After hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico is developing a new agricultural infrastructure that supports local farmers, and chefs are leading the charge.
Most diners probably don’t realize it, but when they order the curried eggplant at Verde Mesa restaurant in San Juan, they’re helping build a more sustainable Puerto Rico. Every meal of locally grown ingredients supports farmers rebounding from Irma and Maria, the hurricanes that ravaged the island in 2017.
Before the storms, Puerto Rico imported about 85 percent of its food. Agriculture had declined steadily after World War II, as government policies encouraged industrialization. Then, just as farming was beginning to stage a comeback, the hurricanes hit. The storms not only destroyed crops, but they also made it harder for imported food to reach the island for distribution. It was clear to two San Juan chefs—Verde Mesa’s Gabriel Hernández, a 2018 James Beard Award semifinalist, and José Enrique Montes, a five-time James Beard Award nominee and the owner of the restaurant José Enrique—that Puerto Rico needed to become more self-sufficient. They committed themselves to getting the island’s farmers back on track.
Montes, meanwhile, is returning to his roots—tubers, that is. “Roots like yuca are indigenous to the island. [Because] they grow underground, they did not suffer the damage that some of our other staples, like plantains, did,” he explains. Montes’s menu includes locally raised pork as well as such native fruits as cherimoya. His goal: Build a menu that is at least 75 percent local.
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