Wednesday, July 13, 2016

He’s bringing fine dining to Cuba, without apologies

He's bringing fine dining to Cuba, without apologies

Chef Doug Rodriguez will take 10 U.S. chefs to cook side-by-side with
Cuban chefs as part of a cultural exchange
Rodriguez innovated Cuban fusion in South Florida
Up to 200 tickets will be sold for the eight-day trip at nearly $5,000 each

When Doug Rodriguez mentions to his father that he's planning another
visit to Cuba — the country his parents fled as children in the late
1950s, never to return — his father bristles.

"I hope this is the last time you go," his father snapped as Rodriguez
planned his last trip, his 13th since 2013. "I don't know why you go back."

This year alone, Rodriguez has been there six times. Cuba has become a
compulsion for the man who defined Neuvo Latino cuisine in Miami.

Rodriguez was one of Miami's original Mango Gang, a generation of chefs
who elevated South Florida's dining scene in the late 1980s and early
1990s. His specialty was transforming Cuban comfort food into art (pork
liver terrine with candied grapefruit on Cuban bread; papaya-mustard salsa).

But he was creating from borrowed memories.

Born in New York, raised in Miami, the James Beard Award-winning chef
has learned about Cuban food from the diaspora. At his landmark
restaurants in South Florida and beyond (the original Yuca, OLA, De
Rodriguez on Ocean Drive and Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia, the only one
still open), he reimagined what Cuban food could be — all without having
visited the island.

To understand Cuba, he had to go himself.

"And it changed my life," Rodriguez said. "It changed the way I thought
about taking things for granted."

He's going again the last week of September. And this time, he's not
going alone.

Ten chefs, including "Top Chef's" Kevin Sbraga and Mike Isabella along
with some of Miami's foremost innovators, Alter's Brad Kilgore and
Bodega Taqueria's Bernie Matz, will travel with Rodriguez to cook
alongside several Cuban chefs he has befriended on his visits as part of
an eight-day cultural exchange.

He's bringing along a group of up to 200 visitors, each paying at least
$5,000 to experience what Rodriguez is calling the Havana Culinary Exchange.

Some, particularly in Miami, will hate him for it. Rodriguez knows this.
Some already do.

He has lost friends because of his past visits. Family functions for
baptisms and graduations become a minefield. He has been criticized as
exploiting a Cuba where high food prices and grocery store shortages
make eating at restaurants a pipe dream for all but tourists.

His motivation, he said, is the chance to bring glimmers of the outside
world to Cuban men and women who are as passionate about cooking as he
is and desperate to develop their talents.

"I don't have any political views. I feel these are people that are
Cubans, just like us, and they deserve more," Rodriguez said.

When he traveled to Cuba in 2013, a last-minute decision when someone
leading a cultural exchanged dropped out at the last minute, he arrived
at this hotel to find 10 messages awaiting him.

They were from local farmers, chefs, independent paladar restaurant
owners and students. He came downstairs his first day to find three
culinary students waiting for him with photographed copies of his
21-year-old cookbook, "Nuevo Latino," for him to sign.

"I got goose bumps. I can't even explain that emotion," he said, "But I
had to go back and had to go back and had to go back. ..."

He started leading trips, each time traveling like a mulo, a mule, with
duffel bags loaded with everything from cooking utensils to canned food
and spices for chefs who make do with a dozen ingredients. This time,
he's bringing one a meat grinder.

As he made more friends on the island, he made more enemies at home.

"People came at me," he said. "Friends stopped coming to my house."

He wondered whether it was worth it. And then, on one trip, he handed a
simple silicone baking sheet ($15 at Bed, Bath & Beyond) to a
middle-aged Cuban pastry chef.

"She's hugging these Silpats and tears are coming out of her eyes,"
Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has seen first hand what the Cuban chefs have to deal with in
an average workday.

He started hand-making coconut milk with a Cuban chef when it turned out
they couldn't find any the morning of a dinner, only to have the gas
shut off in the middle of lunch service. It came back unexpectedly,
burning the pots of coconut milk they had on the burners.

Then he watched as the Cuban chef adapted Rodriguez's recipe using
vanilla ice cream base and coconut rum to create the marinade for a
ceviche that became the talk of other local chefs.

"Every time I go to Cuba, I learn to do more with less," Rodriguez said.

Just as relations between Cuba and the United States are evolving, so
are decades of thinking.

Matz, whose parents fled Cuba in the early 1960s after losing the family
shirt-making businesses, said he never considered returning until his
father passed away.

"If my dad was alive? I just don't know," said Matz, who first hired
Rodriguez at Miami Beach's Wet Paint Cafe in the late 1980s. "I was one
of the old-school Cubans who didn't want to have anything to do with
Cuba, to legitimize anything about it."

Then he met several Cuban chefs Rodriguez helped bring to Miami last
year. Matz even placed them at his restaurants, Bodega and Red Ginger,
for a couple of days and realized how, like the rest of the island,
their knowledge was stunted.

"They were decades behind in food culture," said Matz, whose parents
came to Miami when his mother was 6 months pregnant with him.

Matz, though apprehensive, agreed to be among Rodriguez's chefs in the
upcoming exchange.

"It's the fear of the unknown," Matz said.

Kilgore had seen a cloistered Cuba up close.

He went along last year on another controversial trip, led by chefs
Jamie DeRosa (Izzy's Fish & Oyster) and Todd Erickson (Haven, Huahuas),
and cooked a meal using fresh swordfish despite a dearth of ingredients.

And then it struck him as surreal when he looked out onto the water and
saw an ocean without fishing boats — because Cuban nationals aren't
allowed on boats without special permission, he learned first hand.

"It dawned on me I hadn't seen a boat in days," Kilgore said. "That's
when you realize you're on an island prison, like Alcatraz."

Rodriguez wants to continue doing his part to push the two countries
closer. He wants to be one of the first Americans to open a restaurant
in Cuba if or when it becomes legal.

Whatever his critics say, Rodriguez is undeterred.

"It's something that I need to do," he said. "I feel I can be useful there."

Source: He's bringing fine dining to Cuba, without apologies | Miami
Herald -

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