The setting: the sprawling backyard of an affluent San Juan suburb, whose residents typically spend their summers on St. Bart's and make regular appearances in the society pages of Caras magazine. Cookbook authors Carolina Buia and Isabel González are throwing a garden party at the home of their friends Raul and Millie Escudero. The guests are sipping Floriditas and checking out one another's outfits: Following the Latin theme, several of the men have opted to wear Cuban guayabera shirts, while many of the women (including Puerto Rico-born Deborah Carthy Deu, a former Miss Universe), are in head-turning dresses by renowned Latin American designers like Carolina Herrera.
Carolina and Isabel, who live in New York City, are in Puerto Rico to catch up with friends—most of whom seem to have euphonious names like Glorimar—and to celebrate the launch of their first cookbook, Latin Chic: Entertaining with Style and Sass. The book brings together 60 of the pair's favorite Latin recipes, plus more than 40 drinks, including one for the Torito, a mango cocktail made from a recipe that Isabel pried from Salma Hayek's family. Latin Chic also doubles as a style manual: Every chapter is full of decorating and serving suggestions, such as using Mexican playing cards as placeholders, turning postcards of old Latin movies into invitations and serving tapas in seashells. Interspersed throughout are sections on traditional customs, with tips on everything from how to smoke a cigar (never ash it, and never relight it after an hour) to how to interpret the language of the fan (a variation in the tilt can mean the difference between "follow me" and "adios, loser").
For Carolina, 29, and Isabel, 34, journalists who have been best friends since they met about five years ago, the book is a way of highlighting Latin America's burgeoning influence on U.S. culture. "As the Hispanic population increases, so does our cultural impact," says Carolina, who developed most of the recipes for the book (Isabel focused primarily on cocktails and style). "You can definitely see it in the music industry, from the success of singers like Shakira to the growing audience for styles like reggaeton."
"Even the popularity of someone like Eva Longoria on Desperate Housewives is telling," adds Isabel, who's straining to be heard over a recording by the Dominican merengue singer Juan Luis Guerra. "I love that a Latina gets to have an affair with a gringo gardener on a prime-time television show. A few years ago, she would have been the day laborer."
In addition to holding a mirror up to Latin American style, Latin Chic reflects Carolina and Isabel's lives, putting together ideas and trends from all over Latin America rather than one specific country or region. Carolina, who looks like a cross between Marie-Chantal of Greece and the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, was born in Venezuela and moved to Miami when she was four. "I think that my parents imbued in me a sense of wanting to mix things up," she says. "My dad traveled a lot for work and would bring back recipes and ideas. My parents lived in London for a while and my mother went through an Indian phase, making plantains with curried chicken on the side. People come to eat at my parents' house all the time. I always joke that Chez Buia is the best restaurant in Miami."
Isabel's parents moved to Miami and eventually settled in Atlanta after fleeing the Cuban Revolution in the early '60s. At one point her family owned a small café called Sarita's that served predominantly Cuban cuisine. "They were so ahead of the curve. The day Sarita's closed they had a great write-up in USA Today," Isabel says. "Actually, quite a few of the recipes in the book came from the restaurant."
Both women say the pride they take in teaching others about their culture stems in part from watching their parents do the same. "When I was growing up in Atlanta, there weren't a lot of Cubans," Isabel recalls. "My dad was an academic, so my earliest memories are of my parents entertaining professors and introducing them to Cuban food and drinks—like mojitos, when nobody knew what a mojito was."
She adds: "I think our parents' and grandparents' generations tended to hang out more with their own kind. But Carolina and I have Latin friends from all over. And when we entertain, we get ideas from them. It's an exchange."
The cultural trade is evident in the pan-Latin menu Carolina and Isabel are serving at their garden party. Guests sample Carolina's version of arepas, Venezuelan corn cakes, which she stuffed with smooth, salty serrano ham from Spain and soft, buttery Oaxaca cheese from Mexico; a tangy, refreshing shrimp and squid cocktail popular in Nicaragua and Mexico, and reputed to be a hangover cure; a juicy, Caribbean-inspired pork tenderloin glazed with mango sauce and served with sweet, ripe plantains—sautéed until they're caramelized and slightly crisp—and a side dish of yuca topped with a puree made from red bell peppers, garlic and oregano.
"In our recipes, we like to use bright ingredients that will stimulate the appetite and the eye, such as adding a red-pepper sauce to yuca to make it pop," Carolina explains. "We like to focus on presentation because there's such a visual aspect to the way we both live," Isabel says.
This design-conscious approach extends to the duo's cocktail menus as well. At the party, Isabel greets guests with trays of Floriditas, a Cuban drink (inspired by a classic cocktail from a famous Hemingway haunt in Havana) that's made by mixing rum, white crème de cacao and grenadine, which colors the cocktail debutante-pink. Before dinner, she also passes around Baccarat highball glasses filled with Puerto Rican rum punch, a drink made with orange liqueur, sparkling wine and chunks of fresh pineapple. With the appetizers, she serves margaritas spiked with jalapeños that were soaked in tequila for three days; the after-dinner drinks include jerezanos, warm cocktails based on a cafecito and made with espresso and sweet Spanish sherry.
Carolina and Isabel are currently entertaining a number of new projects, including more cookbooks and a television show. In the meantime, they have more than enough work to keep them busy: Isabel is special projects editor at Teen People, responsible for covering trends and finding teens to profile. Carolina, whose married name is Barefoot, is a television reporter and has appeared on Telemundo and MSNBC. "I would love to do another book, and if I get pregnant, I can always call it Barefoot, Pregnant and In the Kitchen," she quips.
Whatever their future, Carolina and Isabel will surely continue to spread their enthusiasm for Latin American food and style. "I've always been very proud of being not only Cuban but also Hispanic, always had my fist in the air," Isabel says. Only these days, the raised fist is holding a pretty pink cocktail.
Horacio Silva is the features director at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.