also very important to me. The authenticity of the food I prepare is important to me as well. In 2011, I visited Cuba three times in order to research what types of dishes are being prepared in Cuba today. I think most guests are used to the traditional dishes – arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, and vaca frita – but I want to show them the new things that I have seen on the island and be true to what is current. That is one reason that we decided to bring some of these premier Cuban chefs to Cuba Libre to show off the new wave of Cuban cooking.
Q: What have you learned from your trips to Cuba? What's your favorite story about cooking there?
A: The most important thing that I have learned from my trips has been how resourceful the people of Cuba are. Most Americans are familiar with the photos of Cuba with the 1950s American cars and just as the Cubans keep those old cars running, they are able to keep their tables full of fresh ingredients and great flavor even when it is hard to find. They know how to work with what they’ve got. My favorite day in Cuba was one spent on a farm called Finca Miguel. We roasted a pig for 8-9 hours. One brave man sat there and turned the spit by hand for the whole time. It is amazing that they have such a love for food and tradition.
Q: What do you hope will come from having Chef Lucio cook with you in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.? How did you pick Lucio? And do you plan to have other Cuban chefs cook with you in the future?
A: I was introduced to Lucio by a mutual friend on my first trip to Cuba. We cooked together and ate together many times. He is such a friendly and wonderful person that I really wanted to bring him to Cuba Libre to cook with me at my restaurant, but also he is one of the best chefs in Cuba. He runs four paladares under one roof, each with a different atmosphere. His food is amazing. While he is here, I hope to share with our guests in both Philadelphia and D.C. a little bit of what he does, to show them what the chefs there are doing and how it’s probably a lot different than they imagined. I plan to bring two more chefs to visit Cuba Libre this year, both with their own unique style.
Q: What are the highlights of the tours you're leading to Cuba later this year?
A: We’ll visit the paladares that I enjoyed while I was there last year, including Chef Lucio’s paladar El Gijonés as well as Cocina de Lilliam, a place that makes amazing malanga (purple taro root) fritters and serves them on melted glass bottles. We will also be visiting Hemingway’s home and the docks where he kept his boat, along with the Cuatro Caminos market, a rum museum and cigar factory.
Q: What's your advice for Fox News Latino readers who are avid cooks?
A: Don’t be afraid to try something new. Play with different flavors and types of cuisine. Be adventurous and let your tastes evolve.