Sunday, May 15, 2011

Restaurant resurgence: Cuba relaxes rules, allowing chefs freedom to operate

Restaurant resurgence: Cuba relaxes rules, allowing chefs freedom to operate
By Peter Orsi, Associated Press
Posted May 15, 2011 at midnight

Marcial Radillo prepares a cocktail at La Moneda Cubana, a private
restaurant in Old Havana, Cuba. A restaurant boom is sweeping Havana
under new rules that make it easier to run "paladars."

HAVANA -- Ramon Menendez went to his grave in the 1980s believing that
his family grocery, shut down by Fidel Castro's revolution, would one
day rise again. In January it finally happened.

La Moneda Cubana, which sold groceries, snacks and liquor, is back in
business in the heart of Old Havana. But now, under the management of
grandson Miguel Angel Morales Menendez, it's an elegant restaurant, one
of dozens that have sprung up as the country struggles to adapt its
communist system to modern economic realities.

"My grandfather would be proud," Morales said. "I kept telling people
it's not a dream! It's not a dream! One day it will be possible. One
they have to let us."

After years spent working in dreary state-run restaurants and hush-hush
culinary speakeasies, restaurateurs and chefs are operating under a set
of new, less exacting rules that allow their talents freer reign. There
are brand new places such as La Moneda Cubana, and splashy reopenings
such as La Guarida, made famous by the Oscar-nominated 1993 movie
"Strawberry and Chocolate."

The boom runs the gamut from La Pachanga, which serves guava shakes and
towering $4 burgers, to Cafe Laurent, a converted penthouse where the
mostly foreign clientele can easily drop $30 a head -- more than Cuba's
average monthly wage.

If the restaurants are successful, they could generate badly needed tax
revenue and provide a model for how to shrink the bloated state-employed
sector by absorbing hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats into the
private sector.

"This was long overdue," said Jose Antonio Figueroa, 39, a partner in
Cafe Laurent. "This is a chance to achieve what we always wanted."

After six years working at El Templete, one of the more highly regarded
government restaurants, he, another manager and an assistant chef quit
to start their own place as soon as the rules were announced last fall.

At Cafe Laurent, they have the freedom to set their own prices,
experiment with the menu, handpick employees who care about service --
and pay them enough not to pilfer food for their families.

The new eateries are a boon for well-off residents and tourists tired of
the bland fare at many government restaurants.

"It's a lot better food, better service," said Simon Castellani, a
21-year-old visiting student from Copenhagen who was dining on fresh
shrimp at Cafe Laurent.

Authorities first let private restaurants open in homes in 1993 during
the austerity that followed the collapse of Cuba's lifeline, the Soviet

But just months later they slammed on the brakes. In 1995 they rolled
out strict rules: Paladars (the word is Spanish for "palate") were
limited to 12 seats and prohibited from serving steak or seafood. Live
music was banned. Employees had to be family members or registered as
residents of the home.

The restaurant scene peaked in 1996-1997, when the government decided
the economic crisis was easing. It sharply raised the restaurateurs'
taxes and stepped up enforcement.

"They began to phase this experiment out," said Ted Henken, a professor
of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch college in New York.
"I think that was mostly due to Fidel's ideological aversion to this
kind of thing."

Only a handful of the most successful survived. Even La Guarida, whose
A-list of past guests ran from Jack Nicholson to Queen Sofia of Spain,
shut down in 2009. Its owner was quoted as saying the laws made it too
tough to operate.

The new rules allow the independent restaurants to seat up to 20 people.
Gone is the ban on seafood and steak, as well as the rule on hiring only
family members.

"That was always absurd," said Morales. "No family is entirely made up
of gastronomes and chefs."

Since then 60 to 100 restaurants have been launched in Havana, including
new, reopened and clandestine ones that went legit. They're also opening
in lesser numbers in cities on the tourist route.

In blistering hot Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city, a
number of homes now have improvised ice cream and fruit shops.

The new restaurant owners said getting a license is now quick and easy,
and government inspectors are professional and helpful.

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