Chef Douglas Rodriguez is accustomed to working in upscale Miami hotspots, where fans clamor for his authentic Cuban and Latin American food. But a few days before the debut of his newest project in Durham, he is holed up in a corner booth of the former Gregoria's Cuban Steakhouse. Amid construction dust and noise, his cell phone issued a near constant stream of beeps.
"Sorry, so much going on," Rodriguez says. He checks another message and sets the phone back on the table in what is now Mesa Latin Kitchen. "We really want this place to be something special. Right now it looks a lot like restaurants in Cuba."
The son of Cuban immigrants, he has made seven trips to the country in the past two years as a guest chef and culinary ambassador. He soaked in the sights, sounds and flavors as if he'd been personally marinated in a zesty mojo.
"I'm very excited about Cuba at the moment," says Rodriguez, who has earned numerous culinary honors, including a Rising Star Award from the James Beard Foundation nearly 20 years ago. "Every time I go, I learn so much."
Rodriguez applied some lessons gleaned from great Cuban chefs when he transformed the Durham eatery into a Nuevo Latino tapas restaurant. But it is the resilience of the Cuban people that has impressed him the most.
"We take so much for granted here: running water, refrigeration, hygiene equipment," he says. "I've worked in restaurants where the power would cut off and might not come back on for days. They could not get typical flour. No yuca. No toilet paper for the bathrooms. But they have this unbelievable human will to adapt and to make do with very little."
Rodriguez recounted an incident one evening in Cuba, when after drafting a list of ingredients he needed to prep meals at a restaurant, he discovered that little of it was available. Instead of using fresh coconut milk, which his hard-working staff inadvertently scorched, the so-called "king of ceviche" reluctantly made one of his classic dishes with vanilla-flavored ice cream base spiked with coconut rum.
"It was not what I wanted, but they came up with a solution that worked," he says. "Let me tell you, the real badass chefs are in Cuba. It was crazy."
While Cuba lacks some basic amenities, Rodriguez says it also lacks irrigation and pesticides, meaning that "any vegetable in Cuba is organic."
"They farm with ladybugs and compost. Cuba is becoming the agricultural focus of organic and sustainable farming worldwide, not because it's fashionable, but because it's what they have to do to survive," he says. "There is no such thing as a commodity pig in Cuba. Of course, this could all change with foreign intervention and introduction of GMOs."
Rodriguez is optimistic that the Cuban government's preservation of the country's historic architecture will likewise encompass native foodways. He is personally invested in such an outcome as he is contracted to write a definitive book on the country's cuisine, covering its history and forecasting its future.
Rodriguez is back in Miami now but will return to Durham every few weeks to tweak Mesa's Latin American menu and add seasonal options, as well as brunch in the fall. He oversaw a few low-key, private events to train staff and introduce his food to local writers and invited guests.
Different courses arrived at different tables, which were set with shareable plates of fresh plantain chips with sofrito, warm olives marinated in orange and fennel, and tender malanaga fritters made with a taro-like root vegetable and goat cheese. Among the standouts were the smoked tuna taquitos, with bite-sized shells made of wafer-crisp folds of malanga; Cuban guacamole with smoked tomatoes, smoked pineapple and root vegetable chips; and savory casava flat bread topped with Serrano ham, dried figs and manchego cheese. Grilled octopus spied on another table looked and smelled enticingly charred.
While the kitchen staff was just learning many of the dishes, some of the options seemed barely Latin, like the perfectly prepared (if out of season) grilled asparagus drizzled with lemon sauce. Argentine beef empanadas featured slick meat and dry pastry. A "large plate" of crispy Carolina trout was covered with an unsettling mix of purple Peruvian potatoes, spinach, capers and orange dollops of chipotle mayonnaise.
Impressive desserts included a generous portion of milky tapioca that filled a fresh-cut young coconut (be sure to scrape the fruit with each spoonful), a silky goat's milk flan served with strawberries and topped with an amarena cherry, and pastel de guava, a Cuban-style pound cake and sweet guava pudding wrapped in pastry and served with a scoop of pistachio ice cream.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cuba, meet Durham"