Politics has no business getting in the way of good food, especially when it comes to fostering better cultural understanding, says Spanish-American celebrity chef, José Andrés.
Sucking on a Cuban cigar while surveying a daiquiri with an extra splash of aged 'añejo' rum at the bar of Havana’s famous La Guarida restaurant, he challenged the five decades-old embargo against the communist-run island.
“I think America as one is moving towards let’s put an end to this,” he told Univision during his first trip to Cuba last month.
Invited as part of the U.S. delegation to attend president Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island, Andrés used the opportunity to sample the offerings at Cuba’s new private restaurants - known as paladares - as well as exploring ideas for his own future venue.
“I come from Spain so Cuba is very much at the heart of my culture,” said Andrés who grew up in Asturias. “I want to learn more what is happening and if there is something businesswise I could be doing, then that would be great too,” he added.
Andrés likes to divide his time between high-end, big city projects and more grass roots projects, including a recent foray into the world of Haitian cuisine. He sees Cuba as potentially fertile terrain for his commitment to promoting culinary entrepreneurship.
“I am more interested in empowerment of people,” he said emphatically. “If I can share my failures and my successes and my expertise and it’s for enriching me, enriching them, it’s a win-win,” he said.
After enjoying huge success in the United States with restaurants in Washington, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Puerto Rico and Miami, he recently moved south of the border, opening a W Hotel restaurant, J by José Andrés in Mexico City.
He jumped at the opportunity to join Obama in Cuba – he serves as a Presidential Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization – hopeful that a recent thaw in U.S-Cuba relations could open Cuba’s closed communist system to more foreign investment.
“I want to be part of watching history. It’s like a Forest Gump moment in a very real, meaningful way,” he said.
Buoyed by Obama’s words of reconciliation in Cuba, Andrés was also encouraged by the relaxed mood he found on the streets of Havana, and the entrepreneurial spirit.
“The Cubans are very creative. I see it everywhere I go,” he said. “They serve better cocktails here than many European and New York cocktail bars."
A new American citizen himself, he was struck how little enmity Cubans have for Americans, despite a long history of mutual recriminations over political ideology and geopolitical hegemony.
“Let’s not say what is right and wrong over the last 50 years of history. Let’s look at what we can we be doing today or tomorrow,” he said, before draining another daiquiri and deciding to squeeze in a last paladar before heading home.
At Los Mercaderes, a paladar in a lovingly restored colonial building in Old Havana, he sampled some octopus and shrimp, washed down by - you guessed it - a daiquiri with a splash of 25-year-old Santiago añejo rum. "These are really good!" he exclaimed, examining the empty glass.
Andrés is no stranger to politics; in fact he has become a champion of what he calls “the power of food.”
That’s why he didn’t shy away from challenging Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump whom he took to task over his plans to build a wall along the Mexican border.
“Shouldn’t the money be spent on the betterment of people and on reaching the people on the other side,” he said. “There’s no wall that will ever stop people that are in pain and in hunger and in poverty from crossing any wall.”
Promoting tourism, not walls
He sees parallels in the U.S.-Cuba warming.
“If we don’t want hundreds of thousands of Cubans ending in the shores of Florida the best thing America can do is what President Obama is doing; find a way to create business for American companies in Cuba and to help Cuban companies,” he said.
“You want to take care of America, empower the people of Cuba. That’s a true national security move forward,” he added, noting that increased U.S. tourism to Cuba was a “smart and very fun way” to improve relations.
There is nothing like food to break down barriers, he believes, especially when accompanied by a good cigar and a rum-topped daiquiri.
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti he helped transform the country’s Culinary institute with new curriculum and teachers, hosting a TV documentary on Haitian cuisine for PBS and National Geographic , titled Undiscovered Haiti. He also built a bakery and a restaurant at local orphanages as models for financial innovation, and converted 100 schools from cooking with charcoal to as - drastically improving the health of more than 500 cooks.
In Cuba, Andrés delighted in visiting the kitchens and exchanging tips with chefs at every paladar he visited.
“He asked me to surprise him,” said Luis Salgado, 45, head chef at La Floridita, one of the top state-run restaurants in Havana, and a famous watering hole of American author Ernest Hemingway in his day. Salgado brought out some croquetas and garlic shrimp, though he confessed he hadn’t heard of Andrés.
“We don’t have much access to the Internet,” he lamented.
Andrés got creative one night when he cooked for independent blogger Yoani Sanchez and her team of journalists at 14yMedio. He picked up a few hard-to-find-ingredients en route - some cheese, olive oil and lobster - and cobbled together a sopa de avena with brie, chicken juice, and chicken soup powder, with a salpicón de langosta; pieces of lobster tail, barely poached with olive oil, chopped lettuce, and vinegar.
"Vamos a Cocinar"
Havana's paladares are all the rage with a current tourist boom after Cuba and the United States restrored diploamtic relations last year. The city's picturesque colonial streets of Old Havana are crowded with foreigners making reservations essential at the most most popular eating spots.
Andres caused a major sensation at Casa Pilar, an elegant paladar in the less frequented residential Miramar district. “He tried several plates and went straight to the kitchen to try out some ideas with my chefs,” said the owner, Pilar Fernández, 60. “It was a magical evening.”
Andrés left at 2am.
It was a special treat for Fernández, a Spanish businesswoman also from Asturias who came to Cuba 20 years ago to run a milk factory. The project failed – Cuban cows failed to produce enough milk - but she decided to stay and launched Casa Pilar in 2013.
“I grew up watching José Andrés on TV. He had a show Vamos a cocinar con José Andrés (Cooking with José Andrés), and he invited guests to cook with him while they chatted.”
Inspired, Fernández began to do the same thing, inviting friends over to cook together.
She believes the presence of chefs like José Andrés can inspire a new generation of chefs in Cuba. “There’s no culinary tradition here. My chefs don’t known anything about cooking, but they are very bright students," she said, explaining that Cuba has no culinary school and its tightly controlled state-run economy limits what products are available.
“I’d love to do a paladar, but not so much for the tourists, for local people. That's far away more exciting," said Andrés, who sensed that with all the changes in Cuba the lower middle class was likely to be left out.
As chairman of the non-profit foundation, World Central Kitchens, he created a team of volunteer chefs who seek to help cooks in developing countries such as Haiti. The foundation is planning to visit Cuba soon to look for projects.
As he jumped in a taxi, running dangerously late for his flight, he was still marveling at the Cuban talent in the kitchen and behind the bar.
"This place is on very solid ground," he said.
"I'll be back soon."