Running a Restaurant in Havana : New Worlder

We heard there might be flour so we left immediately.

To begin any conversation of food in Cuba, you must first discuss of the lack of it. Especially when speaking of running a restaurant.

Food is rationed and tubers and beans dominate state-run farms, so finding additional ingredients beyond the few that are readily available can be problematic. Most other products, even something as seemingly basic as a whole chicken, are classified as luxury items, are purchased with a separate currency, and out of reach of most of the Cuban population. Even for those with money to pay, like a restaurant, there is no consistent access.

OtraManera is probably the best restaurant Havana, Cuba has seen in decades. It’s owned by Cuban born Amy Torralbas and Spanish born Álvaro Diez and is set up in a minimalist 50’s style ranch house of Torralbas’ family in the Miramar neighborhood. It happens to have already been a paladar at one time.

Diez, a sommelier, studied at the Universidad de Girona and worked in a few great Spanish restaurants. He recruited a Spanish chef friend to help design a farm to table menu that could realistically be executed in Havana, though Dayron Ávila, who cooked in Buenos Aires for many years, runs the kitchen full time. In two separate meals I had dishes like rabbit escabeche, ceviche, and slow cooked pork loin with flavors and plating as beautiful as any great Miami restaurant and with an even worldlier atmosphere. What I immediately learned, however, is that sourcing ingredients takes up all of their time.

Rather than seeking out unique produce, they spend their days tracking down basic supplies, such as milk, eggs, flour, and club soda.

“We had every intention of baking our own bread, but it was impossible,” Diez tells me. Wheat is impossible to find and the bread they can get is limited to the uniform hamburger style buns that are used for everything in Havana, from street food to fine dining restaurants.

Rather than seeking out unique produce, they spend their days tracking down basic supplies, like milk, eggs, flour, and club soda. This complication has led to an underground world of buyers. Every paladar in Havana has at least one and they all know each other because they see each other so often.

“We all help each other,” says Rodrigo Martinez, an accountant from Spain that Diez brought over to help them with logistics for a few months. “We’re all just driving around to different places and so someone might say at this place I found butter and we go straight there.”

It’s 8am and the call for flour comes from the buyer from El Cocinero. He’s at a juice stand around the corner so I ride over with Torralbas and Martinez in their Soviet-era Lada, a car so old and rickety that the gas meter just spins in circles as we go as if it’s just blowing in the wind.

The guy from El Cocinero tells us it’s at a state run depot, but when we get there they tell us they don’t have any. “They might have some, but they’re just not saying,” says Martinez. “We can go back a few hours later and speak with someone else and they’ll have it. It’s not that they got an order in, it’s just how it works.”

Arrivals of certain products are a matter of public concern. When there is an egg delivery word spreads like wildfire and nearly everyone in Vedado and Miramar rushes to the scene. It’s an eerie scene where everyone you see in the street, walking or on bikes, is carrying a carton of eggs, as if a hurricane was about to hit.

We make various stops. At a state run liquor store we explore the wine selection, which is not only limited, but also expensive. “The same wine that costs five Euros in Spain costs 26 Euros here,” says Martinez. They have Schweppes tonic in stock and Torralbas and Martinez buy everything they have, which was only a few cases. Gin and tonics are a specialty of the bar at OtraManera, but tonic is almost impossible to find usually. You can never know how long it will be there so you have to stock up.

“This is the closest thing we have to a real market here,” says Torralbas, when we enter the Vedado market. It’s state run, but still it’s all organic. Each farm has a small stand with, for the most part, the same products. There are bananas, pineapples, beets, onions, and cucumbers. The colors are bright and they look as good as any bananas, pineapples, beets, onions, and cucumbers I’ve seen anywhere else. Prices are listed on wooden boards and are inexpensive enough that practically anyone can afford them. Sourcing fruits or vegetables beyond these, however, is where additional layers of complications arise.

II

Restaurants in Havana are divided into two primary categories: State-run or paladares. State-run restaurants used to be what every restaurant was, but, in efforts to lift Cuba’s ailing economy, this has  gradually changed. In 1993, the Cuban government authorized self-employment, which included privately owned paladares. In 2011, several dozen state-run restaurants transitioned into employee-run cooperatives. In 2014, some 9,000 state-run restaurants were made available to the private sector. While the government will still own the land, they are getting out of the restaurant business. Private citizens can now buy these restaurants.

Despite dominating the landscape, state-run restaurants have a reputation of poor quality. Most are not run by chefs, or someone who has ever been a cook of any sort, but by someone who has a friend in the government. Sometimes they are overpriced. Sometimes they are set in landmark settings. While I can appreciate the architecture and setting of some state-run establishments, few offer anything other than a mediocre meal, such as the highly touted El Ajibe’s roasted chicken, which I was served dried out.

In the last four years more than 400 paladares have opened in Havana alone.

That brings us to paladares, where most growth in the Cuban restaurant industry has occurred over the past 25 years. Many of the original paladares that opened in the 1990s didn’t take off or were put out of business, though rules have gradually loosened, giving restaurateurs more flexibility. While some state-run restaurants list prices in Cuban pesos so that some Cubans are able to afford to eat there, all paladares list prices in the convertible peso, or CUC, a currency reserved for luxury items, used primarily by tourists and wealthy Cubans. Rules stipulated that these mostly family run restaurants, often in someone’s home, can only have a maximum of 50 seats and could only serve certain products from state-run suppliers. Still, paladares are thriving amidst Cuba’s biggest tourist boom in decades, though it might not last.

In the last four years more than 400 paladares have opened in Havana alone and there are an estimated 1,700 around the country. In October of 2016, the Cuban government froze the issuance of new licenses for restaurants and began enforcing stricter regulations. For instance, restaurants are now required to provide receipts for everything they serve, ensuring that they don’t do anything illegal. While the government allows them to exist, it is as if they don’t want them to be too successful.

While the food at OtraManera stood head and shoulders above any other paladar I have dined at, many others had atmospheres that were comparably sophisticated. There is Sia Kara Café, a hip restobar behind the Capitolo that opened mid-2014, with Victorian chandeliers and hundreds of hanging neckties. The famous La Guardia, a 75-year old restaurant featured in the film “Fresa y Chocolate” that’s set in a magical space hidden a few floors up a grand staircase in a faded yet stunning colonial building (even it saw a rooftop expansion in 2015). There is also El Cocinero’s rooftop space, with its brick smokestack remaining from the former peanut oil factory it is housed in, and Casa Pilar, a shady back patio with zebra print bar stools. Each has an air that is uniquely Cuban, a collective feeling that any city’s restaurant scene would kill for. However, many meals you have in Havana fight to be the worst you have ever had.

III

Cuba cannot revive and recreate its culinary culture overnight. This is a country that has not only been closed off from ingredients, but also closed off to the world. No one has a copy of A Day at El Bulli. Or the French Laundry Cookbook. And definitely not the six volumes of Modernist Cuisine. While some paladar owners have had the chance to travel and see the restaurant world around them, they are few. Even Googling a recipe or simply seeing what other restaurants are doing is quite difficult.

Mexico’s Enrique Olvera, Italy’s Massimo Bottura, and Spain’s Andoni Luis Aduriz – without question three of the most important chefs in the world – announced plans to open a restaurant in Havana. It will probably be a casual place, maybe called “Pasta, Tapas, Y Tacos.” While the intentions are to create a simple restaurant, they realize it will be a challenge. Still, exposure to chefs like these and kitchens that function at an international level will be an important step in bridging the divide.

It’s not the first time that the international culinary community has made outreach efforts in Cuba. In 2012, during the 11th Annual Havana Biennial, an art project, Proyecto Paladar, saw a group of 10 American chefs, like Anita Lo and Douglas Rodríguez, pair with 10 Cuban chefs to create a temporary 10-day restaurant inside of shipping containers. Cubans of all walks of life were invited and ate for free. In 2015, Spanish hotel chain Iberostar brought a parade of Michelin-starred chefs to their Havana hotel for a dinner series, though few locals could afford to experience it.

While all of these efforts to bring Cuban cuisine into the 21st century are helpful, the issues run far deeper than any technical or cultural divide. Logistically, running a restaurant in Cuba is a nightmare, as the sourcing efforts of OtraManera show, and there’s even evidence that the demand from paladares is keeping food off Cuban tables.

The lack of consistency in acquiring ingredients leads to awful substitutions. For instance, I saw grape jelly being used as a replacement for guava BBQ sauce. Other paladares end up skirting the rules by finding produce outside of where they are supposed to. They might raise rabbits in their backyard, for instance, though even that is illegal.

Why is it so difficult? There is a tangled web of reasons. The state requires all products used in restaurants to be available on the public market, which they control. They decide what is allowed and what isn’t and they decide the price (state-run restaurants on the other hand have access to wholesale markets). Much of what is available has gone through a middleman rather than direct from the producer. It helps explain why despite being an island surrounded by a sea full of fish, finding fresh seafood is near impossible. A yellowfin tuna caught out at sea gets sent to the state and rarely comes out the other end still looking like a tuna. One of the few places I found decent fish was at a sushi restaurant called Santy, a canal-side spot in Jaimanitas where the owner caught everything himself.

Additionally, much of the disruption in the food supply is because of the embargo. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s the primary cause of a lack of a variety of foods being imported to the island. Imported products make up 70 to 80 percent of Cuba’s food supply, according to the World Food Program. In 2013 alone, the U.S. exported $348 million in food to Cuba, mostly frozen chicken, soybean meal for animal feed, and corn. However, there have been severe limitations on transactions. The Cuban government has been required to give cash upfront before any food could be shipped, plus the exchange must be handled through a third party bank, which drives up the costs. Easing of restrictions will allow more U.S. vendors to sell to Cuba and a greater variety of products to enter the market.

Yet Cuba is a big island? Isn’t there enough land to grow more plants, to raise more cattle, and explore new seas to fish in?

IV

I arrive to Organopónico Vivero Alamar in the morning as the sun is just beginning to break through the trees. As I wait for Miguel Angel Salcines, the farm’s founder, a man is standing on an old car tire while being pulled across a field by a mule driven plow. Despite the urban setting and the surrounding dreary Soviet era apartment buildings, the lush 25-acre farm looks like most other small organic farms I have been to.

When Salcines, a former agronomist with the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, arrives he is wearing jeans and a denim jacket. He’s tall, grey haired, and at 64, still sharp. He tells me about the farm’s history. When he started it in 1997 as an 8,600 square foot vegetable garden, no one believed in it.

“They used to think in the great banana plantations, not vegetables grown in little patches,” he says. “No one wanted to do farm work. No one knew how. Eighty percent of the country moved to cities decades ago.”

Cuban farms have become organic by default. The decentralized farming initiative gave rise to tens of thousands of organopónicos, small plots of farmland, often in abandoned lots and fields, defined by their cement planting troughs and composted sugar waste used for planting.

Monoculture had been the norm in Cuba. Before and during the revolution, Cuba’s agricultural system was primarily concentrated in a few luxury export products, such as sugar, rum, and tobacco, while most other food was imported. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the 1.3 million tons of chemical fertilizers, 17,000 tons of herbicides, and 10,000 tons of pesticides could no longer be imported. A food crisis ensued. In 1993, as a response to the increasingly dire situation, the Cuban government turned over large tracts of state run farmland to the people where they could now work the land, free of charge, as long as they met production quotas.

Cuban farms have become organic by default. The decentralized farming initiative gave rise to tens of thousands of organopónicos, small plots of farmland, often in abandoned lots and fields, defined by their cement planting troughs and composted sugar waste used for planting. Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture helped push the idea further with the development of an urban gardening culture that began educating amateur farmers in biopesticides, composting, and soil conservation. Cuba now has one of the most impressive collections of organic farms anywhere on earth.

Right now, there are an estimated 350,000 people working in organic farming in Cuba, Salcines says. Vivero Alamar has not only been able to provide better access to nutritious food to the surrounding neighborhood, but to provide a well paying salary to its employees who share the farm’s profits. Today it harvests 300 tons of vegetables annually and has 160 employees. They work at the farm from 7am to 1pm without lunch, then go to other jobs in the evening.

He leads me through carefully plotted fields of herbs, lettuces, onions, carrots, and beets. Smaller plots hold specialty items they have expanded into, like mushrooms, noni, moringa, and bok choy. They are raising rabbits because they are more sustainable, though there isn’t a culture of eating them. Right now just a few restaurants are buying them.

Every inch of space is utilized and everything that can be recycled is. Sugarcane juice is pressed in one corner, while livestock munches on the remaining stalks. Old tires are used as planters. A farm stand sells various products to the local community and it’s possibly the liveliest place in this otherwise sleepy neighborhood. There is a line of patrons walking up and buying fruits and vegetables. There is bottled sofrito and herbal medicines for sale too, along with guarapo, cold sugarcane juice. The communities surrounding Vivero Alamar, not to mention restaurants in Havana, are undeniably better for having it around. It’s a model urban farm in every sense of the word.

However, despite the success of farms like Vivero Alamar on the island, Cuba is a place where organic farming grew out of necessity rather than philosophy. Organic principles might thrive in current conditions, however, the country still imports much of its food and state officials are eager to improve yields. Prices are still too high for many to afford most produce because of the number of intermediaries. A thaw in relations has American businesses clawing to enter the Cuban market. While increased trade might mean an increase of more efficient farming equipment and improved communications that could help minimize waste from the farm to the table, it will also open the door to fertilizers, pesticides, Monsanto, and the general reintroduction of industrialized farming.

“The world market doesn’t solve all problems,” Salcines says. “It’s a popular experience that the U.S and Cuba share.”

V

Outside of OtraManera another Russian Lada pulls up that is even shittier than that of the restaurant. It has a bumper sticker that reads: “Buy, Eat, Live Local.” The trunk doesn’t shut because it is loaded with produce and has to be tied down with rope. The car came from Finca Marta, a 20-acre organic farm outside of Havana.

The farm’s owner Fernando Funes-Monzote, a doctor in agroecology who studied in Havana and the Netherlands, is making rounds to several restaurants. Only recently, has he been able to sell direct to customers. He is increasingly focused on specialized products and business has been booming. He has steadily been increasing production and diversifying his offerings. He has more than 60 types of vegetables, plus coffee, sheep, cattle, and goats. He has eight types of honey and produced more than 1.5 tons last year. We taste several of them as he spoons a lick on our hands.

Food in Cuba, from the home kitchen to the restaurant, is at a crossroads. A place, any place, needs to be able to feed the population before the luxury of ordering food in a restaurant with some consistency is truly possible. There are still Cubans, even this year, that are risking their lives climbing into makeshift rafts to traverse the 90 miles to south Florida. Despite all of the reforms that have occurred, many still feel life could be better elsewhere.

Restored relations with the U.S. have already had and will continue to have an important impact on the future of the island. New opportunities will arise for the Cuban people and the network of farms and restaurants will be a significant source of those. There will be many temptations. Some will quickly grow wealthy from these new opportunities, while others will linger in poverty. We can only hope that this snarled network that has grown more and more complicated over the past five decades will begin to simplify itself, but an easy fix it will not be.

Funes-Monzote grew up at an agricultural research station to scientist parents. He’s trying to make Finca Marta 100 percent sustainable and is adding solar panels, a windmill, and hydroelectricity. He saves the methane from manure and uses it heat his stove. He wants to start agrotourism projects and bring in foreign volunteers.

While his products are things that most Cuban have ever had or can afford, they are being sought out by restaurants like OtraManera catering to the growing numbers of foreign tourists and the emerging middle class. Yet there is more to the farm than profit. Finca Marta is a rural farm alternative to both wasteful agribusiness and the inefficient state-run model. It’s common sense farming that’s resourceful and productive. There are others thinking like Funes-Monzote too. They aren’t pushing one extreme or the other, but trying to create something on their own in a place that has a unique set of needs. They’ve learned from the past. Both sides of it. That gives me hope.