Roberto Copa Matos has a one-line explanation for his style of cooking: mise en place begins in the soil.
Chefs employ the French culinary term at the prep table, where every ingredient is chopped, diced, and neatly piled into its assigned ramekin or measuring cup, ready to be tossed into a frying pan or mixing bowl. At Old Havana Sandwich Shop, Copa Matos and his wife Elizabeth Turnbull have dug up both local ingredients and a rich culinary history, pressing them into sandwiches and showcasing them in their recent dinner series "Lost Dishes of Cuba."
"We realized one day we were farm-to-table," says Turnbull. "Once we made that decision, we knew we are in it for the long haul. Roberto wanted to show we can use stuff right here in Durham to make food from anywhere in the world."
The small restaurant, which just celebrated six years, occupies a 1920s structure that formerly housed the Durham Sun newspaper. With its grandiose arched windows, coffered ceilings, and creaky wood floors, the historic space sits just one block east of Durham's downtown hype.
Turnbull jokes that she just "shows up" while Copa Matos does the heavy lifting, like breaking down whole hogs and cooking his entire menu in a narrow double-decker oven, concocting extras on two small burners. His pork, locally and sustainably raised, is the best in town.
Amid a never-ending sprawl of food businesses, Old Havana has quietly assembled a simple sandwich menu with diverse subtleties. You'll find the classic Tampa-style, of course. But then there's the Veracruz, a collaboration with cook Berta Sanchez. Copa Matos needed to use the pork skin in his snout-to-tail endeavors. Sanchez pulled from her native Veracruz, a coastal Mexican city with Afro-Cuban descendants, and made a saucy chicharron topping. With this menu comes a steady stream of regulars.
"He made a restaurant that is on the fringe, not even in the center [of downtown], enough of an attraction that it has survived more than five years," Turnbull says.
A biochemist by trade, Copa Matos fell into cooking when the initial plan for Old Havana fell through—his extended family decided at the last minute that they didn't want to move to North Carolina to help run it. Having made the financial investment already, the couple decided to go for it. Turnbull says her scientist husband "runs his kitchen like a lab. We don't have recipes, we have protocols." And like any scientist, Copa Matos craved the freedom to experiment.
"I had my complaints with Cuban cuisine," says Copa Matos, who was born in Cienfuegos in 1971. "Everything is straightforward. There are just a few ingredients and techniques—with a beautiful outcome, but not much room for creativity."
Then, in a footnote in a book, he happened upon the title of another: Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español, published in Havana in 1864. Turnbull, who also works at her parents' Light Messages Publishing, hunted down the manuscript and reprinted copies of the book in 2013, with a foreword by Copa Matos. In it, the Durham chef found a rich culinary history, the result of colonial conquest and cultural exchange, that opened his eyes to a Cuba he never knew. He left Cuba for Spain in 2001, at age thirty, before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border a year later, seeking political asylum.
"I thought, my goodness, in the 1800's in Cuba they were eating vegetables that I didn't know the names of in Spanish," he says. "I had to check in the dictionary. I realized that the book was calling from the whole island."
In one recipe, barely wilted French sorrel, a bitter and sour perennial herb, is combined with eggs for a creamy soup. Another, butifaras (sausages), incorporates Middle Eastern elements like cinnamon, clove, and anise, but labeled Cuban. And then there's the "apio a lo Bayames," a recipe from a now impoverished city far from Havana and rooted in celery, something Cubans don't grow anymore.
For the Americanized palate, these ingredients are a far cry from what we may expect from a place serving toasty Cuban sandwiches. So Copa Matos rolled out a series of dinners, "The Lost Dishes of Cuba," to celebrate local ingredients in a historic context. To extend their idea of mise en place even further, the couple teamed up with Samantha Gasson of Bull City Farm to source and raise Mangalitsa pigs, a Hungarian heritage breed touted among top American chefs for their brilliant lard and rich meat.
Gasson and Turnbull trekked up to West Virginia to haul back what are now among the only Mangalitsas in North Carolina. At last Friday's dinner, an ambitious six-course menu celebrated the shop's anniversary. One whole pig served dozens of diners. Cured slices of the mangalitsa came fleshy and marbled on slabs of slate. Lardo melted on the tongue like caramel. Gasson bit into a crusty slice of baguette spread with a generous smear of pâté made from her first Mangalitsa pig, and closed her eyes.
"This pig is amazing," she said, showing me a photo on her phone of the breakdown. The 205-pound carcass glows crimson like beef, resembling a steak in the braised fifth course. But we're reminded that this is about pig, creativity, and finding that sweet spot in the final course: crisp, crushed chicharron garnishing a decadent chocolate torte.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lost and Found"