Puerto Rico’s Culinary Dynamism

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Above: Chef Robert Treviño

By Alexander Britell

MIAMI – IN APRIL, chefs from across Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and the world will gather in San Juan for the sixth annual Saborea Puerto Rico culinary festival. The event will highlight Puerto Rico’s place as a dynamic food destination in the Caribbean, with attendees from Top Chef’s Kevin Sbraga to Puerto Rico’s Fernando Parrilla. Among those present will also be Robert Treviño, a major part of the rapid growth of Puerto Rico’s food scene. Treviño has helmed restaurants including Budatai, Bar Gitano, El Barril and Casa Lola. His latest project brings the famed Rosa Mexicano eatery from New York to San Juan. To learn more about Saborea and the state of Puerto Rico’s culinary world, Caribbean Journal caught up with Treviño at an event at Miami restaurant Jimmy’Z to herald Saborea’s sixth year.

What projects are you working on right now?

Just trying to promote Saborea and do a pop-up restaurant at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, Ñosh [a Jewish-Latin fusion restaurant]. And that’s a lot of fun. I’m opening the Rosa Mexicano in San Juan, and have a restaurant called Budatai, also Bar Gitano, a Spanish tapas place, Casa Lola, a criollo place and El Barril, which is more of a bar and a lot of fun. So San Juan is a great restaurant city and that’s why events like Saborea are great for chefs like me to have a place to do what we do..

How would you describe the dining scene in San Juan today?

Like the rest of the country, the economy is rough. But people continue to dine. So the foodies are out there. And the foodies are truly enjoying it. I don’t want to call it a renaissance of Puerto Rico, because we’ve been calling it that for a long enough time. But I would have to say they’re enjoying the life, going out and dining, finding the most innovative dishes and the chefs that are doing the coolest things. It’s similar to what’s going on in a lot of cities like Miami and New York. San Juan, all of a sudden, has all of these tiny restaurants with really young chefs doing the funkiest concepts. So I would have to say that it’s a great food city. It’s not what’s customary in the Caribbean, where you have good dishes and great food, or a certain dish you love on one island — Puerto Rico has become very well rounded, as far as restaurants and concepts. And so people are looking for that. It allows chefs to really be creative and excited about serving their guests.

Do you see Caribbean cuisine getting more attention nationally and internationally?

Definitely. I think that has everything to do with the young chefs that are coming up and the things they are doing like the Food Network, which is probably the most influential over young cooks, and the Internet, with so many online cooking shows that people are whipping out. So I think all of that has to do with the Caribbean growing and changing and what it offers to tourists and to locals that live there. It’s an exciting time. I think Puerto Rico, obviously I live there, but I really think it’s the epicentre.

Are there other islands where you’re seeing that kind of growth?

You go to St Thomas, you say the same thing. You go to Barbados, and you see some wild funky restaurants and say, wow, who eats here? Or British Virgin Islands as well, with some great restaurants and great chefs. And you see it. During the CHTA [Taste of the Caribbean] event, they have a big food competition and stuff and, quite frankly, that’s where you see all these young chefs, and all these culinary teams — from Jamaica, from St Martin, and on and on. So it’s cool. I like to say that the Caribbean is going through a sort of neo-jet-set era, like the 1950s, when people were going down there and it was very jet-set, very chic to be in the Caribbean. Then it changed, and it wasn’t that anymore, and I think it’s kind of coming back. It’s not only St Barth, the playgrounds of the rich. There are so many different islands, like Culebra, like St Croix, which is a real gem — people don’t realize what exciting restaurants are there.

Talk about the Rosa Mexicano project.

The concept, we bought the licence from the company. They’re obviously want control over their brand, because it’s incredibly successful, and they should obviously protect it. But there’s a good synergy between our group and their group. And I’m excited about it. I think Rosa Mexicano is going to be a great addition to Puerto Rico, and it’s going to be in a 7,000-square-foot new waterfront location that is going to be spectacular. So we know a lot of New Yorkers come down to Puerto Rico during holidays, and I think that Rosa Mexicano has almost become everybody’s Mexican kitchen in New York. I think that we hope to do the same thing in Puerto Rico. There’s great Mexican restaurants, but they’re all kind of doing your regular stuff, and I think Rosa is really going to elevate the vision of Mexican food, certainly in Puerto Rico, and that’s exciting to me personally. They have their own recipes, so I’m not necessarily going to be the chef, but I’m a partner in it, and that’s cool with me. If it weren’t such a strong brand, and such an exciting brand, I wouldn’t do it. But I’m all into it. In my restaurants, I have such a heavy hand, and they’re so “me,” so this is something that’s not, and it’s kind of cool.

Saborea is in its sixth year. How much has it changed in that time?

It went from being a really nice, local, beach fun food event to more of an international, serious food event for people from all over — from other parts of the country and part of Latin America. I think it’s just a win-win for Puerto Rico. But Saborea is really just a showcase for chefs to kind of outdo one another, which really is a healthy thing, when you have chefs with that kind of level of competition. It’s still friendly, but you are really starting to innovate, because you can push the envelope somewhat, and that’s exciting. Saborea has given that forum for chefs from all over the island to get together and do just that. There’s a couple of events that are really cool — one, a Privileged Taste of Saborea, in which 20 chefs will get together, and divide 200 guests into tables of 10, and everyone will cook for 10 different people and do their own menu. That’s cool, because you get chefs putting up what they believe is their signature dish, how they want to impress everybody. We also have the bites and bubbles, tapas and bubbly, which is a lot of fun, and the days of “tents.” And there’s a lot of rum — which is a huge part of Puerto Rican culture, part of our economy and what we offer to the world in our spirits area. The same food movement that we see in the States is starting to happen in the Caribbean, and it’s starting to show its own Puerto Rican, Caribbean twist. Saborea is part of that and it allows us to have place to do that, to show off, and that’s exciting.