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Saborea, Sofritos & Existential Cooking

Regional food festivals exist at three levels.  The first and most-obvious is for foodies to lay out serious cash for worthy causes in order to enjoy gourmet food whipped up by top local and guest chefs and, hopefully, have the opportunity to briefly rub elbows with them.  For the chefs, it’s a time of camaraderie and late-night dining and drinking, trading gossip and possibly jobs.  Finally, there is even a philosophical component – a chance for those of us in the trade to talk about approaches to cooking, food trends and where the whole rotisserie will end up years from now.

The annual Puerto Rican Saborea festival in San Juan that just concluded is certainly a success at all these levels.  Increasingly, local food lovers and food tourists are flocking to the event, which ranges from rooftop bites and bubbles in the glow of a Caribbean sunset to a formal ballroom dinner where guests don’t know until they get there which chef will be cooking for their table to two days on the beach roaming through food tents where freshly prepared dishes and freshly made rum cocktails are the calling cards.

Most interesting to me were my individual one-on-ones with local chefs and a chefs roundtable for the media where guests chefs – Anne Burrell, Simon Majumdar, Ben Vaughn, Emilyn Ellyn -   talked about the nature of Puerto Rican cuisine with local chefs Roberto Trevino, Giovanna Huyke, Yamuel Bigio, Ventura Vivoni, among others.

Regional cuisine to me has always been something to be enjoyed and dissected rather than be revered, as most local chefs – wherever local is to them - are wont to do.  In almost all cases, regional cuisine grew out of impoverished local women using whatever foodstuffs were at hand to prepare large family meals while they did everything else around the house.  It wasn’t meant to be pretty, just nutritious and filling.  Some of it was quite enjoyable in a comfort food way, but it seldom rose above that. 

To me, the value of regional cuisine is using its repertoire of signature ingredients and basic preparations as starting points to fix something more interesting or even elegant.  An example was a first course prepared by Chef Victor Rosado of the Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve at the elegant main dinner held at the Condado Plaza Hilton.  Chef Rosado started with a local base – a yuca alcapurria or fritter – which he topped with olestra caviar on a base of preserved lemon cream which served as an amazing bridge between textures, flavors and – yes - cultures.  In fact, most of the food we tasted during the four-day affair was equally well-thought-out globalocal combinations.

Much of the conversation at the roundtable, however, revolved around childhood memories of family meals where sofritos and mofongos, two basic island preparations, reigned.  After listening to the conversation, I challenge anyone to define exactly what makes a sofrito and what does not.  Basically, it’s a condiment with a base of green, leafy vegetables and peppers which can also have any of dozens of other ingredients, maybe with an oil, maybe not; maybe fine, maybe rough; maybe sautéed, maybe raw.  But, as the judge once observed about pornography, Puerto Rican chefs will know a sofrito when they see one.  And they know they need one, however constructed, as a base ingredient in many dishes.

I had a brief, but wide-ranging, conversation with Anne Burrell, an intelligent and engaging chef who has no illusions about the intellectual worth of competitive cooking shows which she hosts.  “But,” she says, “there are just so many techniques you can exhibit, and you have to go where the money is.”  When asked about why such value is placed on regional cooking, not just in Puerto Rico but elsewhere, she says, “It’s really the nature/nurture discussion, isn’t it?” 

Burrell believes that “experience is key” in the development of any chef, and she, like most of the chefs I met, has worked in kitchens around the world.  But she also values regional cooking, disagreeing with my “comfort food” label, as important to adding “soul” to a chef’s “experience.”  As she, and most chefs, see it what you ate at home with relatives adds emotional and cultural context to your cooking.

But there are hundreds of chefs who grew up – and I am being facetious – in cultural ghettos, where their families traveled internationally and ate out frequently, whose formative food experiences were washing dishes at two-star restaurants. In other words, does having soul in the kitchen mean that you had to grow up eating soul food in Appalachia (my birthplace), Puerto Rico or the Dolomites?  And isn’t what you ate as a child – whether in a forlorn countryside or in the restaurants of mid-town Manhattan – just another type of experience in learning to cook or appreciate food?

I’ll admit I’m a little leery of bring “soul” into any conversation, whether we are talking about the kitchen or our personal morality.  I would, instead, say we all have “character,” good or bad.  As Chef Jean-Paul Sartre might philosophize, the last meal you prepare is a summation of all the experiences that has brought you to that point – existential cooking.  Personally, I’m all souled out.

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