14ymedio, Fernando Donate Ochoa, Havana, 10 December 2015 – Denia Sao Blanco has spent over 20 years teaching top level native cuisine at the Casa del Chef in Holguin, an institution created to maintain and rescue the culinary culture of the region, where several generations of cooks have trained.
As part of her work, she has visited all the restaurants in town and has offered advice on the preparation of the dishes. Now, she is surrounded by young people completing a cooking course she taught this week. The final exam is to prepare a typical Holguin dish.
In this conversation with 14ymedio Denia speaks of tradition, culture and mistakes in the culinary arts in the region.
Donate Fernando Ochoa. How is culinary research conducted at La Casa del Chef?
Denia Sao Blanco. It is the work of several cooking teachers along with the students. New generations of cooks do not know the history and Holguin recipes that are always the basis for the rescue of these dishes.
It took us a few years trying to rescue these dishes at different events, like “Young Chef of the year” and “The Flower of Cuban Cuisine,” which has run since 1992 and is only for women professionals and amateurs, regardless of age.
DFO. What traditional dishes are prepared in Holguin now?
Denia Sao Blanco. There are many, among them is the “465,” created by Ramon Carbonell, which includes chicken, ham, pork steak grilled and served with vegetables. We offer it here for 30 pesos national currency.
Another is chicken “a la Periquera” created by José Rafael Pernas Iglesias, and “Paneque” sausage created by the late Rodolfo Gonzalez Paneque, founder of our social house.
DFO. Do Holguin restaurants keep typical native dishes on the menu?
Denia Sao Blanco. Unfortunately not. Very little is being done with these dishes. On the Holguin restaurant menus international cuisine predominates at the expense of traditional dishes. For example, the customer can’t find guava in syrup with cheese, jam with cheese, rice pudding, which are some of the basic dishes of our cuisine. This shows that there is a lack of knowledge about how to make these dishes; we are losing our identity.
In most restaurants, the customer finds the same menu, there is no variety, no dishes that identify a restaurant. Cooks appeal to the easiest, such as fried chicken, roast chicken and steak.
DFO. In your exchanges with students I heard about rice with chicken…
Denia Sao Blanco. I talk to my students about rice with chicken because it is not common to see it on restaurant menus. However, when it is on the menu it is not prepared like it should be, because they do it with a by-product mixed with rice; meanwhile in other restaurants they mix shredded chicken into the rice which is a mistake. The traditional plate is chicken cut into eighths with the chicken on the base of the plate, covered in rice and a crown of hard cooked egg with strips of bell pepper. This is the real chicken with rice and it is not seen in most restaurants.
DFO. What are the consequences of turning to easy cooking?
Denia Sao Blanco. Tradition is lost because each dish is, as we say, “its name and surname”; each course was designed, studied, approved and patented in order to maintain its identity and characteristics.
Holguin has little culinary culture left and this ignorance prevents people from demanding originality in the food they put on the table.
DFO. What do think about State restaurants?
Denia Sao Blanco. They have lost their originality and identity in the dishes offered, because the administrators who run the State restaurants do not know cuisine and because they don’t know it they can’t demand it: for them all the dishes are well prepared.
DFO. Is it the same with the private restaurants?
Denia Sao Blanco. These are different, because they deliver the originality of the dishes quite well. The owners and chefs come to ask us for evaluations and suggestions, which the managers of State restaurants do not do.
Another positive aspect is that private restaurants have created new dishes that distinguish them, and this does not happen with the State restaurant. So I think that, with the opportunity to privatize the restaurants, Cuban cuisine has gained in quality, originality and variety.
DFO. What else restricts the freedom of creation in the places managed by the State?
Denia Sao Blanco. There is no freedom of creation because the cooks are required to abide by a technical chart and the products available are very limited and of poor quality, while the private restaurants are always looking for the best merchandise, the freshest produce and they maintain an original menu.
Another aspect that affects State restaurants is that the supply of spices and condiments is sometimes insufficient, forcing chefs to buy these products paying out of their own pockets.