June 13th, The Culinary Vegetable Institute is excited to host a special pop-up dinner from two of the CVI’s interns from Puerto Rico, Dario Torres and Mariel Carrasco Garay. The team will be preparing a lively and spirited Puerto Rican dinner of traditional recipes with the modern culinary flair they have honed during their work in the kitchen at the CVI.
Puerto Rican cuisine has strong foundations in the traditions of the many cultures that have taken root on the small island. It is a melting pot of West African, Spanish, and native Taíno cuisines that has a uniqueness and flavor all its own. However, modern day Puerto Rican food hasn’t experienced much innovation over the years. Creating a menu around a cuisine with so many roots and a rigourous set of rules can be a complicated task. Mariel will be the first to admit that the refined and composed plates of the traditional recipes they are working on wouldn’t be recognizable to say, her grandmother or her neighbor. Dario promises that although the look and feel might be different, this is Puerto Rican food at the core: fresh, invigorating, and full of soul.
Puerto Rico is a farming country rich with warm climate vegetables and tropical fruits. Pig, cattle, goat, and chicken farms dot the landscape, but sugar cane is the predominant crop for farmers.
A booming tourism industry along a coastline of lush sandy beaches brings crowds of hungry mainlanders to dine on island classics like mofungo, a hearty stew served over the ubiquitous fried plantains, delicious pasteles, a tamale made with green bananas, and mondongo, a rustic tripe and vegetable stew. Puerto Rico also boasts some of the world’s best seafood. Traditional dishes are served all over the island in almost the same fashion, eliminating the need for modern flair and making the rules of the cuisine almost taboo to break. In most homes, the cooking is a family matter and the recipes have been handed down from generations past. I asked Mariel if a modern twist on Puerto Rican food would go over well in the prideful kitchens of the restaurants in her home town.
“In Puerto Rico it’s not necessary for chefs to worry about the modern techniques because our ancestors already had great techniques of their own,” she says, “the chefs today don’t try to do anything different at all. There are hundreds of restaurants, traditional restaurants, and they all serve a version of mofongo or fried pork or chicken chicharrones…again and again all over Puerto Rico. Their system is ‘That’s what the people buy, so that’s what I’m going to make.’ Here in the States, we have more opportunities to get people to enjoy our food that have never tried it before. We want to show them how to respect our traditions, our culture. It just depends on how you look at it, how you present it differently from everyone else.”
Dario adds, “We want to make food for people who want to go out and enjoy a piece of fish or meat, but we need to show the people how to respect not just the meal, but the culture, the ingredients, the work of the people behind the food. Its beyond cooking. We want our guests to enjoy moments.”
Dario and Mariel have been traveling and working together for several years as an inseparable team. Leaving Puerto Rico with knife rolls and chef jackets, they joined the kitchens on luxury cruise ships and travelled the world with a cook’s itinerary, studying local cooking traditions and tasting their way through local markets and restaurants.
Eventually they made their way to the midwest to find work in the Cleveland food scene. It was here that they were introduced to the products from the Chef’s Garden and the events happening at The Culinary Vegetable Institute. Eager to continue to learn, the pair dedicated themselves fully to the farm, the internship program, and the work going on at the Institute. Again, traveling with not much more than their knife rolls, chef’s coats, and a wealth of cooking know-how, they launched into a months-long quest to learn the cutting edge techniques of contemporary cuisine under the tutelage of CVI Executive Chef, Jamie Simpson.
This type of “traditional versus modern” contrast is just one of the many avenues of forward-thinking food philosophies that are explored in The Culinary Vegetable Institute’s Culinary Internship Program. The Institute was set up to encourage chefs to explore, educate, and experiment with fresh produce from The Chef’s Garden, the farm that maintains the program, and to elevate simple concepts and classic techniques into modern day models. Interns are encouraged to push their own boundaries and culinary skills, to record the results, and push things forward in their own repertoires as well as educate and inspire other chefs.
The Traditional Puerto Rican Dinner, one in a series of Pop-Up Dinners at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, will be June 13th at 6:30 PM at 12304 Mudbrook Rd (OH-13), Milan, Ohio. Tickets are $60 with a cash bar. For more information or reservations, please contact 419.499.7500 or go to http://www.culinaryvegetableinstitute.com