Yes, it is insane that Puerto Rico doesn’t get far more of its food locally instead of importing it – especially items that are grown on the island! Why must it be that way, that so much is imported? It would be like importing snow and ice to Alaska.
VIEQUES, P.R. — The sun was starting to recline on the horizon, but as the chef Jose Enrique slid a beaten-up Ford Explorer into a parking space here at an easygoing beachside hotel called El Blok, he admitted that his menu for this Saturday evening was still up in the air. What would he be cooking?
“I have no clue,” he said, and laughed. “We’ll see. I kind of like it that way. I think it makes me more creative.”
Mr. Enrique and Katie Savage, his chef de cuisine at the hotel, tend to wing it based on whatever baskets of fruit, bags of vegetables and buckets of seafood come their way. Dinner that night would overflow with lobster ceviche, a conch salad spooned into steaming pockets of fried bread, a dip spun from eggplants that had been smoked over the wood of wild mesquite trees, a pork chop brushed with sugar-cane juice. Toward the end would come a sweet, coral-hued sphere of guava ice.
Where did the guavas come from? Mr. Enrique motioned toward the window. The fruit tree stood right outside.
Mr. Enrique, 37, is a leader in a movement of loosely affiliated Puerto Rican cooks, farmers and activists who have arrived at the same realization over the last few years: There’s a juicy gastronomic paradise at their fingertips, and all they have to do is reach out and grab it. San Juan restaurants like Parcela Gastropub, La Jaquita Baya, Santaella, Marmalade and Jose Enrique (the chef’s namesake spot in the humming Santurce neighborhood); a pioneering farm-to-tote-bag enterprise called El Departamento de la Comida; and the Hacienda San Pedro coffee company are all promulgating a new way of thinking that reintroduces Puerto Rican diners and shoppers to the buried treasures of their home island.
That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is. From a food standpoint, Puerto Rico represents a twisted paradox. Thanks to its balmy climate and rich soil, it has the makings of a gastronome’s fantasy island, a place where all sorts of natural delights sprout from the land, sometimes without much need for human coaxing.
In spite of that, decades of economic policy, kicking into overdrive with Operation Bootstrap starting in the late 1940s, led to an emphasis on industrialization and a shift away from Puerto Rico’s agrarian roots. This helped create a middle class, but a reliance on growing things was replaced by the canned-and-shrink-wrapped gospel of postwar America.
Before long, Puerto Rican supermarkets were dominated by the processed convenience foods of the “I Love Lucy”-era good life, crated in on boats and planes from the mainland. To this day, it’s hard to find fruits and vegetables that haven’t been hauled all the way from California and Ohio, even though comparable (or superior) harvests are blooming unchecked in Grandma’s backyard.
“Once you take out agriculture from any country, you can’t sustain yourself — you become dependent,” Mr. Enrique said. “So that’s what happened here.” He went on: “When you take that out, you end up importing everything. And you take away the beautiful part of it.”
It was this vexing disconnect that prompted Tara Rodríguez Besosa and Olga Casellas Badillo to create El Departamento de la Comida four and a half years ago as a way to bring local organic products from private pinprick gardens and farms to the teeming, street-art-emblazoned districts of San Juan. “We just kept having the same conversation over the dinner table,” Ms. Rodríguez Besosa said. “We were like, ‘Wow, there really is no access to good food here — to good ingredients.’ ”
Their solution, early on, was to cook up a bare-bones C.S.A., or community-supported agriculture project. “It was just a website, a van, the two of us and a driver,” Ms. Rodríguez Besosa said. But demand exploded, so the two gradually commandeered a warehouse space that includes a restaurant offering dishes made with their bounty. “I used to market my produce by cooking it at home and taking pictures of it,” she said. “And then people started asking, ‘Where can I get that?’ ”
If the Departamento’s dishes initially looked alien to some local cooks, that’s because they hinged on local ingredients — broccoli, zucchini, carrots, okra, fresh herbs — that had little to do with the rice-beans-and-plantains monotony that defines, and constrains, a lot of Caribbean cuisine. The team may cook with dill or tarragon, “stuff that’s not specific to the Puerto Rican diet,” she said. “Most of us here don’t know what dill is.”
Today, visitors and even some islanders are surprised to learn that Puerto Rico has coffee beans so good that they were in demand throughout Europe during the 19th century. “People ask me, ‘Do you grow coffee in Puerto Rico?’ ” said Rebecca Atienza, a member of the family that for four generations has owned and operated the Hacienda San Pedro coffee farm in the mountain village Jayuya. “Many people don’t know.”
For years, the farm sold its beans only to other companies. But Ms. Atienza is starting to sow the seeds of a local coffee culture by building two Hacienda San Pedro cafes in San Juan, and introducing the brand to local restaurants that, until now, may have been content to pour an import.
Over the years, Puerto Rico has produced plenty of celebrated chefs (Wilo Benet, Alfredo Ayala, Roberto Treviño, Mario Pagán, José Santaella), many of whom have sought to raise the profile of what they call cocina criolla around the world and burnish its reputation at home. But the budding locavore movement is a godsend to next-generation figures like Ariel Rodríguez, Xavier Pacheco, Sebastián Ramírez and the sausage maestro Pedro Álvarez, who yearn to move even further beyond sawdust-dry tostones and leaden mounds of mofongo.
“In the last couple of years, it has become a lot easier to find higher-quality products,” said Mr. Ramírez, 29, who runs the kitchen at a tapas-oriented gastro pub called Parcela. There is a new wave of young farmers, he said, and the burgeoning “buy local” fever seems contagious enough to become trendy. “Puerto Ricans — we’re pretty passionate about our island and what we have here,” he said.
Passionate, too, about what they can have, thanks to the island’s oft-untapped fecundity. “You will fly over land that’s green, verdant, beautiful — and nobody’s growing anything,” said Simon Baeyertz, an owner of and the driving force behind El Blok. “And the younger generation has started to say, ‘Wait, that’s crazy!’ ”
Mr. Enrique, whom Food & Wine magazine picked as one of its best new chefs in 2013, is seen as leading that charge.
“It’s incredibly fresh, his food, which is what I love about it,” said Matt Jennings, a New England chef who has visited Mr. Enrique’s spots several times. In his travels around the Caribbean, Mr. Jennings has encountered his share of “very bland, fried, uninteresting food,” but he still remembers being struck by a dish of butterflied baby snapper at Mr. Enrique’s unmarked, always-a-party San Juan flagship. As Mr. Jennings swooned over the snapper, he was told that “literally the guy over at the next table, next to me, was the fisherman,” he recalled. “That experience embodies what Jose’s restaurants are about.”
Mr. Baeyertz, a rakish New Zealander and music-business refugee who once worked with Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, had a similar reaction when he stepped into the Santurce restaurant and realized that he wanted to lure Mr. Enrique into developing a menu for his Vieques hotel. “Honestly, I went to the restaurant at lunchtime, and it was like, ‘This is it,’ ” he recalled. “The simplicity thing — I guess that’s it, because that’s kind of what I was obsessed with.”
At Jose Enrique, that no-frills ethic becomes clear as soon as you spy the menu: It’s nothing but a white magic-marker board carried to each table, with the names of dishes scrawled in (or erased) depending on which ingredients have landed in the kitchen that day.
Forget elaborate prose descriptions. A word or two will suffice: scallops, prawns, rabbit, crab, salad, chicken wings. The restaurant, squeezed into a guava-pink bungalow, is modeled on a “fonda,” a modest establishment where a grandmother may stir up a beef stew for the surrounding neighborhood.
With that mission in mind, Mr. Enrique’s early message to Puerto Rican farmers was blunt: “ ‘You come to me, I’ll buy everything on your truck,’ ” he said. “ ‘You tell me that’s from your land and you picked it this morning? I’m buying it.’ And that kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Maybe the source is the 20-something hipster “with boatloads of purslane,” he said, or the fisherman who calls and tells the chef that he just caught a conger eel. “My favorite are the local oysters,” Mr. Enrique said. “They’re so fresh it’s ridiculous. That’s something I’m trying to work with now.” The oysters adhere to the roots of partly submerged mangrove trees.
A road trip with Mr. Enrique can turn into an ad hoc lesson in marine biology, or horticulture. While dropping into a lechonera in the hills above San Juan for a rustic Saturday breakfast of roast pork and blood sausage, the chef ambled over to the foliage near the barbecue pit and pointed to a tangle of flora. “You see that thick leaf with the little flowers?” he said. “That look like zucchini blossoms? That’s calabaza.” Calabaza is a popular squash, but the blossoms are usually tossed away.
“That’s a vine, it just grows like crazy,” he said. Like more and more chefs in Puerto Rico, Mr. Enrique’s impulse is to find a way to use it. “The ingredients are what drive me,” he said. “It’s not about what you can do with an ingredient. It’s what you don’t do to it. So to make that happen, you need to find what’s best.”
Out on Vieques, the still-wild island that for decades has been known for bewitching peace seekers, lost souls and the United States military (which used part of it for years as a naval training range), that quest for indigenous bumper crops takes on a more haphazard form. Islanders just show up at the kitchen pass with goodies (star fruit, mango, papaya) that they plucked on a stroll into town. “We have urban foragers,” Mr. Enrique said.
Mr. Baeyertz added: “It’s not farm to table. It’s more street to table. In Vieques, it’s not seen as stealing at all. Fruit from a tree is fruit from a tree — it’s a cultural code.” Although the hotelier’s eyes did grow a tad wider one day when a gentleman appeared bearing a heap of passion fruit that looked curiously familiar.
“It was from my own garden,” Mr. Baeyertz said.