The San Juan chef, who recently cooked a benefit dinner at Gramercy Tavern, is part of a grassroots movement to rebuild the island

Chef Juan Jose
Credit: Courtesy of Condado Vanderbilt

On Sunday, Juan Jose Cuevas joined Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern to cook a one-night-only tasting menu to raise funds for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. The San Juan chef, who helms the kitchen at 1919 in Condado Vanderbilt, and Anthony donated proceeds from the six-course, wine-pairing dinner to Regrow Puerto Rico, a Visit Rico charity that is helping farmers and artisan food producers rebuild the agricultural market in Puerto Rico.

"Puerto Ricans are high-spirited and staying positive, determined to bring the island back," Cuevas says. The six properties that International Hospitality Enterprises manage, including Condado Vanderbilt, remained open during the hurricane and are currently serving as a home base for people helping with the recovery efforts. "San Juan is steadily returning."

Yet the situation in Puerto Rico remains bleak. Since Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island on Sept. 20, most towns and communities across the island still don't have power. (CNN estimates that 95% of the 3.4 million Americans on the island don't have power.) On Nov. 3, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said that the death toll from Hurricane Maria is actually hundreds higher than official government counts, which puts it at 55. (She estimates it's over 500.) The massive damage done to the island's water system is becoming a serious public health crisis.

Even in San Juan, one resident tells me, "I'm only drinking bottled water," adding, "Almost all of Old San Juan is still without power."

Cuevas, like so many others on the island, are getting to work. The chef is working closely with farmers across the island to bring in their produce and other products to keep the economy moving. "Even in the midst of a very, very hard time, Puerto Ricans are coming together to celebrate what they do have, and it’s very inspiring to be part of," he says. "Hurricane Maria has taught us a lot about the importance of food security, and with our farming industry greatly impacted, I am working closely with my friend and colleagues to help rebuild and regrow."

For many crops, it may take up to two years to see them come back, so many farmers are trying new and quicker crops in the short term to aid in the process, Cuevas says. "Some farmers are creating new endeavors on their land and learning what can survive during a natural disaster such as a hurricane," he adds. "For example, root vegetables survived the hurricane, and now I’m incorporating these items more than ever into our 1919 menus. We also have learned what controlled environments worked especially well such as greenhouses and working to create more controlled environments for growing."

Coming to New York to cook at Gramercy Tavern, to celebrate and support Puerto Rico, held great personal meaning for Cuevas.

"I got my start in New York’s culinary scene at Union Square Cafe and earned my Michelin stars in the city," he says. "During my time at Blue Hill, I worked with Chef Michael, just before Chef Michael joined the Union Square Hospitality Group family. It was during this time in New York that I developed my deep passion for and experience with farm-to-table cooking."

He finds that New York represents the same spirit that Puerto Ricans are exemplifying in the midst of such devastation.

"With the team at 1919, as well as Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, we kept the hotel and restaurant open through the hurricane, and they've remained open and fully operational," he says. "We supported each other, the community and those who have since come to help. This is true resiliency."

When asked the best way for people on the mainland to help with the island's recovery, Cuevas doesn't hesitate. "Come visit in early 2018," he says, adding that tourism is crucial to the island's economy. "I would love to cook for each and every one of you, showing you what Puerto Rican cuisine means today, in the modern sense, and post-Hurricane Maria."