A California chef experiences the
island nation’s changing food scene
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX
For most Americans, Cuba is the forbidden fruit of vacation destinations, one of the few countries we are banned from visiting even though its sandy beaches lie merely 100 miles away from Key West, Fla. While it is still illegal for Americans to visit Cuba strictly for tourism, the rules are quickly changing. American investors are waiting for the moment the embargo is lifted and trade can resume with the island. There is no doubt that when that day comes, so will a flood of international corporations eager to plant their flags in Cuban soil.
Earlier this year I decided to throw caution to the wind and visit Havana now, with a group of fellow chefs and sommeliers, before things change too much.
“Panadero!” “Panadero!” The melodic cry echoes through the decaying streets of Old Havana like a pre-dawn call to prayer. A rusted metal cart creaks as it pushes past potholes and piles of debris that have fallen from buildings during the night. Slowly, doors open and people emerge onto stoops and balconies. An elderly woman on the third floor lowers a cloth bag so the man pushing the cart can drop in a couple of freshly baked rolls.
Cuba isn’t known for its food, but its dining scene is rapidly evolving. First, you need to understand that there are two types of restaurants in Cuba, paladares (privately run restaurants) and state-run restaurants. Private restaurants have always existed to some degree, but at the time of the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, it was illegal to officially operate any form of private restaurant. In 1993, when the Cuban government instituted various financial reforms, it became possible for private individuals to run restaurants so long as they followed strict rules on the type of food served, number of seats and people they employed. In 2010, under Raul Castro, many of the restrictions on paladares were lifted, setting the foundation for a restaurant renaissance across Havana.
Imagine a city where anyone can open a restaurant anywhere they want, be it a penthouse on the top floor of an apartment building, an abandoned sugar refinery or a beachfront mansion. Think of it as hundreds of pop-up dinners happening across the city every night. This is the chaos and beauty of Havana’s current restaurant culture.
On our first night in Havana we went to the Magic Flute, an unmarked jazz club and restaurant in an apartment building by the American Embassy, a block off of the Malecón, a 5-mile esplanade that runs along the ocean. The small room, which couldn’t have seated more than 60, was packed with locals. We had been told that the music and nightlife in Cuba ran notoriously late, so we were surprised to see that the band appeared to be breaking down as we walked in at 11:30pm.
As we sat drinking our mojitos and discussing where to go next, we realized that they were just setting up! We stayed for well over an hour before the first set even began. Three hours later, as we left the club, several groups of people continued to sit on the seawall that runs the length of the Malecón, talking, drinking and sometimes dancing in the sea spray.
The next few days were a blur. We spent our mornings exploring the streets of Havana, fueled by shots of dark Cuban espresso. We walked the crumbling sidewalks until our feet were sore and our necks were burned by the intense Caribbean sun. When we couldn’t walk any further, we stopped and waited for a taxi. In Havana practically every car on the road is for hire, whether or not it displays a sign. We waited until we saw a car that looked interesting and then tried to hail it. The cars, mostly large American sedans from the ’40s and ’50s, ranged from Concours d’Elegance-ready convertibles to taped-together jalopies with springs sticking out from the seats and exhaust billowing in from holes in the floorboards. The drivers often matched the better cars—good-looking Cuban men with short-cropped hair and tightly fitted dress shirts. Frequently they would have a friend or girlfriend along, seated next to them on the front bench seat, to cruise the town, listen to music and pick up rides.
At night we visited paladares. From the stately Mansion in Vedado that housed Starbien to the sleek, contemporary European design of Otramanera, we made our way through Havana’s newest and most acclaimed restaurants. The venues themselves were stunning, but the menus left me wanting something more. I imagine that the food is not unlike what you might have found in Carmel-by-the-Sea during the 1990s, a melting pot of European flavors with little emphasis on local heritage or ingredients. Sure there was the occasional ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban beef and vegetable stew, but for the most part, restaurants featured a mix of international classics such as Caesar salads, antipastos and paellas. Despite having been warned by a few locals how exorbitantly expensive the paladares were, we found our dinners to be quite reasonable, around $20 per person for food and a couple of drinks.
One night, after visiting a couple of paladares, my friend and I decided to visit the Casa de la Música in Central Havana. It was quarter to midnight and our taxi let us out a block away from the entrance. As we walked toward the glowing billboard, a group of women quickly surrounded us, grabbing our arms and pulling us in their direction.
They purred and looked at us from behind rings of dark mascara, making uncouth propositions on how we could spend our night. We quickly put our hands deep in our pockets and fled until we were once again in the dark, quiet streets of Old Havana.
The culinary highlight of our time in Cuba was a trip outside of Havana, to Viñales. This verdant valley bordered by steep rocky cliffs is home to many tobacco plantations and other forms of agriculture. Our first stop was Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso, a working farm and restaurant just outside the town of Viñales. Everything on the restaurant’s menu, from the herbs and vegetables to the chicken and beef, came either from the farm or its neighbors. We were seated on the porch with an incredible view of the valley. The lunch was served family style, a progression of simple dishes showcasing the bounty of the land. It was a perfect meal. From the simple salad and roasted root vegetables to the white bean broth and braised pork, everything was well seasoned and delicious! The freshness and abundance of ingredients were a stark contrast to the seemingly sparse pantries of Old Havana. After lunch we decided to go on a horseback ride through the valley.
Much to our dismay, after negotiating a 2-hour ride, our horses emerged from the stables looking old and gaunt. Our guide, a weathered Cuban cowboy, led us down a steep dirt path toward a secadero, or traditional tobacco-drying barn. As we made our way down the treacherous slope. the horse in front of me occasionally lost its footing, sliding a few feet further down the ravine. The lead horse chose the path and picked the pace, with our guide taking up the rear, where he occasionally yelled “Caballoo-OO” while grinding his boots into the side of his horse and pushing the group along its way. When we reached the plantation the farmer was outside and offered us a look at the drying tobacco leaves. Each year, during harvest, a government inspector visits the farm and takes 90% of the leaves for “official” Cuban cigar brands. The remaining 10% are left to the farmer to sell or make into his own cigars. Unlike the large state brands that use nicotine and other chemicals to speed up the processing of the leaves, the farm uses a more natural method, soaking the leaves with rum, honey and wild guava before fermenting and aging the leaves for up to a year. The resulting cigars are beautiful, with a pleasant aroma and smooth flavor.
As we made our way deeper into the valley, we saw two massive white oxen pulling a plough through chunks of red clay, like a vivid look back in time. Tractors and gasoline are both challenging to find in Cuba, and in recent years the government has promoted the use of oxen on farms. Almost all of the agriculture in Viñales relies solely on people and oxen, with very little pesticides or machinery to contaminate the soil.
We passed freshwater lagoons and papaya orchards. We saw old bristled sows on short chains that dug into their necks, watching their piglets run and splash in the mud. Our guide stopped to pluck a native seedpod used as dye, crushing it between his callused fingers until they glowed orange like tiny traffic cones. We rode our sad and weary steeds until the sun began to set and our guide led us home.
Back in Old Havana my friend and I had become bored with the predictability of the paladares and the large groups of tourists who frequented them. We lucked into meeting a young taxi driver who agreed to give us our change in CUPs (Cuban pesos). Up until that point we had been using CUCs (convertible Cuban pesos), which are commonly used by tourists and wealthy Cubans. The CUCs are worth roughly 25 times more than the CUPs.
We took our stack of newly acquired CUPs and hit the streets of Old Havana in search of authentic Cuban food. As we made our way deeper into the city, the streets narrowed and became more decayed. People greeted us, and we responded in broken kitchen Spanish, a dialect that left them confused and prompted them to ask if we were from Paraguay or Argentina. It seems that groups of Americans tend to stay sequestered in designated tourist areas, and the deeper into the city we went, the more exotic we became.
We stopped at a window with a handwritten sign and ordered two Cuban coffees and a torta. The coffee, dark and viscous with a cloyingly sweet finish, was pumped directly out of a tall black air pot into two tiny paper cups. The torta was a state-issued roll with a sheet of egg on top. We paid 15 CUPs and went on our way.
As we walked with our tiny cups of sweet Cuban coffee and half torta, it hit us—we had only paid 60 cents for breakfast! Perhaps this is unsurprising when you consider that the average wage in Cuba is less than $30 per month, but up until that point, we had no concept of the disparity between the two currencies. All of a sudden we realized that we were each carrying the equivalent of two years’ salary for the average Cuban. It was a fact that hit us hard, making us think back to the prostitutes outside the Casa de la Música and almost feeling guilty that despite this gross inequality, we could walk through any part of the city like kings, without any concern of being robbed or kidnapped.
The following morning we traversed the crumbling streets and happened upon a thriving neighborhood market. I walked in and began taking pictures of local produce. Within a few seconds an old man with a white beard approached me, wagging his right finger in disapproval and motioning for me to put my camera away. I complied and finished the small market loop without taking any pictures. I’m not sure why he didn’t want me taking pictures—perhaps it was to hide the empty shelves, or perhaps it was because of the live chickens and roosters being pulled from their cages.
That night we went to the F.A.C.—Fábrica de Arte Cubana. This sprawling warehouse, which was originally home to Cuba’ electric company and later an olive oil factory, has been converted into a chic nightclub and art venue. Multiple floors display a variety of live entertainment and visual art combined with bars and concession stands. The result is a massive complex that ranges in ambience from rhythm and blues music and contemporary photography to silent films and jazz. By 10pm a large line usually forms outside, and it’s not uncommon for more than 3,000 people to visit on any given night.
By the fifth day the city was beginning to wear on us. The night air in Old Havana was so thick with cigar smoke and diesel fumes that it coated our teeth while we slept. Stray cats came out around midnight, slinking under metal gates and rooting through piles of garbage.
A seemingly endless construction project had carved deep scars of excavated sewer lines across the city, leaving treacherous trenches everywhere we looked. Yet despite the general state of decay and seeming lack of resources, everyone we met seemed relatively happy.
One hour of Internet at a local hotel would cost the equivalent of one week’s pay so it’s no wonder that average young Cubans are not going online to check Facebook and see what their friends ate for lunch, or sifting through an inbox of email solicitations or searching for the newest spring fashions.
There is no doubt that the fog of secrecy is steadily lifting from the island, but for now, Havana’s youths are enjoying more simple entertainment, like cruising the city in their vintage cars, stopping for delicious plates of ropa veija or sweet espresso, and dancing in the mist on the Malecón.
John Cox is the former executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar in Big Sur. A prolific contributor to Edible Monterey Bay, he is on sabbatical, traveling, writing, photographing and gathering inspiration for his next project.