Just ask chef Juan José Cuevas—vegan Puerto Rican food is real, and it’s spectacular.
You hear “Puerto Rico” and an array of meats and fried foods come to mind: tostones, mofongo, carne frita, crispy pig skin turning golden while the whole animal roasts on a spit. But that picture doesn’t tell the whole story, especially not in the kitchen of Juan José Cuevas, the executive chef at 1919 Restaurant in San Juan.
“In the preparation of the ingredients used for each dish, the intention is to bring the flavor forward without distraction,” he says. “My aim is to obtain clarity in taste and presentation, so that the guest can fully realize the essence of the products used.”
That intention becomes exceptionally clear when he’s tasked with creating delicious meat-free dishes, which are available on 1919’s menu and on his off-menu vegetarian (or vegan) prix-fixes.
“My signature cuisine abandons the traditional use of meats and creams, and instead presents the intense flavors and textures of vegetable juices, fruit essences, light bouillons and herbal vinaigrettes,” he says.
During a recent dinner, local chiles offered subtle spice to a dish of warm tomato broth, in which small red tomatoes, cooked just enough that they pop open in your mouth, were complemented by meaty mushrooms and the brightness of purslane. The dish lacked for nothing, and was distinctly local in its use of acidity and not-overwhelming heat.
“Our food is Puerto Rican in flavor, ingredients and old techniques,” Cuevas says. “We use the staple sofrito, herbs and long-cooking to bring out flavors and textures.”
Before chef Cuevas moved back to his native island, he spent many years cooking in San Sebastian, Spain at Arkelare and in New York at Blue Hill, bringing back with him a commitment to locality and seasonality that inspired him to create deep relationships with local farmers and fishermen. Here, he tells us how he’s creating a vegetable-forward restaurant that redefines common ideas about Puerto Rican cuisine.
What are the most important lessons you brought back from your time in Spain and New York to San Juan?
I brought back respect for the product. The product is the only truth; each good product grown with love and respect deserves to speak and perform. Start from the beginning where taste is real, and aromas are genuine.
People often think of Puerto Rican cuisine as heavy and fried. What's wrong (or right) about that notion, and how do you combat it with your cooking?
To a certain point, yes, it is true: Puerto Rican food is heavy and fried, but it is also very flavorful. My cooking has a cleaner flavor; we reinterpret old Puerto Rican dishes, but with a clarity of taste. I replace lard or cream and meat-based sauces with olive oil, cold-pressed juices, tomato water, vegetable nage and infusions.
If someone is struggling to make tasty vegan or vegetarian dishes, what advice would you give them?
Use the same ingredient in different forms in the same dish to intensify flavor. Example: a calabaza (pumpkin) jus is made with raw calabaza juice reduced, infused with spices and emulsified with extra-virgin olive oil. We add raw calabaza, calabaza flower and a pinch of citrus juice. Also, we use techniques that enhance flavor, such as roasting, grilling and sous vide. (Never blanch.) Go ethnic—there are a lot of flavorful spices to use.
What are the top things you consider when preparing a vegetarian menu?
I don’t see a diet as a way of living, but more of a lifestyle. I use the same approach as I do on all menus— that is, a progression of flavors and textures. Soft and delicate at beginning, robust and complex at the end. Have variety: raw and cooked vegetables, grains, legumes, mushrooms, nuts. A vegetarian menu doesn’t need to be bland; on the contrary, it can be colorful, exciting and complex.
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