USA-Cuba: Dialogue at the Dinner Table

By Isaac Risco

Havana, Cuba. Photo: Ihosvanny

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.


2 thoughts on “USA-Cuba: Dialogue at the Dinner Table

  • I can’t speak for most US citizens, but I can share that the overwhelming majority of my friends (and I am pretty main stream), are dismayed at our governmnent’s irrational behavior toward Cuba. The idea of sharing a meal together, between ordinary citizens of our two countries, is a wonderful, humane, and civilized way to increase dialogue. Although my country won’t allow me to spend a dime in Cuba (tell me that is not repression!), I would be delighted to sit down at your dinner table as a guest – and I will treat my Cuban guests to dinner here!

  • In the event that relations between Cuba and the US return to “normal” and the embargo is lifted, some considerations are in order. First of all, the good news, as a result of the embargo implemented to destroy Cuba’s economy,the country has lost billions of dollars and economic development, and the standard of living has suffered tremendously; the elimination of sanctions would open new doors for advancement.
    Also, nowhere in the immediate vicinity, American tourists would find a safer and better bargain to spend their vacations that in Cuba (otherwise ask any Canadian).

    However, a possible massive influx of tourists will bring inevitably, camouflaged agents with tons of money to corrupt and subvert the country. Anyone who believes that even after such policy change the “Evil Empire” will renounce to destroy the present regime, is naive at best and the reason for such malevolent hate, is “example”, bad example that is. The same goes for any country that deviates from Neoliberal policies such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, etc. As the saying goes ” Beware of what you wish it might become a reality” As their own crisis in all fronts, grows deeper every day, look at the repression used to suppress any and all popular movements that try to change the system.

    I am not being pessimistic, I simply examine the facts as they are. These comments have nothing to do with ordinary and decent American people, just the system.

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