Puerto Rican Cuisine Is More Than Rice and Beans

We caught up with chef Xavier Pacheco to learn more about Puerto Rican cuisine and his upcoming collaboration with Navy’s Camille Becerra.

Xavier Pacheco

Xavier Pacheco is the chef and owner of La Jaquita Baya. Photo credit: Facebook/La Jaquita Baya

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We can’t wait for
Puerto Rico Meets NYC, the five day celebration starting September 30 that brings renowned Puerto Rican chefs to the city to collaborate on elaborate Caribbean-inflected dinners. We’re particularly excited for chef Xavier Pacheco’s dinner with Camille Becerra at Navy. We caught up with San Juan-based Chef Pacheco as he was finishing up a meeting with Puerto Rico’s Department of Agriculture to talk about his New York collaboration and his role in filling the gaps between Puerto Rican farmers, fishermen, chefs and consumers.

The interview below has been paraphrased.

Edible Manhattan: Tell us about the collaborative process with Camille Becerra. What are you making?
Xavier Pacheco: Working with Camille has been awesome. One of her parents is Puerto Rican, so she has a sensitivity to the island. We are interpreting classic plates of the Puerto Rican cuisine with what’s in season in New York. We’re going to adjust classic dishes with what we can find in local markets. For example, much like grits are famous in the South, funche is popular in Puerto Rico. We usually serve it with a salted cod stew, sometimes with a rabbit stew, but in this case we’re going to do a ragout of seasonal mushrooms and a free-range poached egg. It’s a classic with a twist. We’re going finish it by grating pana de pepita [also known as a breadnut] on top.

We’re also going to be reinterpret a classic salad, one we eat during Holy Week and on Fridays. It’s called serenata de bacalao. Usually it’s made with salted cod, avocado and tomato, but we’re using root vegetables. We’ll maintain the integrity of the flavor profile while playing with the textures.

EM: What does the farm to table movement look like in Puerto Rico?
XP: We have a big farm to table movement right now. We have new ingredients that didn’t used to be available locally — microgreens, mustard greens, different types of greens — chefs are really interested in these types of products. We look for farmers and support them. They try to grow the specialty products we ask for.

EM: New York farmers have started to revive varieties of heirloom vegetables that dropped out of the market for several decades. Is there a similar trend in Puerto Rico?
XP: Puerto Rican farmers are definitely starting to revive old classics. Pana de pepita is coming back, although we’re using it in new and different textures. We’ve started encouraging farmers to grow a seasonal potato variety called lerenes and several types of root vegetables that people have stopped using. It’s been hard, but we’re convincing farmers to grow these less popular vegetables.

EM: How much of your restaurant’s sourcing is local?
XP: We’re using about 80 percent local ingredients. The menu is constantly changing based on what we find. There’s a misconception out there that seasonality doesn’t exist in Puerto Rico, that everything is available year round. And while we do have fish and root vegetables all year, we don’t always have local onions. Eggs, too, are a little tricky, but I’ve been able to find a farmer with free-range eggs.

I just had a meeting at the Department of Agriculture. We’re trying to work together to form an alliance where chefs help educate the government on agriculture. For example, we have an overabundance of sofrito herbs like cilantro and recao. We’re hoping to get loans and grants for farmers to experiment with more diverse crops.

EM: You do a lot of work with the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña (AGPR). Can you tell me more about this organization?
XP: We started AGPR two or three years ago, and the main focus is forming alliances with fishermen, farmers and different chefs so we can help ourselves and each other connect and sponsor more initiatives based in Puerto Rico. We have been visiting different farmers and fishermen, and we host some activities to help educate consumers. The farmers and fishermen speak directly to restaurant customers about their products.

Our main focus is to unite all the ingredients of the gastronomic world here in Puerto Rico, and we want to tell the world that we have our own gastronomy, that we are not simply rice and beans. AGPR is educational, and it’s also business-oriented. We encourage farmers to grow high quality ingredients and forge relationships between restaurants and producers.

Puerto Rico Meets NYC starts on September 30 and runs through October 4. Read more and get tickets for their exclusive events here. This post was made possible by Puerto Rico Meets NYC. 

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