Talk about cooking creds. When Puerto Rican chef José Santaella published his Cocina Tropical cookbook two years ago, the foreword was written by none other than Eric Ripert. Turn over the handsomely photographed kitchen-table volume, and the back-cover blurbs carry some heavy culinary weight, as well: one was penned by Ferran Adrià, the other by Gary Danko.
It is a hot afternoon in April on the beaches of San Juan, but all is cool inside Santaella’s eponymous restaurant on a side street next to the Santurce mercado in a blue-collar neighborhood as his crew gets ready for the Saturday night crowd. Santaella looks mellow as he sits on a stool at the end of the bar (“I think we have the best bartenders in town,” he offers), his chin more stubbly, his tousled black hair a bit grayer at the edges than in the photo on the inside back flap of Cocina’s dust jacket.
Although he grew up in a family of restaurateurs, “My goal was to be a dentist,” Santaella says with a slow grin. “That lasted until I was 18, when I started to cook. Eventually, I worked in high-quality restaurants, but I realized I would have to have my own style.” He pauses to answer a question from the kitchen before continuing. “I always tell people who cook for me, and who want to be their own chef, that it’s important to first travel. And to read about what’s happened before.”
Santaella is perhaps the best-known of a group of mostly young and ambitious chefs in Puerto Rico who have carved out a name for themselves and who have made San Juan arguably the best place for foodies to venture in the Carribean. “There is a nice energy here,” Santaella says. “A lot of young chefs are doing beautiful things and opening a lot of new places.”
Talk to enough of them, Santaella included, and you will hear the same mantra: “Use local ingredients, but don’t be afraid of modern techniques.” For Santaella, “I keep trying to go back to the basics — local and organic. My book was written to try to recapture local recipes.”
But that’s not as simple as it seems, because, in spite of having available land for farming and being surrounded by the sea, up to 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s foodstuffs come from somewhere else. And the best of the locally grown fruits and vegetables are produced by international corporations who can get better prices on the U.S. mainland and in Europe. Chefs report they are frustrated trying to established a network of reliable artisan farmers and producers.
That holds true even of seafood. “Even though we’re an island, we don’t eat too much seafood,” Santaella says. “Unfortunately, our fishing industry is not always reliable. You find yourself putting something on the menu, and they decide to take a day or two off from fishing.”
(Like jazz musicians who lay down a basic line, then start to riff, most native Puerto Rican chefs have two go-to preparations that they interpret liberally. One is sofrito, a type of condiment that has many variations but usually starts with herbs, greens, and both sweet and spicy peppers. It can appear in many forms and is usually added to season dishes, as one might add a relish or salsa. Second is a mashup of green plantains or root vegetables called mofongo that is used as a side dish. But if you had 20 chefs making mofongo and sofrito, each version would taste different.)
For years, Santaella centered his work on catering before opening his restaurant in 2011. In spite of his fame, he has avoided the increasingly raucous cooking shows. “I don’t enjoy these competitions — they’re so cold,” he says. “Everyone wants to be famous.” But he does enjoy the opportunity to get out of his own kitchen. “Next week, I’m in New York to cook at an event for a big law firm,” he says. “Lately, it seems I’ve been cooking everywhere.” Since 2014, he has partnered with the U.K.-based Compass Group in their Celebrity Chefs Series, tasked with being a culinary ambassador for Caribbean food in North America.
His plans for the future? “Maybe someday I’ll open a restaurant in Miami,” Santaella ventures. “And I’ll be doing another cookbook — this one more personal.”