Chef Paxx Caraballo Moll has a cartoon on their shirt and mismatched socks on their feet while they consider prep for the week ahead.
"I have some daikon radish; maybe I can roast it and make a vinaigrette."
They move around the kitchen cleaning, yelling into space about someone who didn't "put the fucking spices away," and goofing around with their number two, Robert, as now-defunct but forever-beloved garage-punk band Davila 666 plays on the stereo.
Monday is prep day in the kitchen at El Departamento de La Comida in the Tres Talleres neighborhood of San Juan. Eighty percent of the food cooked here comes from within Puerto Rico—agroecología, it's called, because it's farmed sustainably without pesticide—and the staff is waiting for farmers to arrive with product. Slowly, they trickle in over the course of the day bearing beautiful eggplant, zucchini, and pomarrosa, along with a gift of pitorro, or moonshine.
El Departamento is a small grocery store, CSA, event space, and café housed in a former garage. It is way off the tourist trajectory and around the block from a massive Walmart, its ideological opposite. There is no air conditioning, and 75 percent of the staff of the café has no formal culinary experience. But this is where Chef Moll is doing fine dining.
Moll has been working in kitchens for 15 years, and spent seven of those with Roberto Treviño, their mentor and the celebrated owner of three restaurants in the much richer San Juan neighborhood of Condado. They've given into the chef life after a few stints in art school, an autodidact obsessed with food both low- and highbrow.
On Tuesday, for lunch service, Moll is wearing chef whites, a striped apron, and pristine white Vans. They are serving a summer gazpacho of cucumber, chayote, and tomato with chile-infused olive oil and pulverized tostones; breadfruit beignets with housemade tarragon syrup; pumpkin cutlets with pomarrosa salsa and roasted beets; eggplant stuffed with sweet chili and mashed bananas with charred kale; and an open-faced sandwich with a plantain pattie, queso fresco, heirloom tomato, and banana-mayo ketchup.
You can get a soup, salad, and sandwich for $10, a big main for $10 to $11, and small plates for $5 to $8. Despite the pedigree of the produce, the expertise in the kitchen, and the beauty of the plating, this food is considered expensive.
"Tuesdays are good," Moll later tells me. "Everything comes in fresh on Monday, so a lot of people come to shop, and some eat. We did about 60 [plates]; I used to work somewhere where we did 170 for lunch, but here, 60 is great. Wednesdays and Thursdays are up and down; Fridays are good. Brunch always kicks ass on Saturday. If we were doing this in Condado or on Calle Loiza, the prices wouldn't be an issue."
Puerto Rico—despite being a US territory—is mired in an economic crisis. Unemployment is at 13.7 percent, and many young people are opting to leave. Moll, too, thinks about leaving "all the time." They have been unable to open their food truck, Baoricua, because of bureaucratic red tape—what Moll's girlfriend and business partner Audrey Berry calls "a mafia." But, they want to stay: "Puerto Rico sucks right now, but I think it's very important that I stay because we are the ones who can make it better. I have nothing against rice and beans, mofongo, chips, but I think we can make it better."
Baoricua serves Taiwanese steamed buns filled with Puerto Rican ingredients—pork belly, fried tofu with sweet plantain. "Taiwan and Puerto Rico are both islands, both colonized," Moll says. "It makes sense." Though they can't get the truck on the road, they've been able to do two pop-ups in Puerto Rico. Both have sold out within a couple of hours. When they were in New York in early June, they did a pop-up dinner that was packed with their friends and also sold out.
Moll only made their first trip to New York City a few years ago, but they've been back a lot lately promoting a documentary about gender identity in Puerto Rico called Mala Mala, in which they're featured. They're the only masculine-identified person among many trans women and drag queens, and the only queer-identified person who doesn't fit the gender binary. On the island, they have no access to testosterone. The film—which is gorgeous, often hilarious, and heartbreaking—portrays a victory for trans people in the passing of Senate Bill 238, which makes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity illegal. But when we're in Río Piedras later, an old man catcalls us. "Creep," says Moll, visibly pissed though perpetually chill, even in the face of this, as we walk away. "I look like a girl because I have no access to hormones."
We biked to Río Piedras from El Departamento to pick up cafeteria-style trays at the bar and concert venue Club 77, home of El Guapo Burger. Behind the bar is Yanqui, who played guitar in Davila 666. The trays are going to be used for a special cafeteria night coming up at El Departamento. For dinner, they're going to do chickpea nuggets, a seitan hot dog, and other vegetarian takes on the school lunch. They're drinking Heineken and I'm holding fast with water but order a highly recommended falafel. "You want sriracha?" they ask me, smirking, when it's been set in front of me on the bar. I feel like it's a test of my ability to handle spice, and I say yes.
The essential thing about Paxx, beyond their cooking and work ethic and commitment to Puerto Rico, is that they are charming. They know everyone in San Juan, it seems, and their laid-back skater demeanor and intense excitement about cooking are infectious. Their tone with sous-chefs is friendly most of the time, and stern when it needs to be.
On prep day, I walked into the kitchen to find them laughing as a Band-Aid was applied for them on a finger they'd cut. After lunch service on Tuesday, they insist, intensely, that I try some turnovers made by another cook. "My boy Jerome [Saez] has shown a talent for pastry, so we're letting him do whatever." They are crisp, flaky, and not heavy despite being deep-fried, filled with sweet onion, local cheese, pumpkin, candied walnuts, and served with a whiskey-vanilla breadfruit mousse that is rich, smooth, and intense. As I eat it, they ask whether I've been to Take Root in Brooklyn. I haven't. "Yo, those bitches are killing it! They have a Michelin star!"
Moll and Berry will be in New York City again next week for Mala Mala's premiere at the IFC Center. For Moll, it's a chance to eat at new restaurants, to maybe cook for a new crowd, and to escape the smallness of San Juan. But they'll return to the sweltering garage, hopefully open their food truck, and do what they can to change Puerto Rican palates through accessibility to the island's own produce. "I just want to spend my money on food and beers and going to hear music," they said at Club 77, sounding like the archetypal cook. By simply being themselves, they might be doing a lot more.