LATIN AMERICA

The Cuban chefs helping defrost relations with the US

Four entrepreneurs are in Miami to share their knowledge and learn management skills

Cuban chef Yamilet Magariño in Miami.
Cuban chef Yamilet Magariño in Miami.l. b.

The date August 14, 2015 will soon enter the history books. That is when United States Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Havana to reopen the US embassy that closed there 54 years ago. The event will be another important step in normalizing diplomatic relations between these neighbors who regarded each other with mistrust for over half a century.

That is the big story. But getting there required many small stories to help smooth things over, initiatives that paved the way for this historic reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba to proceed without major problems.

Calvo says he feels less good “about the amount of stuff thrown into the trash” in US restaurants

One of these initiatives is taking place this week in Miami, Florida, home to the largest community of Cuban exiles in the US. Four Cuban chefs who have started small businesses on the island will be in the city until Friday to share their experiences, recipes and knowledge with Cuban chefs working in the United States.

The four business owners will take advantage of the small window of time the Raúl Castro administration has allotted for this private event to learn. They will work in various Miami restaurants from Monday to Friday to observe how they function, prepare menus and are managed. On Wednesday, Michael Alejandro Calvo will be working at Área 31, housed in one of Miami’s most renowned hotels, the EPIC.

“Vision is important,” he says. “I am seeing how they manage the numbers to make sure they are profitable. Small business owners think it’s about opening up, putting out tables and food, but if it’s not well-managed, you go bankrupt,” says the 37-year-old cook who manages the Atelier restaurant in Cuba.

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Standing next to him is Steve Acosta, an American born of a Cuban father and a Costa Rican mother. Acosta reckons he can smell a real chef who is willing to put in hours and hours in the kitchen to learn and get better. And Calvo is one of those. The sheer amount of raw material available to him in Florida is what has most caught his attention. “We miss that in Cuba,” he says. But he feels less good “about the amount of stuff thrown into the trash” in American restaurants.

“The truth is we do not appreciate what we have,” admits Acosta.

Yamilet Magariño, a chef whose specializes in making delicious desserts, says she, too, lacks raw materials and the ability to buy in bulk back home. But she refuses to give up. Instead, she recommends using imagination, experimenting with new flavors and produce found on the island.

“We lack many products but we have many local products, too,” she says. “There are interesting fruits such as guava, which is used to make spirits, as well as tetí [a small fish found in some of the waters around Cuba] that are not as appreciated as they should be. Or the flowers to make creams.”

The 36-year-old chef will work at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar this Wednesday. Back home in Cuba, she and two other people create desserts in the small hours of the morning and then, at dawn, begin to deliver to their restaurant clients.

We lack many products but we have many local products that are not as appreciated as they should be” Chef Yamilet Magariño

“My fellow chefs do not agree with me,” she says. “I create with what I have, I combine. Desserts are very complicated. They are the finishing touches to a meal and you have to be clever to make them combine well with the menu.”

Chefs Calvo, Magariño, Gilberto Smith and Luis Alberto Alfonso Pérez have come to Miami thanks to an initiative sponsored by the Cuba Study Group, an organization that works to encourage reconciliation among Cubans, no matter where they live, and seeks to make peaceful changes toward democracy on the island. This is the third trip the organization has sponsored to bring Cuban entrepreneurs from the island to the United States to learn the basics of good business management. According to the group, the Cuban government has approved half a million licenses for new business and there are already a million people working in this nascent private sector.

Magariño underscores the impact the initiative has had in breaking down barriers, adding that her Cuban colleagues have asked her to teach them “the tricks” she is learning in Miami when she returns. She will go back feeling happy with the experience she has had and feeling “respected” for her work. There are “many talented chefs” with a future in Cuba, she says. “We have to join together not just in the kitchen, but as a people.”

Translation by Dyane Jean Francois.

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