Chef Maria Mercedes Grubb misses New York City. After spending her formative years as a cook working crazy hours in Manhattan—she studied at the International Culinary Institute before working at restaurants including Pastis, The Modern, Maialino, and Bar Basque—the Puerto Rico-born chef decided to return home to San Juan be closer to her family. And while she enjoys the pace of the island, she’s still missing the near-24-hour access to specialty ingredients she enjoyed in New York City. “Here in Puerto Rico, the menu is very limited,” she said. “Everybody just does rice and beans.” To compensate, Mercedes Grubb started her own supper club, Underground Dining Club, where she finds available spaces in which to cook different international meals. She also tries to bring as many New York flavors as possible to Gallo Negro, the San Juan restaurant at which she’s the executive chef. Food & Wine asked Mercedes Grubb about the evolution of her career, what inspires her in San Juan and why she puts the hashtag #knivesandlipstick on all of her Instagram posts.
How did you get your start as a chef?
Professionally, I started cooking in New York about ten years ago. My first kitchen was Pastis. I studied at the French Culinary Institute (now called the International Culinary Center). While I was going to school, I was working at Pastis—I was the only girl there, so that was very interesting. The kitchen crew was made of badass, hard-working men. They were perfect gentlemen—with the occasional "how you doing?" pickup line. They always wanted to help me, whether carrying stuff or with prep. I always refused. I wanted to prove to myself that I could carry that 50-pound box of butter from the basement as well as they could. I also wanted to learn.
What’s the story behind Underground Dining Club?
I started UDC in November 2011. When I came to Puerto Rico, I didn’t feel like I was fitting in. I also missed a lot of food from New York, the things that you can just walk around the corner and eat. But here in Puerto Rico, the menu is very limited. Everybody just does rice and beans—maybe some people do upscale rice and beans. The Asian food is not that great, and it’s hard to find international flavors like Malaysian or Moroccan.
When I left New York, the whole supper club trend was starting to blow up. I really loved the idea of just popping up for one day so that people could enjoy some beautiful food—no fuss, no muss. You come in, clean up and that’s it. I host it at my home, or at my restaurant, or at art galleries.
My home base is Gallo Negro and I’m using the same style there that I use at UDC. I have a .99-cent menu that is like dim sum. It’s one bite, and I have six items that I rotate on a bar-only menu. Now it’s really picking up, which maybe has to do with the economy, which is currently in a debt crisis. That’s really hot right now.
You’ve been back in Puerto Rico for a few years now: Have you noticed that the scene has shifted?
The way I look at it now, I can’t sit here and complain and do nothing about it. I can’t just stomp my feet and say, “I miss pho.” If I want pho, I’m going to make it and serve it. And people get excited. They’re like, "Oh my God, I love pho. Thank you so much." I see that reaction. A lot of people go to study in the States, and when they return they find a lot of the cuisine that they experienced there at my restaurant, and they’re as excited about it as I am.
I pretty much march to the beat of my own drum. A lot of people are talking about how we should cook with only local ingredients, change the menu daily—and I’m all about that. But unfortunately, my resources are limited. Very few chefs are able to get ahold of the fresh fish here, and the few farmers we have are growing things exclusively for specific chefs—so I don’t have dibs on as much as I would like to when it comes to ingredients. Over 80 percent of food is imported in Puerto Rico. More of it could definitely be produced, but there's a lack of laborers. Same goes with fishing. Most of the fresh fish stays on the coast; when it comes to San Juan, we get some fish, just not as consistently for some restaurants to keep up with the demand.
But at the same time, I don’t pay attention to what other people are doing. I’m very selfish; I cook what I like. If I’m missing Korean fried chicken, I’m gonna find a way to get gochujang and I’m going to make it. That’s my style. It’s very personal cooking; it’s not a trend.
How did your hashtag, #knivesandlipstick, come about?
My best friend, with whom I worked at Maialino, has her own supper club in New York called The Brooklyn Belly. Whenever I go back, I try to cook with her. One day, she handed me red lipstick. I never in my life wore lipstick, but I look young, and being a woman working in kitchens, I was always asked how old I am. I thought, You know what? It works. Now people will stop asking me how old I am. Since then, I’ve been rocking the lipstick and it kind of stuck. I’m all about the knives and lipstick.
What is inspiring to you in San Juan?
I’m very picky. I guess I was spoiled by New York in this sense. But lately, I’ve noticed a little bit of a shift in food here. There’s this place called La Jaquita Baya—I’m really in love with the food. He rocks the whole upscale, local flavors thing beautifully. There’s also Compostela—the chef is an old-school, badass guy with the most on-point technique.