By Isaac Risco
HAVANA TIMES, (dpa) — It’s a simple recipe: bring Cubans and US citizens together around a table … to eat.
The cultural exhibition Bienal de La Habana (Havana Biennial) currently underway in Havana is promoting gastronomic exchange, celebrating the idea of food as a universal language.
“Proyecto paladar,” as the traveling art installation is known, combines very particular elements. One major ingredient is the “paladares,” the small private restaurants currently proliferating in Cuba as the country allows more private businesses.
Sophisticated New York chefs are added to the recipe, and stirred with the chic notion of gastronomy as an artistic experience. And, of course, there is the ever-present backdrop of tense US-Cuban relations.
“I think right now, at this particular moment, there is a real love for bringing art down to earth, for making it real,” said the show’s curator, Elizabeth M Grady.
“And there is nothing more real than people sitting down and breaking bread,” she adds.
Ten New York chefs will join cooks from Cuban paladares to present a joint menu every night. For 10 days ending Sunday, guests will sit down to dinner in groups of 12.
It all happens in a dining-room set up as a “temporary space” in the patio of the Wilfredo Lam cultural centre in Old Havana, with cuisine serving as the focal point of a performance in gastronomic fusion.
The project also stipulates that US guests invite Cubans to dinner, according to Cuban-American Charles Mallea, a representative from the gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood that is promoting the performances.
“We sold tickets to guests, but they had to invite a Cuban,” he says.
Tickets for two cost 250 dollars, which is far beyond the reach of most Cubans. Salaries in the predominant Cuban state sector amount to 20-30 dollars a month.
Although there have been some communication problems, the participants have enjoyed the experience, says Grady. They talk about everyday things, such as their families and the weather. And, though “they can talk about whatever they want,” Grady notes, they hardly ever approach politics.
“Tonight was especially attractive because of the idea of having a table (where) on one side you have visitors and on the other side you have Cubans,” say Ed and Rayanne Kleiner.
The Kleiners, both over the age of 70, are some of the “cultural tourists” who have benefited from US President Barack Obama’s move to ease restrictions on travel to the communist island. They are critical of the embargo their country has imposed on Cuba for half-a-century.
“We usually don’t have a lot of contact with foreigners, and sitting at a table with someone who is not from our country is something that does not happen every day,” said Janet, a 32-year-old Cuban.
The chefs were also very happy with the experience.
“Coming from a place that has all the resources that (New York) has to a place like Havana fills us with humility,” said Sisha Ortuzar, a New York chef with Chilean roots.
Ortuzar, 39, liked the idea of having to improvise every day with whatever was available in the market, especially given the chronic food scarcity that affects Cuba.
“What they do is incredible,” he says of the work of his Cuban colleagues.
“The paladares are amazing!” Grady agrees.
“They go out to the farms and the markets and they take what’s there. In New York, the idea of ‘farm to table’ is a little bit of a new idea, here it always has happened,” she says.
The private Cuban restaurants have been springing up everywhere in Havana in recent years.
According to the latest government figures, there are already 1,618 such restaurants in the country. For years paladares operated illegally on the island.