Talk food and politics with Cubans and you’re bound to get into water hotter than that which divides the South of Florida from the island.
Most will gingerly tip toe around the topic, or just avoid it -- unless you’re Guillermo Pernot. Chef-partner of Cuba Libre restaurants, he has dived right into this bubbling political and culinary stew.
He liberally dishes out a provocative theory: that the flavorful, heavy, and simple foods known throughout the world as Cuban cuisine are actually a cultural relic, a palate frozen after one of the world’s longest ruling strongmen Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government. The food we eat, argues Pernot, is that of recipes that stopped evolving after Cuban refugees left, some more than half a century ago.
“What would Cuban food be if Fidel had not been in power?” asks the Argentine-born chef who came to the U.S. as a teenager.
That question came to him during culinary cultural exchanges to Cuba, which follow his Cuban-born wife’s Quaker humanitarian trips. He returned, leading tours of cultural foodies, with the group heading straight to Havana paladares or small “restaurants” owned by Cubans and located in their homes.
“The first time I ate at a paladar, I couldn’t believe the intensity of the food," he said. "It was delicious and not what I expected."
I met him in his Washington, D.C. restaurant, which has always reminded me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland -- in other words, kitsch galore with faux balconies above a side bar accented with wrought iron, palms that sway under large ceiling fans, and waiters in guayaberas -- the iconic tropical dress shirt revered alike by ol’ school Caribbean men like my Papi and Brooklyn hipsters.
Not even the flimsiest dinghy vying to safety cross the Florida Strait for the U.S. would sink -- Pernot runs that tight a ship. Sous chefs need to trade their Crocs for Sauconies to keep up with rapid-fire orders, sometimes emphasized with the quick snapping of fingers. It’s easier to control a gas range than flaring tempers right before the dinner rush. No wonder so many reality TV shows focus on chefs and the drama of a kitchen.
We were also minutes from a special food series called “Pop-Up Paladares” featuring Cuban chefs Pernot met in Havana, including chef Alain Rivera Santana of Havana’s Doctor Café, and invited to the U.S. to cook with him.
This is when both men would try answering the question of Cuban cuisine without Fidel, although it means messing with some of my all-time-food faves -- mouth-watering ropa vieja, comforting arroz con camarón, and crispy tostones, staples I will always find in Miami’s Little Havana restaurants.
I decided to challenge them with a barrage of questions backed up by a growling belly.
With every bite I went overboard, savoring hints of the familiar: merluza al escabéche, fresh cod in vinegar-chile sauce with lamb tongue and beet salad followed by canelones de cangrejo: fresh corn pasta cannelloni stuffed with sweet chili crabmeat.
We feasted on grilled yellow fin tuna in a Malta honey reduction with ruby red grapefruit and lavender supremes. Pernot and Rivera arguably saved the best for last: sopa de mango, chilled mango soup, with Cuba Libre’s rum ice cream.
Like the subtle touches of fine extra-virgin olive oil in each savory dish, politics permeated the dining room.
The guests asked how the regular people of Cuba could afford to buy grilled tuna when shelves in markets stand bare.
Pernot tried to keep the focus on food, but Alain subverted his host for a moment, answering honestly: “Regular Cubans don’t have this meal. They don’t have the money.”
A bit shy and soft-spoken, he admitted being blown away by the blast-chillers that cool food in seconds, a kitchen staple in U.S. restaurants he had never seen, much less used and that probably couldn’t fit in his home kitchen.
Rivera also told us some recent policy changes have allowed paladares to expand from seating a dozen to more than three times that number, that some don’t serve rice and beans, and that Havana’s #1 lunch item is pizza!
Maybe food is more dynamic that the politics that expelled whole peoples or the memories that keep them trapped in that moment.
Maybe we are more resilient than the policies that rule us.
Maybe the change that everyone’s been waiting for is already happening.
To learn more about Cuba Libre Restaurant’s Pop-Up Paladares and culinary tour of Havana scheduled for the Fall, click here.
Viviana Hurtado is the founder and blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club and the host of Hispanic Business Today: American Success Stories, nationally syndicated on NBC. She is a regular columnist for Fox News Latino. You can follow her on Twitter at: @vivianahurtado