A Cuban-American Chez Panisse Chef Explores Her Culinary Roots

| February 26, 2013 | 1 Comment
  • 1 Comment
Danielle Alvarez cooks Dungeness crab downstairs at Chez Panisse. Photo: Naomi Fiss

Danielle Alvarez cooks Dungeness crab downstairs at Chez Panisse. Photo: Naomi Fiss

When a contingent from Chez Panisse went to Cuba last December, their visit was duly reported in the press. A crew of Alice Waters devotees was poised to foment a food revolution in Havana — or at least feed people well for a few days. Steve Sullivan baked bread. Charlie Hallowell grilled pork on a parrilla in the streets of Havana. Jerome Waag plated polenta for Cuban dignitaries at dinners designed to showcase the Chez way of cooking.

Missing from the coverage: Any word from either of the Chez Panisse line cooks on the culinary diplomacy mission who are of Cuban-American heritage. Danielle Alvarez and Melissa Fernandez both have roots in the island nation and Alvarez, who set foot on Cuban soil for the first time, spoke with Bay Area Bites about her recent visit. The 28-year-old says she went on the trip with an open mind and exploratory spirit, wanting to learn more about the land her family calls home, despite bittersweet memories common to a generation of exiles in the aftermath of the revolution. She came away, though, with an overwhelming sadness, she says, for what has been lost from Cuba’s culture and cuisine, despite encountering a few bright spots on the food and farming front and hope among besieged residents for better times ahead.

Let’s be frank: Nobody goes to Cuba, widely regarded as a culinary backwater, for the food. And nothing about growing, selling, buying, cooking, or eating food — whether at home or in restaurants — in Cuba is easy. The lack of variety of fresh ingredients alone would make a farmers’ market-loving Northern Californian cry. Food is still rationed in Cuba and much of it is imported (about 70 percent) or frozen, the result of a survivalist mentality born out of scarcity. An agriculture exchange which sprouted in 2011 after the Cuban government loosened up restrictions on a range of small businesses would suggest greater freedoms on the farming front. But such shifts are both an indication of just how much the country has changed, according to a recent New York Times story, and the political and practical limitations that continue to thwart this Caribbean country flirting with capitalism. By most measures, Cuba’s free-enterprise farm experiment has failed, writes journalist Damien Cave, with many Cuban residents actually seeing less locally-grown food at private markets.

Still, Alvarez was encouraged by first-hand accounts from Waters’ personal assistant, Varun Mehra, a man mad for all things Cuban, who was instrumental in organizing the recent “Planting Seeds” edible expedition, the first of what he hopes will be an ongoing U.S.-Cuba dialogue around food and farming. “Havana’s food scene is changing rapidly and the Cuban government is phasing out its system of rations and cautiously allowing private restaurant ownership,” Mehra notes in his recent travelogue for Paper Magazine. “As a result, the population is rediscovering its own pre-revolution culinary history — a delicious mix of Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences.” Mehra refers in his piece to paladars, home-based private eating establishments popping up in Cuba in recent years, that some say could revolutionize — and spice up — Cuba’s dining options.

Snapshots from Cuba's farm and food scene. Photos: Varun Mehra

Snapshots from Cuba’s farm and food scene. Photos: Varun Mehra

Alvarez was eager to see for herself. She grew up in Miami, dining in on the vivid stories her relatives told about a magical place they left behind. Her mom’s family owned a sugar plantation in Cuba’s eastern Oriente Province, her father’s family hailed from Havana; they both moved to the U.S. as young children shortly after the revolution. Alvarez grew up eating Cuban food: White rice, red or black beans cooked with sofrito (aromatics like garlic, onions, and peppers) and a little sugar and apple cider vinegar, which, she says, made her mom’s version special. Her mother and grandmother cooked peasant food that could feed many, Cuban classics like ropa vieja, (shredded skirt steak stewed in a tomato sauce) and Moros y Cristianos (“Moors and Christians,” a rice and beans dish elevated in flavor by the addition of pork fat or bacon.)

She was dismayed by what she encountered on her ten-day trip. “The food culture has largely been lost there, they just don’t have a lot of ingredients,” says Alvarez, who has worked at Chez Panisse for more than two years. “We were told we couldn’t get seafood, which is incredible to me because it’s a Caribbean island surrounded by the sea. My mom has stories about live crab walking around the kitchen but now there’s no fishing industry to speak of.”

Back in Berkeley, Alvarez finds an abundance of seafood. Photo: Naomi Fiss

Back in Berkeley, Alvarez finds an abundance of seafood. Photo: Naomi Fiss

And Alvarez was stunned by the limitations in the kitchen — from a lack of oils, vinegars, and spices to a narrow range of fresh food. “There’s no variety in what type of produce they have – they have one type of lettuce and it’s really beautiful, but it’s all they have. One lettuce, one type of tomato, and one type of eggplant. We asked the farmers and were told that the state supplies the seeds and that’s all they have to work with. Since there are no seasons a lot of the plants don’t even go to seed, so it’s not like they can harvest their own.” Likewise, while beef might be on the menu at many local restaurants, it was never available to order during Alvarez’s stay; pork was the only meat of choice on offer at most places.

Raw ingredients weren’t the only limited resource on the island. “It broke my heart because at the culinary school and other restaurants we visited they had so little equipment,” says Alvarez, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Miami. “I found it difficult just to do what we do, as simple as it is, not having pots to cook in or basic equipment like spoons.” Everyone she encountered asked if they could have a pan or a knife, including the tour group’s guide and driver. The Chez Panisse team brought pots and pans with them with the intention of leaving them with local chefs. Dinners were held at Old Havana’s El Patio restaurant, a state run enterprise, and at Le Chansonnier, a popular paladar. Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro, made an appearance at both events and State Senator Loni Hancock and her husband Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates also attended the dinners, as part of the “Planting Seeds” entourage.

Chez Panisse chefs foraged fresh food for their trademark salads served at Cuban dinners. Photo: Nina Wolpow

Chez Panisse chefs foraged fresh food for their trademark salads served at Cuban dinners. Photo: Nina Wolpow

Alvarez observed other hardships that aren’t typical in North American kitchens. One of the restaurants the contingent cooked at didn’t have electricity or running water until the afternoon. “I couldn’t tell if that was a regular thing or just happened once in a while, but it seemed like they knew it would come on at four,” explains Alvarez, a native Spanish speaker, who has done stints at Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and landed an internship at the Wine Country’s French Laundry straight out of cooking school. “We lost electricity several times while we were there in different places. Just very basic things that make things difficult that we take for granted here.”

One trip highlight: A sourcing excursion to a farm to find pigs and rabbits for the dinners. The family who ran the farm gathered for a big pot of boiled yucca, a root vegetable similar to potatoes, and the visitors were brought a bowl of steaming yucca to share, accompanied by mojo, a local marinade of garlic, onion, lime juice, and spices. “I grew up eating yucca, it’s a favorite, and that was probably the most delicious thing we ate on our trip,” says Alvarez, who made yucca ceviche for one dinner cooked by the Chez Panisse chefs.

Danielle Alvarez gives plates a final look before sending them out to Cuban diners. Photo: Nina Wolpow

Danielle Alvarez gives plates a final look before sending them out to Cuban diners. Photo: Nina Wolpow

Overall, though, Alvarez found the local food disappointing. “So much of our philosophy at Chez is about fresh food that’s cooked very little. But in Havana much of the food we encountered was frozen, canned, and cooked a lot,” she says. “I realized, too, that the limited fresh produce they have doesn’t really make it to the people because they can’t afford it.” She did pick up some tips, however, from a local chef on the fine art of braising pork belly in an oven that crisped the skin to perfection while keeping the meat tender and moist.

Fellow Cuban-American Melissa Fernandez plates dishes before serving Cuban dignitaries. Photo: Nina Wolpow

Fellow Cuban-American Melissa Fernandez plates dishes before serving Cuban dignitaries. Photo: Nina Wolpow

She also discovered that pizza and pasta (local chefs made pasta from scratch at a cooking demonstration at a local cooking school) are becoming go-to foods in Havana, which intrigued the visiting chefs, known for cooking such dishes to critical acclaim in the Bay Area. “A lot of people have these little businesses now where they sell pizza out of a window in their homes,” explains Alvarez. “It’s not like it’s great pizza – it’s just doughy, oily bread with I don’t know what kind of cheese, and a smear of tomato sauce.” Still, such scenes — residents dispensing savory pies out of decaying colonial buildings — would have been unheard of even a few years ago. But as the New York Times notes in recent Cuba coverage: Havana’s growing pizza peddlers are one indication of the entrepreneurial spirit of a country long schooled in socialism and the state. These government-sanctioned edible entrepreneurs are viewed by some as a desperate move by the ruling party to kick start the country’s flagging economy. Could culinary endeavors be a pathway to prosperity for some Cubans?

It’s tough for Alvarez to consider such questions, since her family was doing well before the revolution. At the end of her trip, Alvarez added on a couple of days to visit with the few remaining relatives who never left the island. “I went to the family farm and that was just hugely emotional for me. I was sobbing. I got to see the daily struggles of every day life,” she says. “I had pictures with me about how it used to be; buildings that were once there are now just a pile of rubble. The old houses my family lived in were gone. There were just little wooden, thatched-roof shacks on the property.”

Alvarez is still processing her visit and how to make sense of it to her family in the States, none of whom have returned to the homeland in more than 40 years. And she wants to focus on the positive things she encountered in a country that bombards newcomers on the ride from the airport with billboards covered in socialist propaganda. True to country stereotype, two in the Chez Panisse crew who needed health care — Jerome Waag badly burned his hand behind the stove and Cosecha’s Dominica Rice endured an inexplicably swollen ankle — reported that they received excellent medical services, at the same hospital where Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was receiving cancer treatment.

Mostly, Alvarez was drawn to people’s enduring spirit in the face of adversity. “I’d be such a miserable person if I had to live there. Cubans just persevere and try so hard in difficult circumstance,” she says. “And still it’s hopeful. People feel change is coming, little by little. As bad as things are they love their country so much.” (Proving, perhaps, where one person sees a prison another sees paradise.) “One of the consultants on our tour who went to the University of Miami, as I did, has come back to Cuba and says there is nowhere else he would want to live,” says Alvarez, who adds: “I understand, it’s home.”

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About the Author ()

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers' market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies' Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.
  • Jeanine Barone

    I just returned from Cuba where I found
    the cuisine unremarkable for the most part. The exceptions was one
    paladar that I visited where the seafood was varied, fresh and
    flavorful, and the two times I was able to eat organic cuisine, one
    at a family-run farm and the other in Las Terrazas, the community
    that’s very much into sustainability.