The second post in DM’s culinary diplomacy series focuses on that Caribbean island Americans now frequently refer to as “post-Fidel Cuba” or “a future vacation spot.”
I’d say Cuban cooking, at least as I know it, is one of my favorites cuisines – pile on the fried plantains (more more!!), avocado salads, Adobo Chicken, Frijoles Negros, Yucca Fritters, and for drinks yes please to daiquiris and mojitos. Mmmm.
The idea of walking through Havana’s streets and eating at recommended paladares (privately owned small restaurants – some are in resident’s apartments…) is up there on my dream travel list. That said, all the complications involved in traveling there have prevented me from seriously thinking about going – until a few months ago when President Obama’ made his historic “Charting a New Course on Cuba” speech.
Along with all the goodness insinuated in the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening an embassy in Cuba rhetoric, was a bit about the lifting of certain barriers permitting some Americans to travel there.
In bars from Orlando to Manhattan, members of the American tourism industry were likely ordering another round – of Mojitos for everyone. After 50 plus years (some) U.S. citizens could again travel legally to the land of jazz and salsa, classic cars, cigars and brightly colored buildings and no one was wasting any time gearing up the American tourist invasion.
Now, here’s the zinger, travel is still illegal for the average American unless you fall into one of a dozen categories including: have family there, are a journalist, attending a workshop or professional meeting, participating in a competition or humanitarian project, or want to study there (with an institution).
What these categories do is provide a legal loophole for solid (think Smithsonian) and not so on the up and up (depending on your ethics meter) tour companies to take those American citizens who have several thousand dollars to pony up on a ride through Havana on an educational tour.
This brings me to a small troupe of successful Miami chefs, few with Cuban connections, who are promoting food tours to Cuba. At first I thought that’s great, but after reading a few articles from Miami outlets and checking out one chef and the agency he’s partnered with I think it’s a big stunt – a gimmick – certainly nothing I would want anything to do with. When people with no connection to a place (one chef’s grandmother is supposedly from Cuba, but all his training comes from England, Japan, and Wolfgang Puck – seriously??) are suddenly called “culinary ambassadors” that makes me laugh and groan.
Here’s the tour company’s description, check out the words I underlined (more groaning on my part):
“Join our ‘ambassador’ Chef, Jamie DeRosa (of the award winning Tongue and Cheek restaurant in Miami), as we explore Cuba via its cuisine. This trip will allow you to see the sights and enjoy the flavors of all that Havana has to offer. It will feature visits to organic sustainable farms with an authentic, organic farm-to-table meal, and will culminate in a collaborative cooking event between Chef DeRosa and one of Cuba’s top Chefs at the #1 restaurant in Havana! This trip is a first of its kind and will fill quickly!”
Um, seriously?? There is no denying Cuba’s agricultural practices are positively advanced, but I find the agency’s use of the terms “organic” and “sustainable” followed so closely by “authentic” suspicious – is it just trendy marketing speak? Groan. Organic farm-to-table – double groan. Who says this is the #1 restaurant and how about letting Cuban chefs do all the cooking/teaching – they’re probably 100% more interesting and “authentic” than a guy who has made his career working for a chef (Wolfgang) best known for his chopped salads and frozen aisle meals. Just saying.
This is where the use of culinary diplomacy as a form of marketing lacks greatly. It becomes a cheap tool in the hands of a creepy salesperson.
Want to create something meaningful and “authentic” dig a big deeper folks. As someone who has participated in a number of culinary education programs what would impress me is involving folks who live in Cuba or have a long history with that country.
Take Smithsonian Journeys Cuba trip – you meet with Cuban scholars, visit a training and advisory center for future Cuban entrepreneurs, visit the National Museum of Fine Arts with one of the country’s historians, meet with farmers and members of the community at a local urban garden, meet a local journalist, attend a local community block party, visit a former sugar mill town and with a historian tour the town and meet inhabitants and so on and so on. No gimmicky terms – this is the real deal. I’m not much for tour groups, so you won’t find me on it – but it sounds cool doesn’t it!?