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edible Monterey Bay Summer 2016

EDIBLE TRAVEL POSTCARD FROM CUBA A California chef experiences the island nation’s changing food scene STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COX For most Americans, Cuba is the forbidden fruit of vacation destinations, one of the few countries we are banned from visiting even though its sandy beaches lie merely 100 miles away from Key West, Fla. While it is still illegal for Americans to visit Cuba strictly for tourism, the rules are quickly changing. American investors are waiting for the moment the embargo is lifted and trade can resume with the island. ere is no doubt that when that day comes, so will a flood of international corporations eager to plant their flags in Cuban soil. 24 edible monterey bay summer 2016 restaurants. Private restaurants have always existed to some degree, but at the time of the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, it was illegal to officially operate any form of private restaurant. In 1993, when the Cuban government instituted various financial reforms, it became possible for private individuals to run restaurants so long as they followed strict rules on the type of food served, number of seats and people they employed. In 2010, under Raul Castro, many of the restrictions on paladares were lifted, setting the foundation for a restaurant renaissance across Havana. Imagine a city where anyone can open a restaurant anywhere they want, be it a penthouse on the top floor of an apartment building, an abandoned sugar refinery or a beachfront mansion. ink of it as hundreds of pop-up dinners happening across the city every night. is is the chaos and beauty of Havana’s current restaurant culture. On our first night in Havana we went to the Magic Flute, an unmarked jazz club and restaurant in an apartment building by the American Embassy, a block off of the Malecón, a 5-mile esplanade that runs along the ocean. e small room, which couldn’t have seated more than 60, was packed with locals. We had been told that the music and nightlife in Cuba ran notoriously late, so we were surprised to see that the band appeared to be breaking down as we walked in at 11:30pm. As we sat drinking our mojitos and discussing where to go next, we realized that they were just setting up! We stayed for well over an hour before the first set even began. ree hours later, as we left the club, several groups of people continued to sit on the seawall that runs the length of the Malecón, talking, drinking and sometimes dancing in the sea spray. e next few days were a blur. We spent our mornings exploring the streets of Havana, fueled by shots of dark Cuban espresso. We walked the crumbling sidewalks until our feet were sore and our necks were burned by the intense Caribbean sun. When we couldn’t walk any further, we stopped and waited for a taxi. In Havana practically every car on the road is for hire, whether or not it displays a sign. We waited until we saw a car that looked interesting and then tried to hail it. e cars, mostly large American sedans from the ’40s and ’50s, ranged from Concours d’Elegance-ready convertibles to taped-together jalopies with springs sticking out from the seats and exhaust billowing in from holes in the floorboards. e drivers often matched the better cars—good-looking Cuban men with short-cropped hair and tightly fitted dress shirts. Frequently they would have a friend or girlfriend Earlier this year I decided to throw caution to the wind and visit Havana now, with a group of fellow chefs and sommeliers, before things change too much. “Panadero!” “Panadero!” e melodic cry echoes through the decaying streets of Old Havana like a pre-dawn call to prayer. A rusted metal cart creaks as it pushes past potholes and piles of debris that have fallen from buildings during the night. Slowly, doors open and people emerge onto stoops and balconies. An elderly woman on the third floor lowers a cloth bag so the man pushing the cart can drop in a couple of freshly baked rolls. Cuba isn’t known for its food, but its dining scene is rapidly evolving. First, you need to understand that there are two types of restaurants in Cuba, paladares (privately run restaurants) and state-run


edible Monterey Bay Summer 2016
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