F&W Star Chef
Restaurants and shops: Zafra, Cucharamama, Ultramarinos (Hoboken, NJ)
Education: Doctorate in medieval Spanish history, New York University (New York City)
What dish are you most known for?
At Cucharamama, people love things from the wood-burning oven. We roast tons of things—fish, shrimp, even bananas. At Zafra, people seem to adore our Cuban-style fresh corn tamales, wrapped in a cornhusk and served with a spicy sauce.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
A 14th-century Catalan cookbook called Libre de Sent Soví. It’s a collection of medieval Spanish recipes that I turn to again and again. With help from that book and others like it, I’ve been able to trace the history of Latin American ingredients and techniques back to Spain.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned?
Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. He started the tapas movement in the US. He was a Peruvian-born chef who owned a restaurant called the Ballroom in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. He had been James Beard’s assistant at his cooking school, and his companion—he traveled the world with Beard. He was also the founding chef of Dean & DeLuca. The Ballroom was the first tapas restaurant in the US. It was also very glamorous—it had a cabaret attached where people like Peggy Lee and Karen Akers would perform.
I was doing my dissertation at NYU when I went to visit a mutual friend at the Ballroom kitchen. Felipe saw us and joked, “If you’re going to be here more than 15 minutes, you have to cook something.” So I made flans, and they sold out. Felipe invited me to come in on my days off, and we became close friends. He knew that I could write, so he asked me to help him with some writing. He taught me how to write recipes. He became my best friend. He was like my cooking school.
He taught me to focus on flavor above everything else. Intense flavor—to leave nothing bland on the plate.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Rice and red kidney beans. It’s called congrí in Cuban. My grandfather’s cook Ines taught me when I was a very small child. I had to stand on a stool to stir. I did the whole thing by myself, so I was really excited when the dish was finished. Everybody applauded and I said, “I did it! I’m a cook!”
What’s the hardest cooking skill to learn?
How to make rice. I spend a whole chapter on it in my book (Gran Cocina Latina). It’s important to find the right vessel. I prefer the caldero, the Cuban-style or Latin American-style pot. It has the right thickness and shape—wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, to help the water evaporate. The ratio of water to rice is also important, and the temperature, and letting the rice steam for 20 minutes after you stir. Once you’ve mastered that, it’s also important to adjust to your taste. Maybe you like fluffy rice, or more tightly packed.
What’s the best bang-for-the-buck food destination?
Lima, Peru. The street food is fantastic everywhere, from sandwich shops to the anticuchos (heart kabobs), it’s all there for the taking. It’s also safe. For restaurants, I like Pedro Miguel Schiaffino’s Amazonian restaurant Malabar, and Gastón Acurio’s La Mar Cebicheria.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
My great-grandmother’s gigantic pestle. It’s made out of guayacán, or guaiacum, a very hard wood. It brought me a lot of problems in the Cuba and Miami airports because they thought it was a weapon.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I want them to talk about peppers. I grow hundreds every year. People’s lives would change if they incorporated more Latin American peppers into their cooking.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I raise pigeons here and at my father’s house in Miami. There, we have Cuban pigeons that are called Palomas, or thief pigeons. They fly out and bring other pigeons into the coop. Here, I have different breeds. Right now they’re mongrels because I rescued a couple of Rock pigeons and then I rescued a couple of heirloom Helmet pigeons, which are usually white except for their heads. And now they’ve mingled, so I have pigeons with helmets and different colored feathers. They’re incredibly beautiful.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.