Chez Panisse contingent head to Cuba, public welcome

Snapshots from Havana’s evolving food and farming scene. Photos: Varun Mehra

In the last year, Chez Panisse chefs, staff, and alum have embarked on gourmet global diplomacy trips to Japan (in an informal expedition under the auspices of a group known as OPENrestaurant) and China (in a formal affair the restaurant’s owner, Alice Waters,  presided over herself.) Now comes word that a contingent from the acclaimed restaurant are headed to Cuba to plant seeds of change on the food and farming front — and learn a thing or two about Cuban cuisine and growing greens from this Carribbean island country.

What’s more the trip, scheduled for December 4-12, coincides with the Havana Film Festival, and is open to the public. The delegation includes Chez Panisse downstairs chef Jerome Waag, former Chez Panisse pizzaiolo Charlie Hallowell, Steve Sullivan from Acme Bread (a former Chez Panisse chef), and Cuban-American line cook Danielle Alvarez, who will set foot on Cuban soil for the first time.

At this stage, Alice Waters isn’t scheduled to join the group, which will take a charter flight to Havana, said Varun Mehra, Waters’ personal assistant who is spearheading the nine-day itinerary, following a fact-finding trip to Cuba earlier this year, which he chronicled for Paper Magazine. (“Havana’s food scene is changing rapidly and the Cuban government is phasing out its system of rations and cautiously allowing private restaurant ownership,” Mehra noted in his travelogue. “As a result, the population is rediscovering its own pre-revolution culinary history — a delicious mix of Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences.”)

Participants will have an opportunity to attend the film festival, learn about the country’s rich traditions in dance, music, and art, and visit urban architectural gems, as well as take day excursions to mountain communities and beach resorts, according to the itinerary. Some meals may take place at paladares, privately owned restaurants run by families often directly from their home kitchens.

Central to the culinary cultural tour: a series of dinners cooked by the Chez contingent and Cuban chefs using local organic foods.

Since Cuban cuisine has historically featured  homogenous fare — think rice, beans, and meat —  one goal of the visiting chefs is to expose local cooks and eaters to Chez-style dishes with a more fruit and vegetable focus, said Mehra.

A Cuban farmer talks about growing greens with a visitor. Photo: Varun Mehra

The meals will be a cross-cultural affair: a diverse cross-section of Cuban residents will be invited to dine with the visiting Americans. Trip participants will also have the opportunity to converse with local urban farmers, seed savers, edible educators, Slow Food leaders, leading restaurateurs, and others connected to the Cuban food scene.

The mission has goals beyond good meals. “It is the beginning of what hopefully will be an ongoing project to improve the Cuban diet and encourage local food cooperatives, working with Cuba’s leading environmental organization, the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation,” said Tom Miller, who is also co-organizing the pending “Planting Seeds” trip, a collaboration between the Cuban foundation and his non-profit Green Cities Fund.

“Cuba has suffered greatly as a result of U.S. policy and for years my wife and I have been actively working for better relations with Cuba. As board members of Global Exchange we have taken many ‘people to people’ trips to Cuba,” said Miller, an Oakland-based attorney, who has defended U.S. citizens facing fines from the U.S. government for going to this communist country. “I introduced Alice to a wonderful Cuban environmental expert who cleaned up the terribly polluted Almendares River that runs into Havana and she fell in love with the idea of working with Cuban chefs and local source organic food experts helping to build a healthy, sustainable alternative to a diet which currently requires importing 70 percent of Cuba’s food.”

This is a licensed, legal trip and visas will be provided, said Miller. Participants on this edible excursion can expect to clear U.S. Customs upon their return without hassles — as long as they don’t try to smuggle in contraband such as Cuban cigars and rum, said Miller, who noted that Cuban art can legally be imported to the U.S.

Details: The trip costs $6,000 per person ($6,400 for single room accommodation), and includes charter air fare from from either Los Angeles or Miami, a full program of activities during a 9 day-8 night stay, and accommodation in a boutique hotel in historic Old Havana. To secure a spot, a $500 deposit must be received by August 15; the balance is due November 1. Half the cost of the trip is tax deductible, said Miller, as it will be used to support the work of the non-profit Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation. Space is limited to 30 people.

Checks should be made payable to “Green Cities Fund” and mailed to: Tom Miller, Green Cities Fund, 725 Washington Street., #300, Oakland, CA 94607. Questions? Call Miller: 510-891-0616, ext. 102.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Alice Waters, Robert Reich talk up a delicious revolution [11.07.11]
Chez Panisse’s birthday kicks off with party to remember [08.27.10]
Berkeley Bites: Alice Waters [10.22.10]

Did you hear Berkeleyside has its own radio station? Listen to bands that are performing locally on Berkeleyside Radio, courtesy of DeliRadio.

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  • Anne Marie Moore

    Heads up… there is only 1 kind of cheese in all of Cuba.

  • The Sharkey

    Since Cuban cuisine has historically featured  homogenous fare — think
    rice, beans, and meat –  one goal of the visiting chefs is to expose
    local cooks and eaters to Chez-style dishes with a more fruit and
    vegetable focus, said Mehra.

    So they’re going to celebrate Cuban culture by introducing them to non-Cuban foods?

  • Guest

    This sounds like an excellent adventure!

  • Stevanneauerbach

    Check out new exhibit of Cuban art by photographers who visited Cuba over many years now on display
    at Philz Cafe on Shattuck for the month of August. Colorful show.

  • guest

    Its such a relief for the world that there’s Alice to tell us all how and what to eat. God forbid the Cubas go on eating Cuban food – the travesty!  

  • Anonymous

    Unless things have dramatically since I was there about 15 years ago they aren’t even eating Cuban food. Of, Alice will be staying at one of the swanky European hotels that don’t even allow regular people in their lobbies so she’ll be shielded from all of that.

  • The Sharkey

    It is the White Chef’s Burden to bring good eats to the Southern Savages.

  • guest

     Is that Sharkey or Snarky

  • Jack

       Cuba, like most countries in the world, could use cuisine diversity.  Think about the proliferation of such non-native foods in the US as pizza, sushi, tofu, kiwi, and mole.  As a consequence of underdevelopment, many countries like Cuba, Columbia, Venezuela, and lots more in the Caribbean, import up to 70% of their food, despite being potentially self sufficient.  

         For Cuba, a nation not particularly rich in mineral wealth, this drain on resources – combined with the economic blockade imposed by the United States- has been a major obstacle to maintaining its extraordinary social safety net and rebuilding its infrastructure.

          If Chez Panisse and Alice can, in any way, contribute to helping Cuba address that issue, they will be thrice blessed.  If they succeed only in persuading more Americans to visit Cuba, the blessings will multiply.

         Cuba is a real country with real people who are part of the international community.  It’s only through the eyes of Americans who are blinded by the blockade and its accompanying propaganda, that Cuba is some exotic place not to be “spoiled”.

         I’ve travelled to Cuba consistently over the past 40 years in both a professional and personal capacity.  I’ve loved the people, admired the social system and been frustrated by it, danced to the music, and hoped that life could become better and easier there.

         Nobody goes to Cuba for the food.

         So, thanks Alice.

  • samothrellim

    As one of the participants, thank you readers for your helpful comments.  I would add, however, that the last thing Chez Panisse chefs would do is “tell” someone what to eat. It didn’t work on George Bush when his mom insisted he eat broccoli and for Cubans, who have been told what to do for centuries, it won’t work either.  The chefs will learn as much as they teach, as is the experience of many who are sensitive too, and appreciate, diverse cultures.  Hopefully, it will be a learning experience for everyone involved, working together to help Cuba become more food self-sufficient and to become more appreciative of the goodness that can be brought from the soil when it receives proper care.  So far, the response from Cubans on all levels has been very positive, so it appears the chefs are off to a good start.

  • Claire Dixsaut

    Hi! Just reviewed the Cuban trip project on my French website. It’s here : Hope you’ll like it.

  • The Sharkey

    If they can help with any of that, that’s great. But the way it’s described here this “mission” just sounds like condecending cultural colonialism.

  • Bee

    My husband and I would love to go on this trip but there is no way that we are spending TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS to do so. Sorry, Alice.

  • Looks like a fun trip, but it seems to me that all the Chez Panisse chefs ever do is tell people what to eat. You don’t get a choice at the restaurant and Alice has made a small future on her speaking tour completely devoted to telling people what to eat and suggesting they’re immoral if they don’t (60 minutes anyone? Charlie Rose?Fresh Air?)

  • guest

    Yeah, Just like the way that every time you cook dinner for someone you are telling them how and what to eat. Please think it through a little more carefully…

  • guest

    Your guests don’t get a choice when you cook dinner for them either. On the spectrum of tyranny I would say that this rates as perhaps one of the less troubling examples

  • guest

    You sound a little insecure. Relax a little. Maybe you should go along just to make sure the imperialism doesn’t get out of hand.

  • 4Eenie

    guest, you seem to be on a rant bender today. Time to take your meds?

  • guest

    Uhh, I don’t think I read anywhere that they were bringing the food with them to Cuba. Maybe you’ve got some inside information on this nefarious imperialist adventure. And I think it’s safe to say that if Cuba is importing 70% of its food the Cubans may already be familiar with non-Cuban food . . .

    Don’t you think perhaps that a group whose focus is sustainability and food access/awareness in a context of beauty and creativity might actually be concentrating on those issues?

  • Stovetopped

    the scent of imperialism… 

  • Ryanvanbuskirk

    Imperialism of the brand that has been invited on many occasions in many places to open “satellite” restaurants but never took that path. check yourself.

  • In 1996, Waters’s commitment to education led to the creation of The
    Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School: a
    one-acre garden, an adjacent kitchen-classroom, and an
    “eco-gastronomic” curriculum. By actively involving a thousand students
    in all aspects of the food cycle, The Edible Schoolyard is a model
    public education program that instills the knowledge and values we need
    to build a humane and sustainable future. The program is nationally
    recognized for its efforts to integrate gardening, cooking, and sharing
    school lunch into the core academic curriculum.