If the technology allowed it, you would be not just reading these words but smelling the aromas, tasting the flavors and feeling the human warmth that accompanied the Havana Culinary Exchange that recently took place in the Cuban capital.
A group of U.S. chefs traveled to the island for the Sept. 24-30 event, the idea of Cuban American chef Douglas Rodríguez, to look into the mysteries of Cuban cooking and reveal some of their own secrets.
“The reason for an event like this is to unite, to share,” said Rodríguez. “Cubans find new ingredients, new ways of cooking and developing recipes. At the same time, the U.S. chefs can learn how to do more with less, how to develop the imagination.”
“Look, yesterday we had no onions. Can you imagine? But we did what we could with what we had on hand, and it came out OK. That’s exactly the idea,” said the Miami chef. “I am satisfied because everyone learned a lot. The Americans learned how to make sofri to without onions.”
The Americans learned how to make sofrito without onions.
Douglas Rodríguez, Miami chef
Diversity was one of the pillars of the event. Tapas, sangria and flamenco kicked off the Exchange. A Sunday brunch featured a Charanga Champagne to cushion the impact of Cuba’s blinding morning sun.
Several feet below the street level, after a labyrinthine stairway, the kitchen of the Parque Central Hotel held the real magic of the event, its participants, between its ovens, griddles and shelves.
Brad Kilgore, who turns an octopus dish into a marvel, and his wife said they were surprised by the potentials of the Cuban chefs, who can be very imaginative and achieve good results, even when there’s little to be had. For chef John Mooney, the visit and the chance to cook in Cuba were ways to get to know other cultures.
Those kinds of discoveries are precisely what Rodríguez wanted.
“I have traveled to all the islands in the Caribbean, and I can tell you that Cuban cuisine is stronger than in all those countries — more classic dishes, better raw materials and above all tremendous variety. If there’s a shortage, they manage. Cuban chefs want to learn, they want to understand how to do other things,” he added.
The gathering was based at the Iberostar Parque Central hotel, and the organizers said the chain offered strong support, along with the Amistur tourism agency on the Cuban side. The U.S. side was backed by Global Events and Incentives and the Invicta Group Service.
The rest of the events took place in different culinary spots.
Monday night saw the Swine and Wine event, where each chef had to make a dish with pork, and Wednesday was traditional island fare with Noche Buena Cubana.Thursday was a wine tasting, and the final Tacos and Tequila Night invaded Mexican lands.
Rodríguez was busy throughout the event, from introducing a refreshing drink to explaining a recipe.
Cuba is a mojito. That's how refreshing Cuba is.
Douglas Rodríguez, Miami chef
“Cuba is a mojito. That’s how refreshing Cuba is. In the kitchen, the flavors of Cuba were oregano and cumin, cachucha peppers and sofrito,” he said.
However, there is another world beyond the essential information outlined here. To summarize what happened at a single event, here is a mini collage of sensations and moments.
There’s Kilgore and his magic touch with squid. His wife Soraya and her amazement with Cuban chef ingenuity. And the smiling Matz, who traveled to Havana in search of his roots and stories from an island his parents left behind; and who collected countless astonishments to take back home.
“When I got off the plane at the aiport and I stepped on Cuban soil, honestly, I started to cry,” said the Miami chef. “I was thinking that was the last thing that my parents saw before leaving 55 years ago.
“I came here to get to know the chefs, to contribute at the event with Douglas,” Matz said. “He has come here many times and I’ve always wanted to come with him but it wasn’t possible. So this time I said: No matter what is happening, I’m going.”
Chefs like to say that when it’s time to create in the kitchen they need above all their hands and their hearts. Maybe that’s why Rodríguez prefers to answer questions with so few words. For him, his best reply is the flavor in his food.
“I have to say that I cannot complain about anything. We’ve been treated stupendously. We’re all very happy,” said Rodríguez. “What I do want is for more Cubans in Cuba to learn about this event, that more Cubans can come to the event and enjoy it like the North Americans. So we’ll see you in Havana.”
The bylines for this story, fotos and video are pseudonyms.
Stay connected: Sign up for our Newsletter