Meet the People Rescuing Cuban Cuisine
by Michael Ruhlman
Photography by Matt Hranek
October 9, 2017
Asori Soto pulls onto a dusty, deserted street and hits the brakes. We’re in the heart of Havana, but you wouldn’t know it from the bombed-out feel of the block and the piles of rubble strewn about the street. As Soto waves me into a courtyard littered with chunks of concrete, I see glimmers of the past: the ornate 12-foot-high doors, a vast foyer, and a gently curving marble staircase with a goddesslike statue at the foot of the banister whose head went missing sometime after the revolution of 1959. But we’ve come not for the nostalgia but for one of the finest meals in the country, which is served here, two flights up, at La Guarida, the not exactly clandestine restaurant that Enrique Nuñez del Valle opened in his boyhood home in 1996.
“Enrique is the godfather of the new paladares,” says Soto, the Havana-born producer-director of the forthcoming documentary Cuban Food Stories and an expert on the island’s cooking. Back when Nuñez del Valle opened one of the country’s first paladares, or privately owned restaurants, they’d just been legalized by the regime and were limited to 12 seats. Now, La Guarida (“the Animal Den”) has expanded to 100, with an elegant shaded patio that’s drawn the likes of Prince Albert II, Jack Nicholson, and Julian Schnabel—plus today’s young crowd in cool summer garb. After a lunch of lobster ceviche, roasted rabbit with caponata sauce, and pavé of suckling pig with crispy skin, Nuñez del Valle sits down with us for coffee and a selection of Montecristos and Cohibas. His own fat cigar in hand and a glass of Havana Club Selección de Maestros close by, the godfather settles into his chair but doesn’t want to take too much credit for what he’s started. “It’s the new generation that’s trying to do gastronomy differently,” he says in Spanish as Soto translates. “They’re doing a great job of rescuing Cuban cuisine.”
People will tell you there’s no food in Cuba. Or there are no traditions anymore; we lost all our traditions.
Even if you’ve never been here, you probably know that only 20 years ago the people on this island just 90 miles from Florida were starving. When the 37-year-old Soto was growing up, during the “special period” when resources vanished after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he and his parents, both government employees, lived on little more than bread, rice, and occasionally beans. Sometimes a meal was simply sugar water. “Cuba has the most complicated relationship with food,” Soto says. “People will tell you there’s no food in Cuba. Or there are no traditions anymore; we lost all our traditions”—of hearty lunches of Caribbean staples like roasted suckling pork or rich gumbos. As food became increasingly scarce, cooking techniques and recipes were forgotten. “And I thought, Even the absence of food is a story about food.”
But when he started work on the film two years ago, Soto discovered a new turn in Cuba’s culinary evolution: Young entrepreneurs have picked up the mantle from Nuñez del Valle to open dynamic, pulsating restaurants like O’Reilly 304 and Otramanera that serve lamb burgers and sous vide lobster and innovative takes on standards like pressed pork sandwiches. As the regime has loosened restrictions on private businesses, and as tourists come flooding in from around the world, Cuban cuisine is in the midst of a remarkable renaissance. The question is whether this ambitious new generation of restaurant rookies will chase gastronomic trendiness or help restore and reinterpret all that was lost—the kind of deeply satisfying simplicity that travelers are hungering for today.
To get a handle on Cuba’s culinary roots, Soto drives me deep into the countryside for an up-close look at where so much of the island’s food is harvested. In Viñales, the fertile Lost World–esque valley about 100 miles southwest of Havana, we visit José Luis “Pepe” Cano, a tall, lanky man with a narrow face and heavy eyebrows, whom Soto met by knocking on his door while researching his film here in 2015. Cano is primarily a tobacco farmer—he tends about 30,000 plants, enough for about 90,000 cigars a year—but he also grows avocados, black beans, coffee, corn, taro, rice, and yucca; he raises chickens, milking cows, and pigs too. It’s a typical arrangement in the country, a grow-it-all operation on a square kilometer of land he inherited from his father, who received most of it from the government after the revolution. “We may not have had soap or paper during the special period,” Cano says. “But we had the same food as we do now.” It just didn’t reach major cities, where Cubans wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway. The difference today is that some can—and that travelers are coming here to eat it, too.
Like thousands of others, Cano jumped at the chance to list his place on Airbnb, which started operating in Cuba in 2015, and which suddenly turned his relatively modest farm into an ecotourism destination, on the radar of people worldwide. (During my visit, a German-Australian couple happens to be staying in Cano’s $33-a-night one-bedroom cabin. “We love it,” they tell us before setting out on a hike, “though it’s very rustic.”) Cano also puts on epic lunch spreads, given enough notice through Airbnb, centered around a young pig rubbed with garlic and salt and roasted over a wood fire until the skin crackles. As Soto and I watch, Cano plops the cooked pig onto a wooden table and swiftly hacks the meat into hand-size pieces with a machete. His wife, who goes by “China,” then lays out a plastic tablecloth and platters of avocado, black beans, cucumber-and-tomato salad, rice, taro chips, and yucca. We eat overlooking the fields, the thatched tobacco-curing hutch, and chickens pecking at the dirt. It’s a fabulous country spread, made all the more remarkable in that Cano grew all of the food himself—and raised the pig. After our meal, we have coffee from beans he grew, lightened with milk he collected at 5 a.m. Cano then pulls out a white plastic bag filled with tobacco leaves he cultivated and cured, and he rolls us each a cigar. Considering the surroundings and the straight-from-the-field leaf, it rates as the best I’ve ever smoked.
Back in Havana, the distinctive blend of bongo and drum, trumpet and guitar of son cubano lofts over the streets, busy at nightfall with foot traffic and the occasional vintage taxi honking as it weaves through the crowd of pedestrians. Soto and I are headed to meet José Carlos Imperatori, a visual artist who, since 2014, has opened two of Cuba’s most trendsetting paladares, O’Reilly 304 and El Del Frente. At the latter, where we end up, the servers pressing through the packed room—carrying octopus and potato salad and fried head-on sierra, a mackerel-like fish—are likely to be fellow creatives. In contrast to the starving-artist stereotype in the U.S., working in restaurants here is a way forward, Soto and Imperatori say: A server at a paladar can make as much as 20 times what a surgeon on the government payroll pulls in.
After dinner, it’s sometime around 10 p.m., and the crowds on the streets have thinned. Families keep their narrow floor-to-ceiling doors open to the street, their living rooms and beds and kitchens on full view, as TVs and radios play and relatives gather around dinner tables, talking and smoking. We’re headed to a bar called Roma for a little more rum and what Soto calls a quintessential “new Cuba” experience. “We didn’t used to have this,” he says of the upstart might-be-Bushwick bar inside an apartment complex a block north of Calle Obispo, Old Havana’s main drag. “Years ago, when I left Cuba,” says Soto, who moved to New York when his diplomat father was posted to the UN in 1985, “there was almost no private business at all.” Now, post–special period and as the country continues to open up, “this is a new mentality in Cuba, and they’re learning by trial and error. They’re just creating out of pure imagination since they have almost no references to follow. These are the guys who will be the future of Cuba when everything changes completely.”
A barker lures us into the lobby, where an attendant opens his cage elevator and ferries us up to an open-air space with a long bar, a DJ in the back spinning EDM, and a tattooed crowd lining up for Cristal beer and mojitos. It feels like a surreptitious house party, which makes sense: The apartment’s owner, Alain Medina, once lived here, before converting it into a paladar that serves chef Edel Brache’s extraordinary pulled-pork sandwiches. Seasoned with mojo—a mix of cumin, dried herbs, garlic, and sour orange that Soto says is “the secret of Cuban cooking”—and grilled on a tiny panini press, they’re exquisite. They also tick a legal box, since government regulations require all paladares to serve food. If the one-item menu seems thin, the bathroom situation is even more spare: Medina made a deal with a neighbor down the hall who leaves his door open all night long for partyers who tip when they use the facilities. (When I walk in, the owner is in the kitchen cooking, and a woman in an easy chair doesn’t mind that I block her view of the TV as I pass through.) I ask Medina if his neighbors ever complain about the noise and the crowds, which often stay until three in the morning. “No, they all love my mom,” he says. “And they know me.” Soto leans in: “Also, he employs like half the people in the building.”
We don’t quite make it to 3 a.m., but as we stroll back through the narrow streets to the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, which opened in June in an Italianate building, the music still drifts over from Obispo. “There’s now hope for the future,” Soto says, despite the Trump administration’s recent moves that could make travel to Cuba more difficult for Americans. “Tourists are flooding in. They think they’re experiencing Cuba before it changes. But the reality is, they’re part of the exciting change.”
Wait, Is It Legal to Go?
In June, the Trump administration directed the Department of the Treasury to revise its rules on travel to Cuba. As of press time, the only major change to the Obama-era status quo is that you can no longer go on your own. Until new regulations are set, Americans can still legally visit on a “people-to-people” itinerary from an established operator like Classic Journeys, GeoEx, or InsightCuba; all three include stops at new-wave paladares on their trips.
Book These Tables
Have your hotel call ahead to reserve, since restaurants are small and tend to fill up. La Guarida is an elegant classic, with a patio that’s perfect if it’s not too hot. El Del Frente does whole fish, excellent sausages, and lamb burgers; its ornate gin and tonics are a welcome alternative to the usual rum-or-beer options. Across the street, O’Reilly 304 has marlin tacos, ceviche made with whatever’s fresh, and live music. Otramanera does elegant seafood in a clean-lined, could-be-Copenhagen dining room.
For a Nightcap
Roma is probably Havana’s coolest bar, with excellent Cuba libres and thumping EDM; you’ll find more rum drinks at old-school La Lluvia de Oro, three blocks away. El Cocinero is the paladar at La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a nightclub, gallery, and performance space in a sprawling former cooking-oil factory, where the drinks flow until 3 a.m.
Good to Know
U.S. credit cards don’t work, so bring more cash than you think you’ll need; you can change money at banks and hotels. Agree to taxi or pedicab fares before you hop in. Internet access is spotty, but you can usually get online in hotel lobbies.