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Tongue & Cheek's Jamie DeRosa on Cuba: "This Is a Culinary Journey, Not a Political Agenda"

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When most people prep for a long weekend, their list includes sunglasses, some shirts, and a few pairs of shorts. Chef Jamie DeRosa's packing list sounds more like inventory at a restaurant supply store. "I'm bringing some chef knives, chef coats, fish pans, and a Vita-Prep mixer." DeRosa is packing for his trip to Cuba, where he plans to present these chefs' tools to fellow culinary professionals he'll meet on his journey.

The Tongue & Cheek chef/owner is hosting a six-day culinary excursion, beginning today, to the island through Orlando-based Cultural Contrast. During that time, DeRosa will serve as culinary ambassador, taking a group of travelers to visit a tobacco farm, a rum distillery, and an organic farm where the chef will pick his own produce. The highlight of the trip, at least for DeRosa, is combining talents with one of Havana's finest chefs on a collaborative meal. Chefs Todd Erickson (Haven) and Bradley Kilgore (Alter) will also host trips this summer.

DeRosa has never met chef Alain, the toque at El Litoral in the Malecón section of Havana, but both chefs have heard good things about each other, according to DeRosa. "Chef Alain has a Michelin-starred background, and it's one of the best-rated privately run restaurants in the country. I've never met him, but Eric [Norber, owner of Cultural Contrast] has gone to the restaurant. Chef Alain is so excited to meet us that he wants us to come straight from the airport to El Litoral. I hope to learn some things from him, and I hope he learns some things from me."

To many, the thought of traveling to Cuba has political ramifications. Indeed, when DeRosa announced plans to travel to the island on Facebook, it sparked a heated debate, with Alberto Cabrera, owner of Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Company, writing, "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"

Much of that heated emotion has since cooled, DeRosa says. That could have something to do with Cuban-American Miami residents having had more time to process the fact that this is truly a new day for Cuba. Just last week, the United States gave the go-ahead for four companies to begin ferry service from Florida to Cuba, with some ferries operating as early as this summer.

DeRosa is not the first famous Miami resident to travel to Cuba recently. Chef Douglas Rodriguez departs for the island May 22 with his culinary tour, and Zoo Miami's Ron Magill visited Cuba in April with a cadre of other zoo officials from around the U.S. Magill had heard about Cuba from his father but never thought he'd get to see where his father was born. In an interview with CBS Miami, Magill said he debated whether to go to Cuba, but upon reflection, he believes he made the right decision. “Having gone to Cuba and talked to these people and listening to their stories, their jokes, and their laughter, it reminded me of my dad, so this trip showed me that Cuba will always be a part of who I am and a proud part of who I am, which I realize because of this trip.” 

DeRosa agrees these trips should be viewed less as divisive and more as a way to find common humanity between two groups that are so close geographically and culturally yet are viewed as being vastly different politically. "What I'm most expecting to get out of this is a better understanding of Cuba's history and culture. How are things changing, and how are people reacting to the changes? 

"This is a culinary journey, not a political agenda. Everyone who is going on this trip has only one expectation, and that's to see what the real Cuba is about."

DeRosa, who has traveled extensively, likens today's Cuba with other parts of the world just a few decades ago. "We travel to Japan and view the country as an ally. But what would your grandfather have thought of that 60 years ago? How many people would have gone to Vietnam in the '70s? There has to be a starting point where we can transcend political backgrounds and come upon common ground. What better way to communicate than through food? I want to experience food with people who have a passion for it. That's what brings people together."

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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