The Chefs Leading Puerto Rico's Culinary Renaissance
San Juan’s chefs are leading a culinary renaissance on the island—and they’re lifting their community with them.
There's a phrase you’ll hear often in Puerto Rico: buen provecho. It’s the local way of saying “enjoy your meal,” but the two words literally translate to “good advantage.” And it’s a phrase that captures the determined optimism and creative energy taking hold on the island today.
It’s been a long time coming. On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, leaving it in shambles. The storm, the worst in 85 years, raked the island with 155-mile-per-hour winds, causing more than $100 billion worth of damage and taking 2,975 lives. Eighty percent of the island’s crop value vanished, and tens of thousands of residents fared without electricity or staple foods for the better part of a year. After the storm, nearly 4 percent of the population left the island for good.
But many, many more stayed. Among them was a cadre of committed chefs who set out to rebuild what was destroyed and to create something new from what remained—building up the island’s advantages through their creativity, activism, and cooking. This spring, I set out to meet them.
Natalia Rivera Vázquez, 35, is the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel’s executive sous chef, cooking at the acclaimed 1919 Restaurant alongside the executive chef Juan José Cuevas. I met with her in the hotel’s rose-colored marble lobby during one of her rare moments of downtime: Vázquez also owns El Jangiri, a poke-bowl spot in the popular San Juan “gastro-park” Lote 23, and, in partnership with Vanderbilt pastry chef Nasha Fondeur, runs the dessert caterer La Postrería (one recent gig: the opening gala for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Puerto Rico Hamilton run).
A year and a half ago, she told me, the same lobby we were standing in was packed with hundreds of relief workers, all of whom Vázquez and her team were scrambling to feed. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Suddenly, our mentality became about finding food—any food—and feeding the people who were working 24 hours a day to help us get back onto our feet.”
Today, Vázquez continues to focus on recovery, particularly the island’s agriculture. Before the hurricane, El Jangiri was an island leader for local sourcing, getting 80 percent of ingredients from Puerto Rican producers—on an island that imports 85 percent of its food. In the wake of the storm, which devastated Puerto Rico’s farms, Vázquez’s team has doubled down on those efforts, developing a network of over 30 chefs; every time she meets with a local farmer, she texts the network price comparisons with imported products. “Because of our buying power, hotels are in a position to have a real impact here,” she says.
Natalia Rivera Vázquez
“It showed me that one day you can have everything, and the next day you can have nothing,” says Vázquez of Hurricane Maria. The Condado Vanderbilt Hotel and El Jangiri chef is spearheading a movement to support local farms, which were devastated by the storm.
Later that day, as I wandered among the stalls in Lote 23, Mario Juan Pagán, 31, poked his head out of the window of an antique silver Airstream, home to Pagán’s Pernilería Los Próceres (aka PLP). Inside its metal walls, the chef channels his experience in world-class restaurants like New York’s Momofuku and San Sebastian’s Akelarre into sandwiches like the Revolución es Orden (nine-hour slow-roasted pork shoulder piled with carrot, radish, plantain chips, cilantro, and spicy mayo, served on a fluffy white roll). As I walked up, a long line of sandwich pilgrims was snaking out from the trailer.
“We were shut down for two weeks. Then, even with generators, the power was constantly going in and out,” Pagán says. “Nobody wanted to leave their homes. The traffic lights were dead. There were car accidents everywhere.” But as soon as they were able, Pagán and his fellow vendors started cooking, sending their food out to more remote areas on the island.
Mario Juan Pagán
Pagán serves wildly creative sandwiches from an Airstream parked at San Juan’s Lote 23 gastro-park. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Pagán teamed up with fellow park vendors to cook and send food to those in need.
At her restaurant Gallo Negro in the artsy neighborhood of Santurce, I meet María Mercedes Grubb, 39, a San Juan native whose childhood memories include sitting on the balcony, shelling gandules (pigeon peas), from which her mother would coax profound flavors. A love of Puerto Rican cuisine stayed with Grubb through a decade in New York City cooking in some of the city’s most celebrated kitchens (including The Modern and Maialino). And it is on full display at Gallo Negro, which marries global flavors and precise technique with island flavors and a sense of fun. One night, the menu might include “pork and beans,” a brined and seared pork chop paired with gandules, alubias, and pinto beans; another night, rich spaghetti bolognese (“boloyes”), bolstered with Puerto Rican longaniza sausage. (This spring, the James Beard Foundation included Grubb among the semifinalists for Best Chef: South).
Hurricane Maria left Grubb without power for months, an overwhelming cleanup, and barely any staff (many had fled to the mainland). But she knew others had been hit harder. “We knew there was going to be an immediate ripple effect of people losing jobs,” she says. That knowledge was the impetus for Serve PR, a nonprofit she cofounded. “The point was to raise money for that dishwasher who couldn’t work for months,” Grubb says, “or the restaurant that was about to close because they couldn’t pay rent.”
María Mercedes Grubb
After Hurricane Maria, Grubb, the chef-owner of San Juan restaurant Gallo Negro, cofounded a new venture: Serve PR. “We raise money for that dishwasher who couldn’t work for months, the restaurant that was about to close because they couldn’t pay rent,” she says.
Grubb has also made an impact by dint of being one of the first women to lead a professional kitchen on the island. She’s part of a growing diversification in Puerto Rico’s restaurant industry that chef Paxx Caraballo Moll (a F&W 2019 Best New Chef) is helping to expand to include the LGBTQ community: Moll, 40, is trans (and uses they/them pronouns). When we met at the contemporary tiki bar JungleBird, which houses Moll’s restaurant, Jungle BaoBao, they were in the upstairs kitchen. They were rolling bright violet gnocchi made from purple yams, which would be roasted and served with grilled endive, stewed pigeon peas and kimchi, and dots of creamy queso fresco—a dish characteristic of the chef’s colorful cooking style.
Like much of their food, the dish was beguiling and photogenic, and Moll planned to post it along with the hashtag they originated: #queersinthekitchen. The tag (with 2,944 posts as of press time) is starting to catch on in Puerto Rico and on the mainland, raising the profile of the trans culinary community (and Moll’s visibility along with it).
“Putting myself out there has been scary,” they told me, “but that’s how I can give hope and reassurance that things can be better for our community.” Late last year, Moll (along with three other Puerto Rican chefs, including Grubb) was invited to cook at the James Beard Foundation in New York City, marking the first time an openly trans chef cooked there.
Paxx Caraballo Moll
Moll, the talent behind vibrant dishes at Jungle BaoBao, has been championing a more inclusive culture for LGBTQ cooks. The walls have started falling, and not just in San Juan: This spring, Moll became the first openly trans chef to cook at the James Beard House in NYC.
My last stop was at chef Francis Guzmán’s restaurant Vianda (also a Beard semifinalist, for Best New Restaurant), which opened six months after the hurricane hit. Guzmán and his wife and business partner, Amelia Dill, had moved back to Puerto Rico, where Guzmán is from, in 2016 after years working in fine-dining restaurants on the mainland.
“During the hurricane we were in the middle of construction,” Guzmán says. “But it only delayed us a couple of months, and by Maria standards, that was nothing.” Guzmán, 35, emphasizes traditional Puerto Rican cooking, with influences veering from Mediterranean to Thai to Italian and technique honed by his stints at Jardinière in San Francisco and Blue Hill in NYC. Local produce anchors every dish, from the carrots in a tart with cumin, yogurt, dates, and curry, to the galangal that lends gingery depth to his “tom kha” bacalao.
Guzmán hopes that seeing Vianda open its doors post-hurricane will embolden others to start new businesses as well. “Restaurants play an important role in the island recovery. They are places to gather. They are places to nurture people,” he says. “Our guests often say, ‘Thank you for being here.’ I think that’s the best sign that we’re doing something good.”
At Vianda, Guzmán emphasizes local products and a refined take on traditional Puerto Rican recipes. “Every dish has at least one local component,” he says, and that’s no small feat on an island that imports 85 percent of its food.
Where to go next in San Juan
Originally owned by Frederick Vanderbilt, the oceanfront Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is among the most luxurious in San Juan. Guests can book a package that includes an excursion to a farm with chef Juan José Cuevas, where guests harvest ingredients for their own tasting menu at 1919 Restaurant. (Rooms from $311; condadovanderbilt.com)
Head over to tropical bar JungleBird for dishes like pickled and fried eggplant tossed with sambal, honey, and butter from Paxx Caraballo Moll, whose eatery, Jungle BaoBao, is inside the bar. The artsy Santurce district is home to Gallo Negro, where María Mercedes Grubb’s menu might include a classic fettuccine al burro or tuna tataki, sashimi-grade tuna dressed in bitter orange ponzu sauce, tobiko, ají, and avocado mousse. Nearby is Francis Guzm mán's Vianda. If they’re on the menu, be sure to try the almojábanas—fritters stuffed with fresh cheese and paired with guava sauce. At Lote 23, picnic with a poke bowl from Natalia Rivera Vázquez’s El Jangiri or a pernil (slow-roasted pork shoulder) sandwich at Mario Juan Pagán’s Pernilería Los Próceres.
Just east of San Juan are the sandy beaches, boardwalks, and frituras vendors of Piñones, where snacks like coconut arepas, crab turnovers, and alcapurrias (green banana and taro fritters) fill the bellies of sun worshipers. Don’t miss local faves El Rinconcito Latino, Kiosko El Boricua, and Kiosko Las Dos Palmas.