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Cuban cuisine set to invade U.S. menus

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Yes, it’s way too soon to declare that Cuban cuisine will become a hot culinary trend. All we can say for sure is that U.S consumers who have embraced one aspect of it—the Cuban sandwich—may be eager for more. And now that the long-standing travel ban between U.S. and Cuba has been lifted, some of them are going straight to the source to get it, signing up for culinary tours of Cuba lead by ace chefs like Guillermo Pernot. The trip tab: nearly $4,000 a pop.

Pernot is concept chef/partner at Cube Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, which has four locations in the U.S.: Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Washington and Orlando. His restaurants are “dedicated to a continued exploration of Cuban heritage, art, music, flavors and traditions” and serve a menu with both classic and contemporary Cuban cuisine. It’s been a good niche for the talented Pernot, honored with a Best Chef-Mid-Atlantic award by the James Beard Foundation in 2002.

He’s one of relatively few people, chefs or otherwise, who have deep knowledge of Cuban cuisine. This lack of information is the result of 55 years of volatile relations between Cuba and the U.S. that included strict travel bans. Pernot describes the island’s food on the Cuba Libre website this way: “The cuisines of different ethnicities have been gently simmered in the cultural cauldron of Cuba to create what is now the Criollo (home-style) cuisine of the island. Blending native ingredients and cooking traditions with those of South America, Spain, Africa, Asia and several others, Cuban cuisine is a savory mix that reflects its colorful culture.”

This style of food is surprisingly undiscovered, given that Cuba is located just 90 miles away from the U.S. It’s close enough that at age 64, endurance swimmer Diana Nyad could swim from Cuba to Key West in 53 hours. Yet Cuban cuisine remains under the radar, in part because the best versions of it were produced in the country’s paladares, privately owned small restaurants, often located in the owner’s family home, that were technically illegal in the eyes of the Cuban government.

But now that the travel door is open, many U.S. travelers can’t wait to find out more about the country and its food.

Pernot’s trip, a six-day, five-night affair, departs Miami on Oct. 2 and returns Oct, 7. Only 24 places are available. The cost is $3,699 per person double occupancy, $3,999 for singles. Highlights include:

• Walking tours through Old Havana.

• Private dinners led by renowned Cuban chefs.

• Trips to the Havana Culinary School, Havana Farmers Market, a Viñales tobacco plantation, the Cuban Museum of Voodoo, an organic urban farm, the small fishing village of Jaimanitas, Morro Castle, “Finca Vigia” or Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home, the Havana Club Rum Museum and H. Upman Cigar Factory

• Excursions to the neighborhoods of Cojimar and Miramar.

• A journey by boat through Cuba’s natural historic caves.

Pernot isn’t the first high-profile chef to lead a culinary trip to Cuba. This week, chef Brad Kilgore of J & G Grill at the St. Regis Bal Harbour is leading a Culinary Cuba! tour much like Pernot’s. Chef Todd Erickson did the same in June. He’s executive chef at Haven South Beach and fast casual operation HuaHua’s Taqueria. Jamie DeRosa, chef/owner of Tongue & Cheek in Miami Beach, headlined the first tour this past May.

Florida-based Cuban travel specialty firm Cultural Contrasts LLC is the organizer of these tours. It already has Mike Behmoiras, most recently chef de cuisine at The Southern Gentleman gastropub in Atlanta, scheduled to escort the first Culinary Cuba! tour of 2016 next January.

Interest in all things Cuban should only increase as the normalization of diplomatic relations helps smooth out some of the rough spots that have made traveling to Cuba from the U.S. such an adventure. Interest in Cuban food should grow, too, as the U.S. market gets more exposure to it.

U.S restaurant customers do know a little bit about Cuban food, and they like what they’ve tried so far. Cuban sandwiches are fixtures on many U.S. menus, to the point where Restaurant Hospitality had to devote an entire category to them in our “Best Sandwiches in America “ contest because we received so many entries. You can bet many of these sandwich fans will be willing and ready to try more Cuban dishes as soon as operators start including them on menus.

We don’t know that Cuban food will become the next hot Latin cuisine. But there’s no question that Cuba is having a moment right now, and we suggest that some operators could profit from the awareness of Cuban food that moment is helping to create.

Contact Bob Krummert at [email protected]

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