Restaurant News & Reviews

Miami chefs divided over culinary trips to Cuba

Tempers flared among Miami chefs this weekend over upcoming chef-led culinary tours to Cuba.

Food professionals with ties to the island nation took to Facebook to express their irritation with excursions intended to introduce American tourists to Cuba’s cuisine and culture.

“Planning culinary trips to a country where people are fleeing because they have a hard time having a square meal is a joke,” Alberto Cabrera, chef-owner of the new Little Bread in Little Havana, posted Saturday night on his Facebook page. “Maybe it’s about being edgy and staying relevant. Whatever the f--- it is, it’s insulting.”

Others piled on in comments to Cabrera’s post:

“I will not support anything that puts more money in the hands of leaders that do not lead and do not support the people of the country,” wrote Michael Beltran, sous chef of The Cypress Room in Miami. “It’s a bit mind-boggling to do a culinary trip to a country that my family sends dry milk and can food to every month.”

Another veteran Miami chef, Sean Bernal, called the culinary journey a publicity stunt “at the expense of our heritage and history.”

Culinary-focused trips — among other travel tourism — by Americans to Cuba are expected to increase in frequency and popularity as the two countries restore diplomatic relations, an effort President Barack Obama announced last month.

The chefs’ social media remarks were aimed at a recently announced series of food tours through Cuba travel provider Cultural Contrast and led by Miami chefs Jamie DeRosa (Tongue & Cheek) in May, Todd Erickson (Haven, HuaHua’s) in June and Brad Kilgore (Alter) in July. The six-day, all-inclusive Culinary Cuba! trips will lead small groups of food tourists to restaurants, markets and farms in Havana and beyond. A follow-up journey planned for September will include all three chefs.

DeRosa defended his participation in the upcoming excursions, saying his motivation is cultural, not political.

“These trips, organized by a legitimate travel and tourism group, not only provide outlook into the modern-day Cuba lifestyle but provide a history lesson through agriculture, farming, tobacco ...,” DeRosa wrote in response to Cabrera’s post. “Why wouldn’t you want Americans (or other travelers) to not only experience your homeland, understand it, be aware of both the history and lifestyle of the Cubans, and to pour money into an economy that desperately needs it? This is how democracy begins ... awareness has to start somewhere. Why not with food and travel.”

In a separate program, chef Douglas Rodriguez, a Miami native born to Cuban immigrants, will lead an eight-day, food- and art-inspired tour of Cuba in March under his DRod Culinary Adventures flag. That trip — Art, History, Architecture & Cuisine of the Cuba of Today — will be a continuation of similar people-to-people tours that Rodriguez has led, before the U.S. government announced it would ease of travel restrictions to the island.

As Miami chefs grapple with whether to take part in Cuban food tourism, at least one of them said he can see both sides of the issue. Angel Leon, the Cuban-American executive chef of Seaspice (formerly Seasalt and Pepper) on the Miami River, wrote in response to Cabrera’s comment on Sunday:

“I am a free man today thanks to this country giving my grandfather political asylum after being locked up for 10 years by those criminals. They took everything from my family: 4 bakeries, 2 farms. Houses, cars, money and our freedom. I am totally against supporting anything that supports that God-forsaken government in Cuba. This is wrong.

“But,” Leon continued, “we can’t blame chef Jamie or any other Americans for wanting to visit our motherland now that they are free to do so for the first time in a while. I myself am curious to see what the ‘culinary tour’ is about. My hope is that when Americans go and see the beauty, history, art and the distinct culture of the island, and see what is really going on over there, they will talk and eventually justice will be served.”

Evan S. Benn is Miami Herald food editor and restaurants editor. Follow him on Twitter: @EvanBenn.

The trips

▪ Art, History, Architecture & Cuisine of the Cuba of Today: Led by chef Douglas Rodriguez. From $6,500 a person. Includes airfare, ground transportation, medical insurance, visa, hotels, meals, guides, tours, taxes and tips. March 13-20. More info: 954-693-6562,

▪ Culinary Cuba! Culture, History & Cuisine: Led by chef Jamie DeRosa. From $3,300 a person. Includes airfare, ground transportation, medical insurance, visa, hotels, meals, guides, tours, taxes and some tips. May 20-25. More info: 888-978-5215,

Culinary Cuba! tours also are scheduled for June 24-29 (led by chef Todd Erickson) and July 23-28 (chef Brad Kilgore), followed by a collaborative September trip with DeRosa, Erickson and Kilgore.