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New York meets Cuba in art-fair chef exchange

Saturday - 5/12/2012, 3:55pm  ET

By PETER ORSI
Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) - Foreign art lovers are breaking bread with Cuban waiters, drivers and parking lot attendants this week in a unique experience that forces diners and chefs alike to overcome barriers of culture, language and five-plus decades of animosity between Washington and Havana.

Ten prominent New York City chefs are teaming up this week with 10 culinary entrepreneurs from Havana's budding private restaurant scene, cooking up savory and sweet multi-course meals from an improvised kitchen built in a shipping container. The diners are mostly foreigners in town for a major art exhibition and Cubans who are being invited to participate in the free meals by the visiting chefs who meet them during the course of their stay.

Blending contemporary American, Italian, Japanese, even Burmese cuisines with Caribbean Creole classics, it's a rare culinary treat in a country where many state-run and independent restaurants serve up dull, unimaginative fare. It's also a performance art spectacle that's about bridging the gap between estranged neighbors and socioeconomic classes.

"The easiest and most interesting way into understanding another culture is food," said Sara Jenkins, the project's chef director and proprietor of East Village eateries Porchetta and Porsena. "And the easiest, most uncomplicated way to make friends is to break bread at the same table."

"Project Paladar," named after Cuba's popular independent restaurants, is part of Havana's 11th Biennial, an irreverent bash attracting 180 artists from 43 countries as well as thousands of art aficionados and collectors. The dining project is being funded by the donations of American individuals.

For 10 days the chefs will take turns pairing off and serving up gourmet meals in the back patio of a cultural center in colonial Old Havana. Guests are greeted with a mojito and escorted to a table for 12 in homage to the maximum number of seats that the government allowed paladars to have when they first opened in the 1990s.

With two tables of 12 seats, the organizers plan to feed up to five groups, or as many as 60 people, every evening.

At the project's Friday night launch, an aproned Jenkins sweated over a pan of Burmese coconut-milk curry sauce, preparing it to poach filets of freshly caught red snapper. Accompanying the main dish were tuna tartar and a green mango salad that one could order takeout in New York but particularly tickled the palates of Cuban food professionals.

Conversation at the tables was lively as diners introduced themselves, hesitantly tried out second languages and turned to bilingual guests to translate reactions to each course: "Is this basil?" "No, it's mint!"

"I think this is an experience that has never been done in the Biennial, a very interesting sociocultural project," said Kenia Echenique, a 25-year-old lawyer and actress who fanned her mouth after consuming the curry but said she enjoyed the flavor before the heat kicked in. "I think this can enrich our culture, our paladars, and contribute to exchange between our nations."

"In the kitchen everything's simple. A sauce is a sauce," said Hector Higuera Martinez, Jenkins' cooking partner and the man behind the stylish Le Chansonnier in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. "These things we have in common, independent of the language barrier. It has been spontaneous."

"Project Paladar" is the brainchild of Craig Shillitto, a New York architect, artist and restaurant designer who was fascinated to read about the explosion of private restaurants in Cuba after President Raul Castro revived a 1990s policy allowing them to exist, then lifted many restrictions that kept them from flourishing.

Many paladars are still little better than Cuba's dreary state restaurants and must contend with the daily struggle to find ingredients on an island long accustomed to scarcity. Some are languishing as they struggle to tap the limited number of visiting tourists and other foreigners, and the small number of Cubans with enough disposable income to patronize private restaurants.

But an increasing number of paladar owners are forming a maturing restaurant scene with creative, experimental chefs who are out to change Cuba's reputation for culinary blandness.

"It's hard to educate people .... because rice, beans, roast pork are really linked to our history," Higuera said. "Many (chefs) stick with what's easy to find. But I think there are many people who want to try different things."

Part of the inspiration behind "Project Paladar" was to support Cuba's budding foodie culture.

"The idea that people still cared about food and cuisine and still tried hard despite having no market for it was fascinating," Shillitto said.

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