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.
Jenkins brought down her own cooking knives, as well as ingredients that would seem exotic not just in Cuba but in many American kitchens: kaffir lime leaf, Szechuan peppercorns, a quarter-wheel of Grana Padano cheese (it's like Parmesan, only made in a different part of Italy).
Anita Lo, executive chef and owner of Annisa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the West Village, stuffed her suitcase with white soy and yuzu juice for her cooking partner, one of the few Cuban chefs making sushi.
"For someone to push ahead and still try to do something that's almost impossible on this island ..." Lo marveled, her voice trailing off. "Fish is hard to come by. Japanese ingredients are very hard to come by."
For all their sophistication, the New Yorkers, including several of whom have written books and appeared on cooking shows such as Iron Chef America, are also learning from the Cubans.
How to make do with what's available, for one thing. The Americans also had high praise for urban gardening in Havana, a local agroponic farm they visited where crops are grown without soil and a leafy, nutrient-rich green known as "maringa." Jenkins described it as "slightly citrusy with a weird spice ... and an undercurrent of bitterness."
"Whether we'll ever see it again," she said, "to taste something new and like it and think it's interesting and how can you use it ... it's fascinating."
Organizers said they hope the project may create opportunities for future culinary exchanges, perhaps a chef-in-residence program. More such exchanges have occurred since President Barack Obama loosened rules on so-called people-to-people travel to the island by Americans.
Curator Elizabeth Grady said "Project Paladar" is in a long tradition of food-related art projects and tries to invert the elitist dynamic of art festivals by inviting dishwashers and taxi drivers to sup alongside the well-heeled art enthusiasts who typically patronize events like the biennial. It also gets people from two feuding nations talking to each other, even if haltingly or through translators.
"The main point is to use food as a vehicle to create genuine dialogue," she said.
Call it kitchen diplomacy.