By Don Macica
In the long catalog of devastation that Hurricane María wrought on Puerto Rico was its agricultural sector. In truth, though, there wasn’t that much agriculture there to start with. Beginning in the 1950s, the island began a move toward importing much of its food. This was driven by a mixture of industrialization, big business, and government policy as a colony of the United States. By the 1990s, it had almost collapsed altogether, replaced by canned products in the supermarkets and American fast food outlets like McDonalds proliferating everywhere. What produce there was came from the Dominican Republic and beyond.
According to Chef Xavier Pacheco, who will be in Chicago this weekend for a pair of events at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and Latinicity, those were the decades that Puerto Ricans largely forgot about their food traditions. Local markets disappeared in favor of large supermarkets, and with them, knowledge of native foods. Trained in the U.S. and equipped with an important internship in Barcelona, Pacheco was aware of local, culturally driven food movements in Spain, Mexico, Peru, and of course the United States. When he considered the condition of his place of birth, he was inspired to return there and improve things by highlighting Puerto Rico’s gastronomic history with a new restaurant devoted to it and supporting the few local farmers that were left to once again grow those native foods.
“I had to go back and look at what we were eating, why we were eating it, and how that could be improved,” said Pacheco when I spoke to him by phone from San Juan. “Not only for the present and my restaurant, but also for a future in which Puerto Ricans can have better product and stronger local economies.”
The restaurant was La Jaquita Baya, a globally acclaimed farm-to-table concept that prepared its menu with 80% locally grown ingredients. At the same time, Pacheco and other like-minded chefs were actively supporting local farmers and food traditions through the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña, a movement focused on linking up and strengthening the different divisions of the local food production (chefs, farmers, local cheese makers, bakers, butchers, fishermen, etc.).
“We were kind of pioneers together,” says Pacheco. “We traveled the island looking for farmers and asking them to grow the things that we needed instead of importing them. Little by little it grew. More importantly, though, we wanted to inspire pride in who we were and highlight the uniqueness of the food grown here.”
Pacheco holds an expansive view of Puerto Rican gastronomy. “In Puerto Rico, we are not simply Tainos, Africans and Spaniards. Lots of people migrated here in the early 20th century—Armenians, Chinese, Polish and more. Like the U.S. is a big melting pot, Puerto Rico is a small one. Those people stayed and now are Puerto Ricans too. My belief as a chef is that everything that we grow here is Puerto Rican, too, regardless of where it came from.”
La Jaquita Baya, along with all the farms that Pacheco worked with, was seriously damaged by María. Agriculture when done right can be quite resilient, however, and within a matter of months farmers were again able to supply some product. Since María, agriculture has bounced back strongly.
“A lot of young people are now farming, perhaps more than before,” says Pacheco. “Importantly, there is also a growing consciousness among chefs and restaurants that if you want respect you have to support local farming. The reality is that we are not ready to feed the whole island. Imports are still needed. But giving priority to local farmers helps everybody a lot.”
At least partially because of the work done over the last several years by Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña, new farm-to-tables are flourishing as well, including Vianda in Santurce, which has attracted huge press in the U.S., including being profiled in GQ’s Best New Restaurants in America. “Francis is a friend of mine and his food is awesome,” says Pacheco, referring to Vianda Chef Francis Guzmán. “But there are several great new restaurants in the city.”
La Jaquita Baya, sadly,
Perhaps the most exciting of them is Bacoa… Finca & Fogón. If Jaquita Baya was farm-to-table, Bacoa will bring the table to the farm. Pacheco has partnered with two other chefs, including Raul Correa, to open a restaurant on a farm in Juncos, about 25 minutes outside of San Juan. They’ll grow their own produce, of course, but the hope is to eventually buy the whole farm and raise beef and goats there as well. Pacheco is also opening a taquería, inspired in part by a month-long research visit to Chicago in 2018.
Local farming still has a long way to go. A system that is designed to sell cheap imports still has the advantage. Take the yautía, a root vegetable that is a staple of the Puerto Rican diet. It can be imported from the Dominican Republic and sold more cheaply than one grown by a local farmer, who is paying his staff a decent wage and has all the additional expenses of running a business. Still, Pacheco says, there is progress. “Even some supermarkets are now carrying up to 20% locally grown produce.”
“It will take more education and understanding of the necessity of self-sufficiency to get there, but I think that’s very possible,” says Pacheco. “I wasn’t the first to promote farm-to-table practices, but our work has already inspired the next generation.”
Farm to Table in Puerto Rico: A Conversation with Xavier Pacheco
Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center
Friday, May 17, 7:00PM
Free admission – RSVP at Eventbrite
Gourmet Puerto Rico, A Gastronomy Extravaganza and Fundraiser
Featuring Chefs Xavier Pacheco, Maria Mercedes Grubb, Raul Correa & Carlos Portela
Saturday, May 18, 5:30 PM
Tickets $100 – Available at Eventbrite