Two Years After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican Chefs Gather to Show Where the Island’s Cuisine Is Going Next
Two years ago today, Dorado Beach was in survival mode.
Hurricane Maria had swept through Puerto Rico in September 2017, leading to thousands of deaths and leaving millions without electricity, cell service, and tap water — in some areas, for months on end. While most of the buildings at the legendary resort remained structurally sound, its famous beachfront and lush flora had been ripped up. The Ritz-Carlton Reserve on property, one of the best hotels in the Caribbean, was shuttered, and had lent its large kitchen spaces to chef José Andrés and the team from World Central Kitchen. Priority number one: feeding people.
The 114-key Reserve property has since rebounded, of course, reopening in fall of 2018 with a full renovation and hundreds of thousands of new plants, predominantly local species. Regular guests have returned, as have the locals who have worked here for years. And earlier this October, Andrés was back — this time, under much happier circumstances.
It was the third iteration of the Dorado Beach Culinary Getaway, a festival founded by Andrés in 2015 to bring celebrity chefs and local talent to the resort for a food-fueled weekend. The opening night's dinner celebrated the flavors of Puerto Rico by bringing together the heads of some of the island's top culinary establishments — including Jose Enrique, whose namesake bistro made our 2019 list of World's Best Restaurants, and Food Network star Mario Pagán.
Travel + Leisure was able to sit down with the participating chefs to discuss food autonomy, the San Juan restaurant scene, the next generation of chefs and producers, and, two years after Hurricane Maria, where they think the island will go next.
Wilo Benet — Wilo Eatery & Bar
Benet observed a booming restaurant scene on the island. "I'll tell you one thing," he said. "Puerto Ricans love to go out. And statistically, millennials are the first generation that spends more in restaurants than at the supermarket."
He explained that he makes an effort to orient his menus around local ingredients. But, as many would point out, finding everything you need on the island is easier said than done. "Sometimes basic things, like carrots, are not reliable. I might have small ones today and large tomorrow, and then they won't come for three days."
Benet hopes to build and strengthen connections with local farmers and purveyors, and to create a more open pipeline for chefs to source locally. "I'd like to procure things locally as much as I possibly can, especially when it comes to fish. But it's a challenge when purveyors aren't familiar with or integrated into the restaurant industry. For example, I'll find out somebody has a beautiful queen snapper, which is in my opinion Puerto Rico's greatest fish, and I'll call and set it up, and it will never arrive."
Still, he says, "I see growth. I see greater variety of local ingredients. And there's a greater awareness and focus on sustainability in restaurants."
Ventura Vivoni — Restaur-Arte Vida Ventura
Vivoni agreed, pointing out that consumer values are also shifting. "There is more awareness on the consumer side," he said. "Back in the day, you’d say, oh, this is Alaskan crab. People would go, oh, wow. Now, they go wow when you tell them it’s a local fish. When people see local ingredients, they want them."
When I asked what factors might have led to this shift, Vivoni cited Hurricane Maria and the food crisis that followed. "People want to put their money into Puerto Rico, and help someone else in the chain." Like many of the chefs present, he was heavily involved with the efforts of World Central Kitchen after the storm. "I live in the center of the island, and we took almost two weeks to get everything cleared out. One day, we went out looking for something and stopped by a place that had internet. I checked Facebook, and someone had posted something about World Central Kitchen. I immediately started collaborating with them. We opened a huge kitchen in Ponce and we were there for the whole year giving away food."
"Right now, " he told T+L, "I'm trying to focus on food security. It feels like everything comes from outside the island. And if you want to do mangoes on your menu year-round, of course you will need to buy mangoes from outside. So I hope that we and the farmers can work together — farmers can tell us what they have available, and chefs can think more seasonally. I will go to a fisherman, see if I like what he has, and that’s what I get. Tonight, I got tripletail."
Post-Maria, Vivoni is seeing the island making strides. "There is more agritourism, more specialized farming. I have some friends working with chocolate, for example. Puerto Rico used to export a lot of chocolate, but it dropped off. Now, cacao is back, and the coffee scene as well. I've seen more brands with 100% local coffee. And chefs are even coming from the States to open up restaurants."
Jose Enrique — Restaurante Jose Enrique
Enrique echoed Vivoni's observations. "Farming and sustainable agriculture has been coming back. You see more people planting, more people cultivating. People are working out of love. I was amazed to see that there are now chocolate bars made from chocolate grown in Puerto Rico. That's how it's supposed to be."
Why now? Enrique, again, returned to Hurricane Maria, describing it as somewhat of a wakeup call. "Not to hit on the hurricane thing too much," he said, "but after Maria, I think local food has come back with a vengeance. We've always had hurricanes. It's something we live with. But it's been years since one like that came by, hitting us right through the middle. In some ways, the aftermath helped us to see what was wrong with our system before. We're not supposed to be importing everything."
Enrique Piñeiro — Mesa 364
Piñeiro agrees that food autonomy is the next frontier for Puerto Rico. “So much of what you see in the supermarkets is imported, especially before Maria. I have a friend who raises pigs — tonight, I served his pork cheeks — and he has pretty good volume, but he cannot compete with the pork that is coming from the States. We are a small island, so how the government gives protection to Puerto Rican products is important."
He also agrees that the storm jump-started a food autonomy movement. “With the necessity Maria created, people realized the importance of being independent, the importance of growing our own food. During Maria, those days were terrible. There was pretty much nothing. We were waiting for boats to arrive to get our food. That’s what Maria showed us.”
Things are starting to change, Piñeiro observed. “There is definitely more awareness of the issue. People are willing to pay a little bit more, now, for local foods.”
Mario Pagán — Restaurante Mario Pagán
“Food is our biggest challenge," said Pagán. "The chefs here, we’ve always been promoting what we find on the island. It’s a beautiful idea to have everything grown in Puerto Rico. But then there’s reality. Pork, lamb, whatever...you’re going to find it cheaper when it comes from outside Puerto Rico.”
How can Puerto Rico have more ownership of its food system? "The government created a program several years ago: they will provide land in order for you to grow on it. A lot of people took them up on that, and it got a lot more traction right after the hurricane. There are so many young producers these days — you feel that there is hope, that this really is going to become what we want it to become. Now, I think the government needs to be more engaged with farmers, help them diversify. You'll still see 10 purveyors all growing the same stuff. So many microgreens. It gets redundant. What about, you want that land? You grow avocados. You want that land? Grow carrots. You? Grow bananas.”
“I learned from it,” he said of Hurricane Maria. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like World Central Kitchen, he feels like he knows just what to do if it happens again. “After Maria, I said, well, you know what? I’m going to already have everything ready to go in case another one comes. I was ready for Hurricane Dorian, last month, which almost hit us.” After the storm, Pagán also started a fonda, a small neighborhood restaurant, to feed a different segment of the community. “People can come in for fairly cheap. Appetizers $6 to $9, entrées around $15. I’ve never done that before.”
José Santaella — Santaella
Santaella summed up the feeling in the room. "Let me tell you something," he said, "and I think I speak for everyone here. There’s a lot of talent in Puerto Rico." For him, incentivizing people to stick around is a way forward. "I’m sure that everybody that’s here have been offered, before and after the hurricane, opportunities outside Puerto Rico. And we don’t do it."
Why not? "Because we believe in Puerto Rico."
Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve provided support for the reporting of this story.