For decades, Cuba has held major sway in Miami. The Caribbean island has helped make the Magic City what it is today by playing a role in South Florida music, politics, and cuisine.
Now, on the cusp of a new dawn in American-Cuban relations, a group of Miami chefs are planning a series of cultural visits to Cuba. They hope to serve as culinary ambassadors, sharing everything from life experience to recipes with their counterparts on the island.
The chefs, working with Orlando-based Cultural Contrasts, a travel company that has specialized in cultural trips to Cuba for more than two decades, will take six-day journeys to explore the island through its food. American citizens legally travel to the country under a license granted to groups for "food, art, and music exploration" by the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The tours will feature visits to restaurants in Havana and tours of local sustainable, organic farms. They cost around $3,300 and include round-trip airfare from Miami, accommodations, and food, with the inaugural trip scheduled for May 20 to 25. (Others have been running similar trips for years.)
Tongue & Cheek's Jamie DeRosa is the first chef to serve as a culinary ambassador, along with Todd Erickson of Haven and Bradley Kilgore of the soon-to-open Alter in Wynwood. Each will lead his own tour; then the trio will collaborate on one final voyage in September.
A conversation between DeRosa and a longtime friend was the catalyst for the trips. The chef explains, "I was asked by a friend who has been traveling to Cuba for over 20 years to help curate a culinary journey. When we sat and discussed options, we wanted people to experience everyday Cuba where we could meet people, exchange ideas, and share food." DeRosa then happened to meet Cultural Contrasts' Eric Norber at one of the chef's collaborative dinners, and they immediately began talking about the various possibilities a culinary trip to Cuba could offer.
In fact, DeRosa says he and Norber had planned these trips months before President Barack Obama announced the United States' change in travel policy toward Cuba. The news just happened to coincide with the announcement of the first planned trip to the island nation.
DeRosa says he has no agenda for the tours other than exploration of food and the chance to see a part of his roots. "I grew up listening to stories of life from my grandparents, who are from Spain and Cuba, so I am interested in seeing the country firsthand. "
The chef, who traveled extensively during the early part of his culinary career, explains why exploring different cultures enriches his creativity. "In 2007, when I was living in England and working at the Fat Duck, a group of investors asked me to move to China an open a restaurant in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic games. It was an amazing experience traveling through all parts of China, including Tibet and Shanghai. During my stay, I was also fortunate to travel to Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Visiting all of these cultures reaffirms our beliefs at home and reminds us that we have a lot to learn. Some moments you experience while traveling end up completely blowing you away, in ways you'd never have expected."
Haven's Todd Erickson, who will host a tour from June 24 to 29, says he's "thrilled," adding that a recent trip to Peru got him "yearning to get out of the country again to learn more about the cuisines of different cultures." He adds that DeRosa approached him not long ago. "I thought it was an awesome opportunity, especially since I live in a city so deeply rooted in Cuban heritage."
This is not the first time local industry professionals have traveled to study the island's food and drink. The Regent Cocktail Club's Julio Cabrera has made several trips to Cuba to learn about rums and classic cocktails, taking other bartenders and spirits insiders along with him.
Some chefs in the Miami community are not happy about these trips. Alberto Cabrera, owner of Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Company, posted his feelings on Facebook:
"I thought I'd share. I really don't know Chef DeRosa's motive for this trip and I don't really care. But I can speak for myself and other Cuban Americans raised in miami with family in Cuba. Planning Culinary trips to a country where people are fleeing because they have a hard time having a square meal is a joke. And charging $3k? I get it. A super Democrat supporting his President's decision. Maybe it's about being edgy and staying relevant. Whatever the fuck it is, it's insulting. I did go to Cuba in October of 2012. I took tools for cooks in the hotel we stayed in. At one hotel, they served me stale toast with tomato paste and dry oregano and called it a bruschetta. No fault of theirs but that's the reality of the food scarcity in Cuba. I have turned down offers to do business in Cuba several times for both personal and political reasons. But this winner of an idea is just paradoxical. Deconstruct that! #opportunist #thereisnofoodincuba"
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Erickson, for one, doesn't want these trips to be divisive. "Food transcends the barriers of language and forms strong bonds between different people and cultures," he says. "Education is the best way to have intelligent, open dialog on any given subject. By combining the two through these culinary cultural trips, we are sharing our experiences as American chefs, as well as being able to return with a better sense of the real Cuba, its customs, and traditions."
Bradley Kilgore, who is set to open Alter in Wynwood, commented about his upcoming trip in July via email: "At the moment I am in Honduras. This month I will be cooking in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. I have family as well as friends that live in these countries. When I travel, I cook, but I also learn more than you can imagine. I speak with close friends and families from these hardshipped countries all the time. From what I can understand, the last thing they would want is to stop an opportunity for their people to share their knowledge and learn from another. These countries are filled with beautiful people, and just like anywhere else, these people are yearning to learn and express themselves. Nearly every citizen from every country is free to travel wherever they may like. I don't believe anyone should be constrained. I do not have the power to change this, but if I can share a little part of my knowledge with whomever it may be that is interested, I will. Wherever I travel, I meet incredible people with so much knowledge to give. My style of cuisine has no boundaries, then why should my outreach contain such constraints?"