Travel News

Celebrity Chefs & the New Puerto Rican Cusine

Puerto Rican cuisine is evolving along with the food culture. In advance of the Saborea Puerto Rico Culinary Festival next month, Dena Braun-Roché heads to the island to examine how celebrity chefs are modernizing traditional recipes.

As the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico evolves, it’s no surprise that its cuisine is changing too. Today you can still find traditional empanadillas or alcapurrias, but they may share the menu with concoctions like Pigeon Pea Risotto or Gumas Mofongo.

Since Puerto Rico is part of the United States, the island has been influenced by the wealth of cooking and reality cooking shows on TV, and has seen its best chefs like Wilo Benet, Mario Pagan and Robert Travino morph into celebrity chefs thanks to their participation in Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef. This new breed of rock star chef is naturally anxious to make its mark on Puerto Rican cuisine and elevate it in the minds of foodies worldwide.

For this younger generation of chefs the focus is on preserving the integrity of traditional Puerto Rican fare, but modernizing it in some way. Naturally each chef has his own way of doing this. For some it means lightening up the dish, for others it’s incorporating other ethnic flavors and techniques. No matter what the style, the urge to transform is sizzling throughout the island.

“It’s a huge trend and not just at upscale establishments,” said Chef Damian Hernandez-Lorenzo, the 29-yr-old executive chef of Eighty20 Bistro, who was recently named 2011 Puerto Rican Restauranteur of the Year. “You can find restaurants specializing in regional cuisines that give a nod to our local culinary traditions. For instance, a sushi bar that incorporates a roll with sweet plantains or mango.”

At Eighty20 Hernandez-Lorenzo’s focus is on rethinking classical international dishes by introducing local ingredients, and by reinterpreting Puerto Rican home cooking with inspiration from other cultures. An example of this is his lamb lollipop in green plantain tempura.

“The plantain is a staple food brought to Puerto Rico by African slaves and is eaten green and ripe in a variety of ways,” he said. “I give a local twist to the classic lamb lollipop by cooking it in a light tempura made with green plantain mash instead of flour.”