In Key West, a line snakes, sometimes for blocks, with people waiting for a chance to take a picture with the famous Southernmost Point marker, which proclaims Cuba is only 90 miles away. Now that diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba have been officially re-established, connection with the people of Cuba is closer than ever. There's no better way to bond with someone than over food.
Miami chefs such as Douglas Rodriguez and Jamie DeRosa have recently led culinary tours to the island to visit farms and paladares — independently-run restaurants. Now several of Cuba's finest chefs are set to visit Miami, with some of South Florida's top toques hosting their Cuban counterparts.
This chef exchange is being hosted by the Cuba Study Group. The Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit's mission is "to help facilitate peaceful change in Cuba leading to a free and open society, respect for human rights and the rule of law, a productive, market-based economy and the reunification of the Cuban nation". The upcoming culinary visit is the third in a series of Cuba entrepreneurial exchanges, designed to connect Cuban entrepreneurs with their American counterparts. The exchange runs from August 10 to 14, culminating with a gala dinner at Tuyo.
According to Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, the four Cuban chefs — Luis Alberto Alfonso Pérez of El Gringo Viejo, Michael Alejandro Calvo Oviedo of Atelier, Yamilet Magariño Andux of Andux, and Gilberto Smith Álvarez of Pizzanella — were chosen to come to the U.S. for their promise and their potential to learn from their experiences. "The folks coming are from the more successful restaurants. Chef Yamilet, for example, is a pastry chef and a published cookbook author," he says.
Though many people in the U.S. don't realize it, Cuba has almost one million entrepreneurs and small business owners. According to Bilbao, the push started in the 1990s when Cuba first allowed individuals to own their own bed and breakfasts and paladares.
"Then these businesses were heavily restricted, but in the last five years, there's been a big expansion to about a million people in the private sector," he says. "There are many restaurants that have been operating independently from the government for a while. These are owned by folks that face unique challenges on top of the usual hurdles that face a business owner, and they have been able to do so with great success."
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He adds, "The authorization of private sector business has been growing over the past five years. It's the reflection of the slow revolution of Cuba. People are taking advantage of these openings, that can sometimes be limited, to improve the quality of life of their families and to realize their dreams of being a chef."
During the course of the week, the Cuban chefs will take turns working with the host chefs, which include Wolfgang Birk (Area 31), Bernie Matz (Bodega), Alberto Cabrera (Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Company), Santiago Alvarez (Cantina la Viente), Michelle Bernstein (Seagrape and Crumb on Parchment), Douglas Rodriguez (DeRodriguez Catering), Tomas Prado (Golden Fig), Victor Santos (Tuyo), Miguel Aguilar (Wynwood Kitchen and Bar), and Steve Hosang (Sushi Maki), sharing ideas on food preparation, safety, finances, and operation.
On Friday, August 14, the chefs will all meet at the Miami Culinary Institute for a demo for students. On Friday at 7 p.m., the chefs will cook alongside each other at Tuyo for a benefit dinner to raise funds for future exchange programs. Tickets for the gala dinner are a $150 tax-deductible donation and are available through Eventbrite.com.