Gourmet chefs from
Peter Orsi, Associated Press
But a delegation of chefs from Alice Waters' celebrated Chez Panisse
restaurant in Berkeley, California, is in Havana on a mission to spark
a revolution in the Cuban diet by exposing islanders to healthier
dishes with more fruits and vegetables, preferably grown organically
and sustainably by local food cooperatives.
In the last week, members of the "Planting Seeds" delegation
have held give-and-take seminars in
Luis Ramon Batlle, for one, has seen plenty of guava during his long
cooking career, but never thought to combine it with rabbit-liver pate
atop a crispy wafer.
After tasting the savory-sweet appetizer at the Chansonnier dinner, he's
considering adding it to the menu at his own privately run restaurant
which opened last year in
"The cracker is practically neutral. The pate gives you all the
classic flavor of liver, a little acidic. But at the end you sense the
guava as a very subtle, very delicate touch," said Batlle, who is
head chef at Divino in
"Planting Seeds" participants acknowledged that this trip was
geared toward interactions with high-end chefs, whose clientele is
mostly foreigners and more affluent Cubans.
But they said it's just a first step. They hope that Cuban chefs newly
inspired to go fresh will inspire imitators, starting a trickle-down
effect that over the long term will reach into private homes.
At Chez Panisse, the chefs only decide at the last minute what to serve,
based on what's available and fresh. Their advice to Cuban cooks who
struggle with unreliable supply of even basics such as eggs and
potatoes: Be flexible, and don't worry too much about maintaining a
"Walk around the farm. Get a feel for all the vegetables and start
using your imagination about how you can make those vegetables taste
like what they are," said Jerome Waag, head chef at Chez Panisse,
crackling a chard-like leafy green with his fingers for emphasis.
"That's what we do in
And a new generation of privately run restaurants known as
"paladars" has breathed life into
But there are obstacles to the Chez Panisse ethos of fresh-is-best.
At the same farmers' market that enamored the chefs on the outskirts of
Two buyers said the quality was great but they can only afford to shop
there once or twice a month. Prices that astonish an outsider — $1
gets you a small bag of produce, enough for a couple of meals — are
steep for Cubans who earn about $20 a month on average.
Even getting to a produce market can be tough because most Cubans don't
own a car and public transportation is spotty. Supply is heavily
dependent on the season.
"The only option in the summer is to work with what little there is,
like eggplant. There are no carrots," said Laura Fernandez
Cordoba, a partner at Le Chansonnier. "The options are very
Raul Castro has moved to expand private and cooperative agriculture,
lease out fallow state land and facilitate direct sales to state- and
private-run eateries. The government has also promoted "green
belts" around major cities to help reduce the distance food must
travel in a country where delays and inefficiency sometimes cause food
to rot before it reaches consumers.
Even so, meat is often frozen, thawed and refrozen while still in the
Other, cultural factors would seem to make the Chez Panisse model a tough
Restaurants here typically overcook vegetables until they are mushy, even
for salads. Many Cubans who are able to cobble together hard currency
opt for processed foods in supermarkets like canned vegetables, dried
mashed potatoes or jarred spaghetti sauce. And a common household
cost-cutting practice is to reuse cooking grease again and again,
until each meal is infused with the same underlying taste and odor.
It all adds up to cement
"A lot of the food that I've seen (here) seems like it's very cooked
... we lose sort of the freshness of it," Waag said. "We
lose sort of all the energy."
The Chez chefs threw a spontaneous end-of-trip party Monday and, in a
departure from catering to
Working from a front-porch stand borrowed for the night, they handed out
barbecued cumin-, turmeric- and lime-marinated chicken drumsticks and
yogurt-batter onion rings for free to the neighbors.
It was a far cry from what's usually on offer at the stand: oil-soaked
dough-fritter cholesterol bombs that can be snapped up for pennies
"We are trying to make the idea of nutrition a little more
flexible," said Batlle, the chef at Divino, "so people
understand it a little more."
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