El Cocinero / Rebeca Monzo

That big red brick chimney always caught my eye. As a girl it seemed immense to me. I imagined goblins living there. It aroused great fascination, especially since it was on a route we had to take — leading to the “scary” iron bridge over the Almendares River, which occasionally would open up like a giant wolf’s jaws to allow yachts to pass through — when we went to visit Aunt Cuca in Miramar. It was always one of my favorite walking paths.

With the passage of time and the sudden takeover the country by incarnate deities, these fantasies and dreams of childhood were abruptly ripped out by their roots in order to make way for a “new reality.” The dream-like tower remained, but it no longer sent out smoke signals. Little by little it came to seem more lifeless. My make-believe creatures disappeared along with the gray puffs that no longer billowed from its long neck. The bridge stopped opening; there were no more yachts. Little by little rust covered the iron structure. We were no longer able to visit my aunt either; she had gone to live far away.

Many years have passed since I felt motivated to overcome my fear of crossing the aged bridge. My old red-bricked friend is still there, mute and inert, towering over its continually decaying surroundings.

After learning a few days ago that it had been converted to a restaurant bar, I was motivated to go see it again. I brought along my Nikon to try to get some photos, hoping also to get the back story from some of the neighbors. Luckily, I found one cleaning the street. When he saw the camera in my hand, he approached me, thinking I was a tourist. After I identified myself, he told me the history of the place. He was born and raised there, so he knew all the details.

“What happened was that, after the factory was abandoned at the beginning of the 1960s, a man moved into the base of the chimney. He later got married but after a few years the marriage ended. Since neither of them had any other options, they divided the space, with her living in one part and him in the other. They were ’sharing’ the space like this until a young man came along with a little wine and offered them two apartments in exchange for the big chimney.”

After interviewing some of his friends who knew about this unusual investment, I found out that, given the new opportunities for acquiring licenses to open businesses, three young friends, who were familiar with the place and its history, decided to pool the resources. They “talked to the former couple” and offered them what they so desperately needed.

The first thing they did was restore the chimney, returning it to its former glory and preserving the original painted sign with the name of “old” cooking oil factory, El Cocinero. At the entrance there is now a well-tended garden where antique objects from the factory itself are exhibited like sculptures. A large bell at the gate greets you. A circular staircase rising two floors inside leads you to the roof and a pleasant bohemian bar where a wide variety of tapas and drinks will guarantee you an enchanting and “offbeat” evening. Everything in the hard currency of CUCs, of course. The restaurant has not yet opened.

15 April 2013