Food & Drink

He’s bringing fine dining to Cuba, without apologies

Chef Doug Rodriguez has been cooking side-by-side with chefs in Cuba and leading cultural exchanges for the last three years.
Chef Doug Rodriguez has been cooking side-by-side with chefs in Cuba and leading cultural exchanges for the last three years. Courtesy of Doug Rodriguez

When Doug Rodriguez mentions to his father that he’s planning another visit to Cuba — the country his parents fled as children in the late 1950s, never to return — his father bristles.

“I hope this is the last time you go,” his father snapped as Rodriguez planned his last trip, his 13th since 2013. “I don’t know why you go back.”

This year alone, Rodriguez has been there six times. Cuba has become a compulsion for the man who defined Nuevo Latino cuisine in Miami.

Rodriguez was one of Miami’s original Mango Gang, a generation of chefs who elevated South Florida’s dining scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His specialty was transforming Cuban comfort food into art (pork liver terrine with candied grapefruit on Cuban bread; papaya-mustard salsa).

But he was creating from borrowed memories.

Born in New York, raised in Miami, the James Beard Award-winning chef had learned about Cuban food from the diaspora. At his landmark restaurants in South Florida and beyond (the original Yuca, OLA, De Rodriguez on Ocean Drive and Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia, the only one still open), he reimagined what Cuban food could be — all without having visited the island.

To understand Cuba, he had to go himself.

“And it changed my life,” Rodriguez said. “It changed the way I thought about taking things for granted.”

He’s going again the last week of September. And this time, he’s not going alone.

Ten chefs, including “Top Chef’s” Kevin Sbraga and Mike Isabella along with some of Miami’s foremost innovators, Alter’s Brad Kilgore and Bodega Taqueria y Tequila’s Bernie Matz, will travel with Rodriguez to cook alongside several Cuban chefs he has befriended on his visits as part of an eight-day cultural exchange.

He’s bringing along a group of up to 200 visitors, each paying about $5,000 to experience what Rodriguez is calling the Havana Culinary Exchange, from Sept. 24 through Oct. 1. (Tickets are available at havanaculinaryexchange.com.)

Some, particularly in Miami, will hate him for it. Rodriguez knows this. Some already do.

He has lost friends because of his past visits. Family functions for baptisms and graduations become a minefield. He has been criticized as exploiting a Cuba where high food prices and grocery store shortages make eating at restaurants a pipe dream for all but tourists.

His motivation, he said, is the chance to bring glimmers of the outside world to Cuban men and women who are as passionate about cooking as he is and desperate to develop their talents.

“I don’t have any political views. I feel these are people that are Cubans, just like us, and they deserve more,” Rodriguez said.

When he traveled to Cuba in 2013, a last-minute decision when someone leading a cultural exchanged dropped out at the last minute, he arrived at this hotel to find 10 messages awaiting him.

They were from local farmers, chefs, independent paladar restaurant owners and students. He came downstairs his first day to find three culinary students waiting for him with photographed copies of his 21-year-old cookbook, “Nuevo Latino,” for him to sign.

“I got goose bumps. I can’t even explain that emotion,” he said, “but I had to go back and had to go back and had to go back. …”

He started leading trips, each time traveling like a mulo — a mule — with duffel bags loaded with everything from cooking utensils to canned food and spices for chefs who make do with a dozen ingredients. This time, he’s bringing one a meat grinder.

As he made more friends on the island, he made more enemies at home.

“People came at me,” he said. “Friends stopped coming to my house.”

He wondered whether it was worth it. And then, on one trip, he handed a simple silicone baking sheet ($15 at Bed, Bath & Beyond) to a middle-aged Cuban pastry chef.

“She’s hugging these Silpats, and tears are coming out of her eyes,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has seen first-hand what the Cuban chefs have to deal with in an average workday.

He started hand-making coconut milk with a Cuban chef when it turned out they couldn’t find any the morning of a dinner, only to have the gas shut off in the middle of lunch service. It came back unexpectedly, burning the pots of coconut milk they had on the burners.

Then he watched as the Cuban chef adapted Rodriguez’s recipe using vanilla ice cream base and coconut rum to create the marinade for a ceviche that became the talk of other local chefs.

“Every time I go to Cuba, I learn to do more with less,” Rodriguez said.

Just as relations between Cuba and the United States are evolving, so are decades of thinking.

Matz, whose parents fled Cuba in the early 1960s after losing the family shirt-making businesses, said he never considered returning until his father passed away.

“If my dad was alive? I just don’t know,” said Matz, who first hired Rodriguez at Miami Beach’s Wet Paint Cafe in the late 1980s. “I was one of the old-school Cubans who didn’t want to have anything to do with Cuba, to legitimize anything about it.”

Then he met several Cuban chefs who Rodriguez helped bring to Miami last year. Matz even placed them at his restaurants, Bodega and Red Ginger, for a couple of days and realized how, like the rest of the island, their knowledge was stunted.

“They were decades behind in food culture,” said Matz, whose parents came to Miami when his mother was 6 months pregnant with him.

Matz, though apprehensive, agreed to be among Rodriguez’s chefs in the upcoming exchange.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” Matz said.

Kilgore had seen a cloistered Cuba up close.

He went along last year on another controversial trip, led by chefs Jamie DeRosa (Izzy’s Fish & Oyster) and Todd Erickson (Haven, Huahuas), and cooked a meal using fresh swordfish despite a dearth of ingredients.

And then it struck him as surreal when he looked out onto the water and saw an ocean without fishing boats — because Cuban nationals aren’t allowed on boats without special permission, he learned first-hand.

“It dawned on me I hadn’t seen a boat in days,” Kilgore said. “That’s when you realize you’re on an island prison, like Alcatraz.”

Rodriguez wants to continue doing his part to push the two countries closer. He wants to be one of the first Americans to open a restaurant in Cuba if or when it becomes legal.

Whatever his critics say, Rodriguez is undeterred.

“It’s something that I need to do,” he said. “I feel I can be useful there.”

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