The path of a professional is always in constant movement, especially if the goals are just small steps that you set for yourself, and when you achieve them you take a deep breath and say, “And now, what’s next?”
I believe my case is very similar to the man who invented the wheel over 5,000 years ago and was not satisfied with using it only as a pottery tool, but then thought of adding an axle for it to be pulled by animals. And thus, from generation to generation, the human being thought it would be better to add some kind of accessory that would help the wheel –or the combination of 4 wheels- to give him the possibility of roaming the world on his own.
I am Cuban. Since childhood my great passion was cooking, and so I set my own goals to become a chef. How to accomplish them was a long, hard road, with its failures and successes, and I will never forget the people who helped me on such an arduous path. I remember when my mother, who so strongly desired my dream to come true, encouraged me not to give up and always drew the strength from me to keep fighting towards what I wanted. Even now during the times when I need more determination and ideas, I feel her encouragement giving me strength.
After 18 long years when everything seemed to be accomplished and when I had achieved almost all my goals – Executive Chef of a prestigious restaurant in my country and owner and creator of another restaurant after years of studying about Cuba and its culinary culture – I was faced with uncertainty. Would this be enough for me? Should I settle with what I had achieved? In my case, this is something deep down inside me, strongly rooted in my genes.
I wanted to know Cuban food from other perspectives, see how they regard and interpret it in other places, what is their notion of Cuba in terms of food, flavors and combinations of dishes. That is why I decided to come to Philadelphia, a city with a wide variety of restaurants with many types of food and where Cuba Libre is located, and where my new professional experience started.
My first week coincided with the city’s “restaurant week”. Working in the elaboration of sauces, food bases and garnishes was an amazing experience, very different to what we do in Cuba, especially with the amount of preparations based on the number of clients; but it was more amazing to see how many typical recipes of my country are recreated in such a distant city and how many people want to experience the taste of Cuba in these latitudes.
Obviously, some ways of preparing them are adapted to the American taste and the idea they have about typical Cuban flavors. Many recipes include a combination of ingredients not typical from Cuba, although they mix well and complement the final dish. But something so characteristic of Cuba like white rice and black beans remains very Cuban. When I taste them, I feel as if the flavors take me back to my childhood and to that smell emerging from my home kitchen when my mother softened the black beans in a pressure cooker with a whole green pepper and two bay leaves.
It has been equally impressive to witness the fame and acceptance of “arroz con pollo” (yellow rice with chicken), one of the things I made during the first week. In Cuba, rice with chicken once became a Sunday meal, when family got together: rice with chicken and “platanos maduros” (fried ripe sweet plantains). Although here like in Florida they call them “maduros”, we Cubans always use the full name: platanos maduros.
There were different ways to prepare rice with chicken according to the preference of the families and depending on the area, but it was always called “arroz con pollo a la chorrera” (dripping yellow rice and chicken), which was not complete without pouring over it one or two beers at the end to give it a special and unique flavor.
The restaurant room is equally impressive for me, coming from Cuba. The decoration makes you feel as if you were in Old Havana, with its narrow streets and balconies and the neighbors peeking out and enjoying the weather. Cuba Libre’s ambiance makes me feel in my country – the smell of the seasonings, the Spanish name of the dishes. Every time I go for a walk in Philadelphia on my way to work, I get this wonderful feeling as if I had arrived on foot to Havana. That has been Cuba Libre for me on my first stay here.
((Check back here next week for Angel's second blog, featuring the culinary history of empanadas in Cuba and how Cuba Libre brings back Angel's "culinary childhood memories"))