(Chef Tito Nuñez teaches an up-and-coming chef at his El Romero Restaurant)
In lieu of a group visit out at his restaurant, Nuñez came one evening to the Hotel Nacional. A short, small-framed man with shorn hair, he had the look of a monk. The first thing I noticed was his calm energy, not the usual manic energy of many of my chef friends. He gave us a presentation about his 20-year struggle to try to introduce vegetarianism to Cuba. Nuñez became a vegetarian for health and ethical reasons, and for two decades has been patiently and slowly converting people one meal at a time. The restaurant's motto is "So that the cows, the chickens, the lobsters, the jutias (small Caribbean goats), the billy-goats and the fish may live." He is also a member of Slow Food international, one of just a few members in Cuba. He's also deeply concerned about the health of the Cuban people who are now suffering from the same chronic diet-related diseases that are at epidemic levels at home in North America. Maybe he'll lead Cuba's next revolution -- the vegetarian revolution.
(A fresh fruit cocktail with a view of Las Terrazas, an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1985)
Nuñez showed slides of his eco-restaurant, the 100-square meters of botanical and food gardens which supply his restaurant with 70% of the food he uses at his restaurant. The restaurant uses other sustainable technology such as a solar water heater to supply the dishwasher, and solar cookers and wood-fired ovens to cook the food. His commitment to the environment goes beyond just on-site gardens, vegetable and fruit-based foods. At El Romero, they make the "take away" packages with banana leaves. The menus are made from recycled paper and tied with natural fiber. The straws are "green" straws from hollow plant stems. The wine buckets are sewn from palm leaves. There are on-site beehives to provide the sweetener used at the restaurant.Besides the Eden-like setting for this restaurant, the technical skill outstripped anything I'd seen in Cuba, ever. (He was trained as an industrial engineer, and his precision and mathematical brain obviously inform his cooking. "What a painter does with colours," he tells me, "I do with flavours.") The food looked fresh, vibrant, packed with flavour and completely original. I almost cried just watching his slideshow. And yet, this man has been patiently beating a drum of healthy, sustainable and tasty food for almost 20 years. (The vegetarians in our group had a terrible time getting a square meal, whether at the Hotel Nacional and on our travels. The concept confused every restaurant chef we visited in Cuba, who rather than just putting together some black beans, rice, plantains and vegetables, would freak-out and create some truly horrible and misguided "creations.") Nuñez admitted that his crusade for healthier, more sustainable and ethical food choices is a very tough sell to the majority of Cubans. "This is a cultural problem," he tells us. Cubans only want to eat "meat, refined grains and rum." But with a 66-item menu, all of which looks like edible art, if anyone can convert committed carnivores, Nunez and his staff seem to be in a good position to do so.
(More kitchen gardens at El Romero restaurant)
(A platter at El Romero restaurant)
(Not really chicken soup at El Romero restaurant)
(Fresh herbs in the kitchen at El Romero (Note the eco-bamboo herb vases!)