By Yusimí Rodríguez (Photos: Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES — How long can a world-renowned chef who has won the Michelin Star (among other awards) content himself with running a bakery? We’re not talking about any bakery. We’re talking about Salchipizza, whose owner, chemical engineer and master chef Alberto Gonzalez makes the kind of bread that hasn’t been prepared in Cuba for a long time, making the Sylvain and Pain de Paris local chains look like amateurs.
This passionate culinary artist wants to go further. When I had the privilege of interviewing him back in April, he wanted to prove it was possible to bake a broad variety of high-quality breads in Cuba. Months later, on one of the occasions I’ve gone to his store to buy his bread, try a few new products or quite simply chat, he told me he wanted to prove one could have a good meal “without having to spend the equivalent of 10, 20 or 30 dollars.”
The Food of Slaves and Run-Aways
About a month ago, Salchipizza closed in order to reopen with a new menu…on October 10th. Mere coincidence? Not at all. A hundred and forty-seven years after Carlos Manuel de Cespedes started Cuba’s war of independence, freeing his slaves and inviting them to join the struggle, Alberto reopened his restaurant with a menu made up of what Cuba’s slaves and run-away slaves once ate.
It’s sad to see Cuban chefs prepare French, Italian or German food and be totally oblivious to the rich variety of food we have here. The problem is that we’ve reduced Cuban food to rice and beans, pork and yucca. I call this the slave or run-away menu, because there are things we eat without knowing where they come from. Sometimes, we know where sophisticated international dishes come from, but don’t know why we eat yucca, sweet potato, okra, etc.
Those of us who attended the food tasting for the reopening of Salchipizza had the opportunity to try what Alberto will offer in his restaurant, ahead of time. The first dish was a selection of different kinds of bread (whole-wheat, fine-herbs bread, calamari sauce bread and almond bread), pork and a sausage prepared by Alberto himself. The second dish was a traditional stew with Malanga, yucca, sweet potato and corn. The third, corn cream with crab. The fourth included elements from the above, prepared with modern techniques: fish with vegetables, sweet potato pure, pumpkin soufflé, fish scratchlings, fried rice and pork (prepared using a novel technique).
What About Vegetarians?
As a vegetarian, there were many things I didn’t try, but the things those around me said (“fantastic,” “incredible,” “how tasty,” “he outdid himself here”) spoke for themselves. The faces and expressions of those who ate in silence revealed not only the pleasure caused by the food but a hint of surprise at how they had been prepared.
Alberto: That’s where the art of cooking comes in.
Eat Good, Genuine Food in Peace
Alberto’s menu will include a dessert of one’s choosing – French toast, rice pudding and other childhood memories he wishes to bring back – and a glass of wine. The entire meal will cost 7 CUC.
Alberto: For only 7 CUC, people can have a good, genuine meal in peace here. It’s senseless to spend 30 CUC on a meal today and have no money left tomorrow. This is a “tasting” menu. I don’t have a menu you can choose from. It’s a selection of five dishes by the chef. All of the food will be prepared that same day.
HT: You spoke of food slaves and run-aways ate. What about aboriginal peoples?
Alberto: Though they had been practically exterminated by 1877, I am thinking of taking ingredients from what they ate, like cigua and sea snails. The latter is native to Cuba, but it’s illegal to catch them because they are in danger of extinction, so I’ll replace it with other mollusks, like clams. Using new cooking techniques, we can combine many tastes, deconstruct the dish and reconstruct it with all the extracts, without destroying its identity.
As for slave dishes, I’m going to prepare them using all of the root vegetables they ate, in addition to pork. Run-away slaves ate snakes, smoked rodents and veal. They and slaves ate a lot of beef jerky, a dried, salted meat.
Alberto is also laying his bets on private wine makers. The ginger wine he served during Saturday’s tasting comes from a seasoned wine-maker whose shop is near Alberto’s. He speaks to me of other wine-makers he’s met in recent months who have surprised him with the quality of their products.
Alberto: That’s what we’re looking for, local products. They also make a type of watercress wine that goes well with my bread and the fried snake. There are many good, unknown wine-makers here, and their bottles are very cheap. People only know the Soroa brand. But those who want to have their meal with the wine they buy elsewhere, more expensive wine or wine they like better, can bring it to the restaurant.
One of the things people found most original during the tasting was the pork paste served in tiny hats, the traditional Cuban stew in small bowls and the corn cream in plates. All were ceramic dishes, like the pot where the stew was cooked, over coal.
Alberto: They’re all made by Alexis, a very talented artist who lives in El Cano and does wonderful things.
Alberto says he will continue to bake the bread, though in less quantities. His restaurant will be open from 12 to 9.
Alberto: In the course of this year, we’ve been able to determine what types of bread people prefer and the approximate amount of each we sell.
Though Alberto will make 5 types of bread, he claims he will make crackers and bread sticks that many people have come to like.
Feeling Good About Oneself
On Saturday, October 10, Salchipizza was full of Alberto’s friends, artists, intellectuals and journalists who have interviewed Alberto in the past. Between 8 and 11 at night, we enjoyed exotic dishes, good conversation and music (from pop to pieces by the band Osain de Monte, very much in keeping with the date and food Alberto was celebrating).
When we said goodbye, his exhaustion (after several days of work for the opening) was evident. He also has a great challenge ahead of him. Judging from the reactions of those who were there on Saturday, his first patrons, I have no doubts his food will appeal to customers. However, I could not help but ask a question the day before Salchipizza’s reopening, when Alberto granted me a short interview.
HT: I think you can prove you can have a good meal for 7 CUC, but, will you make a profit?
Alberto: If you do a market study for the things you need and buy at State and other markets, without looking for imported ingredients, which aren’t always available (and make meal prices go up), you can put together a good menu and offer reasonable prices.
Profits are not all about money. They have to do with feeling good about myself, proving that something can be done. Many people are going to discover new cooking techniques this way.
The address is: Infanta #562 e/ Zapata y Valle, Centro Habana
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