Tito Núñez Gudás is bringing vegetarian haute cuisine to the land of the Cubano.
In the Caribbean, a sea of tea green and gentian blue, of overlapping cultures, diverse tastes, a thousand histories and conflicting visions for the future, there’s one view that unites everyone: Cuba has the Worst. Food. Ever.
You might blame bad food on the blockade, yet there are thriving markets filled with fresh fruits and vegetables. In Havana, around 60 percent of the delicious tropical produce comes fresh from the city and its surrounds. Even if most Cubans eat it only a handful of times a month, the backbone of Cuban food needs to have bones in it. Anything that isn’t meat is just treading water, and often tastes that way too.
Some people suggest that today’s Cuban love affair with meat stems from the 'Special Period,' after the end of communism, when Cuba’s trading links sank with the Iron Curtain, and the average Cuban lost 20 lbs because food—especially meat—was so hard to come by. Yet while this explains meat's popularity, it doesn’t explain why it's often so poorly cooked.
Some of the more embarrassed Cubans I spoke to blamed the Spanish, for bringing their meat and beans and rice culture to the Caribbean. But Spanish food is often quite good, while Cuban cuisine rarely manages to rise above the culinary low water mark of 1970s English boiled beef.
Which is why it's odd that one of the finest restaurants in the country is a government owned vegetarian joint 100 miles away from Havana. Its impresario, Tito Núñez Gudás, is as unlikely as the food. Trained as an industrial engineer, he set his first restaurant in Havana’s botanical garden, where the signature salad involved the marpacifico, a flower that had previously been considered purely decorative. He became vegetarian for health reasons, but when the government was desperately trying to persuade the population to eat less meat in the early 1990s, his culinary skills turned him into a Cuban TV celebrity chef.
Through the 1990s, the government set up a chain of national vegetarian restaurants, hoping to inculcate a gastronomy more compatible with the country’s low foreign exchange reserves. Many of those government restaurants have since buckled under the Cuban demand for pig parts.
But Núñez Gudás still tries to recruit for vegetarianism, and his finest inducements are available at El Romero (rosemary) in Las Terrazas, where I met him. He admits it's hard to persuade Cubans of the joy of veggies. Children are his toughest customers. "When we first started here and offered cooking workshops, the children hated the vegetables. But now the children have started coming back and enjoying the food and bringing their friends... It takes about seven years to make a change."
The restaurant gets most of its ingredients (except rice, beans, and pineapple) locally. Perhaps most local is the restaurant’s amuse bouche of lotus blossom ceviche (it's delightful, crunchy, sweet, salty, sour, and gone far too quickly). It was invented when Núñez Gudás, standing on the kitchen balcony, saw the flowers in a pond at the bottom of the valley and felt called to do something with them. All in all, 60 ingredients on the menu are found within a few miles of the kitchen. And every dish on the menu—from vegetable terrine to a vegan bean pancake—was a winner.
Just as his restaurant has transformed its menu to accommodate the seasons, many residents in Las Terrazas seem to have accommodated themselves to the restaurant. Locals are proud of their Slow Food eatery (there’s a poster of tomatoes picked by Alice Waters in the dining room) and they're able to eat at subsidized prices, payable in local currency as opposed to U.S. dollar equivalent, at El Romero too.
Increasingly, among the young, Núñez Gudás is seeing the change he was hoping for. His culinary workshops teach both skills and new tastes to young people in this beautiful UNESCO heritage site. And the desire for vegetarian food comes not because Cubans are being pushed into it by economics, but pulled into it by the incredible taste. Cuban vegetarian haute cuisine one of the best kept secrets in the Caribbean, but one that deserves to be shared more widely. It might even leaven the scorn heaped on the country's pork.
Photo from La Vida Locavore