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How Puerto Rico’s Chefs Are Helping the Island Rebuild

By Kathleen Squires

Aug 1, 2018

From the September/October 2018 issue

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A fresh, seasonal salad from Verde Mesa
Joe Miragliotta/Instagram

A fresh, seasonal salad from Verde Mesa

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.

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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.

A fruit vendor in San Juan
On Verde Mesa’s menu, Hernández showcases whatever ingredients are most readily available, whether it’s beef, which he serves in a Moroccan-style stew, or chayote, a type of gourd, sliced into thin ribbons and dressed with mango, lemon, and cilantro. Sixty-five percent of his ingredients come from Puerto Rico. “The hurricane taught me how important it is to take advantage of what you have in front of you,” Hernández says.

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.

José Enrique (far right) outside his restaurant
Travelers can help. Farm stays organized by Visit Rico offer financial assistance to growers and volunteer opportunities to guests. Visitors can tour and eat at farms such as Frutos del Guacabo and shop at farmers’ markets such as Mercado Agrícola Natural in San Juan and Mercado Agroecológico in Rincón. But the easiest and most delicious way to help get island agriculture back on its feet is by patronizing the growing number of locavore restaurants—in San Juan, Fajardo, and Rincón—that are revitalizing the dining scene with their culinary innovations.

>>Next: Puerto Rico Bounces Back

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