A Restaurant Renaissance Comes To Puerto Rico Courtesy Of Hurricane Maria

Food & Drink

Barry Gutin started looking at a Puerto Rican site for his Philadelphia-based restaurant and rum bar, Cuba Libre, six years ago. He was mere months away from signing a lease in the fall of 2017 when Hurricane Maria struck, destroying $100 billion worth of property, infrastructure and assets. Gutin decided that would end his brick-and-mortar relationship with the American commonwealth before it even started.

But Gutin and his chef-partner, two-time James Beard award-winner Guillermo Pernot, had hired storm refugees to work in their other kitchens and dining rooms in Orlando, Atlantic City and Washington, D.C. and changed their minds about retreating once they’d heard one too many heartwarming stories from displaced employees about resilience and cooperation. In January, they’ll break ground on a $8.6 million, 290-seat, 10,000 square foot space in what Gutin calls a “crown jewel” location just outside the front doors of Plaza Las Américas, the Caribbean’s largest shopping and lifestyle center, located in San Juan. It’s scheduled to open a year later.

“We saw consumerism was still strong. People were buying things and enjoying their lives,” he says, adding, in a written statement, “We decided to invest in post-Maria Puerto Rico to help in the commonwealth’s economic recovery and to provide opportunity for our employees from Puerto Rico who hope to move back, as well as restaurant workers still there. In essence, we believe in the future of the Island of Enchantment, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

So, it seems, are myriad other notable chefs and restaurateurs — from old-timers trying new things like José Enrique, Wilo Benet, Juan José Cuevas and José Santaella, to relative newcomers launching their own first-time initiatives like Pierre-Philippe Saussy and Lucía Merino, to existing off-island brands, like STK, entering the market. Some hailing from Puerto Rico and others not, they’re forming the leading edge of what appears to be a post-Maria culinary comeback that should, if successful, usher in a dining era revolutionary enough to transform the way islanders and visitors eat for generations to come.

“I agree with the celebrity chefs who predict Caribbean food is becoming the ‘next’ food,” says Mario Pagán, a native Puerto Rican who’s won major acclaim for his many San Juan-area restaurants from the world’s top food and travel magazines. One year after opening his latest, Raya, in the O:LV Fifty Five hotel, which infuses pan-Caribbean flavors and ingredients into Asian cuisine, he says, “We have so many influences from Asia, Africa, Spain. You name it, we’ve got them.”

“Puerto Rico has the best of both worlds. We’re part of the U.S. while at the same time we’re a different culture,” adds José Salvatella, president of the ASORE restaurant association of Puerto Rico.  “And we’re attractive from an investment standpoint. We don’t have to deal with foreign currency exchange, and the economy after the hurricane is revamping.”

Puerto Rico is no stranger to memorable restaurants, though the vast majority rest in the realm of traditional, family-style and beach casual. Fine dining establishments have popped up over the decades, primarily to entertain rich-and-famous guests at luxurious San Juan hotels. A small number of award-winning international chefs started to create a more modern dining culture over the last ten to 15 years but counter-intuitively the scene has only begun inching toward critical mass since the hurricane hit.

“After the hurricane some chefs left and haven’t come back,” Pagán says. “A lot of restaurants closed and that gave way to the chefs emerging right now.”

Those emerging chefs, most having worked in major metropolitan cities, are bringing concepts to Puerto Rico that haven’t existed there before – most prominently the locavore movement. With the farm-to-table philosophy already so firmly entrenched in American diners’ collective expectations, it can be hard to imagine that it remains a fairly foreign notion on this island of plentiful produce.

Strangely, Maria deserves credit here, too. Once Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés fed millions of Puerto Ricans left hungry from the hurricane, he implemented the Plow to Plate initiative to provide grants and training to strengthen the local food economy and decrease reliance on imports. He also told local officials that in order to survive future catastrophic weather events, they, too, needed to foster the return of local farming, which freefell to 3% of employment and less than 1% of GDP after a government policy enacted in 1955 redirected the island to manufacturing and away from what had historically been its most important industry.

According to Pagán, the government launched programs to give 100% tax breaks on farmland and offer loans for farming equipment to people who could demonstrate success at harvesting crops. He says these programs have compelled millennials to stay on or move to the island to get into farming and mentions that between 15-20% of the island’s pre-storm food was grown there, while now he estimates it’s risen to 30%. Several agritourism businesses have cropped up, as have farm-and-food tour companies like Spoon Food Tours. Coincidentally, Cuba Libre’s Pernot, who’ll lead the culinary team as corporate chef, taught Honduran chefs and farmers ways to increase agricultural production as part of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative in 2015.     

“It was more important after the hurricane to support our local purveyors, and the quality of products on the island is really good and getting better and better all the time,” says Juliana González, whose Caña restaurant at El San Juan Hotel sources everything as locally as possible. “Farmers talk to chefs to see what they’re looking for.”

The local food ethos extends to drinking at these restaurants, as well. Both Gutin and Pagán, who spent ten years as an official Puerto Rican rum ambassador, plan to showcase not just Bacardi, made just outside San Juan, but the smaller island favorites of Don Q and Barrilito, as well. Plus, some of the trendy new hotspots focus more on the drinks than the food, with the names Bottles and Vin’Us coming up a lot.

Gonzalez says her partner at Cana, who designed the bar menu, will exclusively use local rum and fresh-squeezed mixers.

“She uses a lot of fresh juices and Caribbean flavors and is trying to use whatever we produce on the island,” she says.

Since the disastrous post-storm neglect foisted on Puerto Ricans by their president, those who chose not to relocate are realizing more than ever that they need to take care of their own. ASORE says some of the first businesses to reopen were restaurants, which proved critical to restructuring efforts. 

“Eight-to-12 weeks after the heat of the hurricane restaurants were key to providing hot food to the people of Puerto Rico. It was one of our biggest eye openers that for some going to a restaurant is a necessity, not a luxury,” says Salvatella.

That change in outlook helped convince lawmakers to drop the restaurant sales tax, starting this past October 1, from 11.5% to 7% — still a ways off from the 1% sales tax on grocery items but progress nonetheless.  

Another program, implemented in 2012, is also helping boost restaurant traffic. Act 22 encourages wealthy private investors to relocate to the island by allowing them to pay no commonwealth tax on passive income and no capital gains tax through 2035. This popular program is not only bringing more disposable income to the island after a debilitating decade-long recession but more global and cosmopolitan tastes, as well.

Both Salvatella and Gutin say these expectations are spreading to the general population and have restaurant owners focusing almost as much on the experience of the meal as the meal itself.

“When you speak to people with disposable income they love to support restaurants doing creative things,” says Gutin. “The ground we’re breaking there is going from restaurant as a dining occasion to restaurant as an experience and celebration.”

Gutin’s anecdotes bear out in the numbers. A 2019 survey by ASORE found average consumer spending at Puerto Rican restaurants up 17%, or $64 per month, compared with last year.

Tourism dollars reached record levels this year, and slowly but surely, San Juan’s most fashionable hotels are coming back online after Maria, with many showing off extensive upgrades and swanky new culinary options. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hospitality employment recovered to 2016 levels by July 2018, after losing more than 10,000 jobs to the storm.

This spring, the ambitious El Distrito dining and entertainment center will open near San Juan’s convention center and cruise ship terminals. Among the concert venue, zip line, hotel, cinema, micro-distillery, 62,000 square feet of bars and restaurants (including a Puerto Rican coffee shop) and other amenities, Pagán will run a rum bar to showcase the island’s favorite libation.  

With palpable jubilation, he summarizes, “We are living through great culinary times in Puerto Rico.”

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