Cuban-American Chef David Guas on Cuba’s Transforming Food Scene
“Closing our relationship with Cuba can only lead to not good things. Even if we froze things to where they are now, it wouldn’t be good for Cuba’s growth.”
“Now for the first time ever in Cuba, we’re able to pick up the phone and call for delivery,” his driver told him. “My wife still cooks everything at home, though.” Another scene that struck Guas: a cutesy, pink-and-white trimmed cake shop on the side of the road serving cupcakes alongside traditional Cuban pastries with eclectic twists—exactly the sort of boutique bakery you’d see on a hip block of an American city.
“In Cuba, you weren’t allowed to be creative,” Guas says. “There were all these amazing artists and musicians, especially in the younger generation, who were told they couldn’t create. And we were seeing it in plain view. The mere existence of these operations says something.”
The change, as he sees it, is due at least in part to the relaxation of restrictions on travel to and business on the island by the United States. “When Obama relaxed sanctions, it helped everything,” he says. “Even the fact that he was the first U.S. president to go there.”
Suddenly paladares, small family-run restaurants, expanded their clientele thanks to the new influx of tourists—and their spending power. That, in-turn helped lead to things like pastel cake shops.
Guas, whose father is from a Havana neighborhood called Miramar, was born and raised in New Orleans. In 2012, he visited Cuba with his father—who hadn’t been back since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959—and they returned last summer to speak with a crop of new culinarily-minded small business owners. He witnessed a dramatic transformation of the food scene, led by people who had left Cuba to train in America or Europe and brought back their new skills.
One woman Guas met had gone to Miami to take gelato classes, which led to a gelato apprenticeship in Italy. Last summer, he visited her gelato shop; she had just made the cover of a local magazine. Another new business owner, Alberto Gonzalez, was running a brand-new coffee shop in central Havana, as well as a Neopolitan-style pizza place next door.
“No one has done this in Cuba—ever,” says Guas, who helms Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, Virginia. “No one has attempted to make pizza from scratch, let alone this style of pizza. Cubans are very apprehensive about change, so Gonzalez and his business partner were discussing what they wanted to do with the place because they were struggling. People were complaining that the pizza was burnt and that there weren’t enough toppings—everything that Americans, introduced to this style about eight or seven years ago, love about it: that it’s chewy and light on toppings, and that the crust is bubbly.”
Though he doesn’t have any relatives (that he knows of) left in the country, Guas comes from a political Cuban family. His grandfather’s first cousin was vice president under Fulgencio Batista, and he has letters congratulating Dr. Mariano Guas, his great-great-grandfather, for winning the mayoral election in Havana in 1959.
“He won in November and was supposed to take office in January of 1960, but that’s when everything happened,” Guas says. “His home was burned to the ground, and he hid with a family member for days before he could sneak out and leave the country.”
And while a return to those sorts of extremes may not return, Guas does see danger for Cuba’s nascent growth. President Trump announced his plan to roll back Obama-era Cuba policies, saying “Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”
Closing America’s relationship with Cuba can only lead to “not good things,” Guas says. “All this progress could be in jeopardy. Even if we froze things to where they are now, it wouldn’t be good for Cuba’s growth.”
And what that could mean for the rapidly changing Cuban food scene—we’ll have to find out on a future trip.