Munchies

Meet the Women Who Are Leading Puerto Rico's Bar and Restaurant Scene

The unofficial crew, who dubbed themselves the "damas cívicas," provides mutual support in an industry that can feel overwhelmingly male-dominated.

by Alicia Kennedy
Jun 30 2017, 6:00pm

All photos by the author.

Maria Mercedes Grubb, the executive chef at Gallo Negro, has a rare Thursday off. She's gathered friends around her table for a grill night, and all the remnants grow cold as wine continues to be poured. Bottles, a platter of perfectly charred corn and meat, and a bowl of her own homemade gochujang are scattered across her table. She and her friend and fellow chef Kelly Pirro, chef at Mai Pen Rai, are discussing a potential new joint restaurant with some guests who know all about business and contracts. Eventually we're joined by Ninotchka Daly Gandulla and Minelis Mendez, bartenders at a couple of Old San Juan's best bars. Everyone's got the day off, and everyone's a little tipsy. When the guests and husbands leave the table, the party moves to the patio and I'm forced by my new friends to saber a bottle of Champagne. "Find the seam and use pressure," Daly Gandulla instructs. I get it on the third strike—relieved, delighted.

"We call ourselves damas cívicas," Grubb says as a grin crawls across her face. It's the term on the island for socialites, women who throw lavish fundraisers for different causes to have an excuse to drink. These damas in the city's food and drink industry don't need an altruistic excuse, but they have created an unofficial crew that provides mutual support in a place that can feel overwhelmingly male-dominated.

Kelly Pirro (left) and Maria Grubb. All photos by the author.

Grubb spent years in New York City before she moved back to the island, with no idea whether anything would work. "It's a big fucking gamble," she says. When she was first back, she threw supper club dinners in her home, inviting strangers to eat. Now Gallo Negro is consistently on the lists of must-visit restaurants in San Juan. "You make something out of nothing, which I think is the beauty of Puerto Rico," she says.

Kali Jean Solack, who moved to the island with her boyfriend, chef Mario Juan Arete, three and a half years ago, has done that with her coffee kiosk, Café Regina. It sits right at the entrance to the new food hall Lote 23 in the Santurce neighborhood, where we sit to talk one afternoon. The Pennsylvania native went from working at Murray's Cheese in New York to nearby coffee shop Hacienda San Pedro, where they put her on the sandwich station. "Everyone was making all these beautiful coffees and I was really mad," she tells me. It was there that she took every opportunity she could to learn how to steam milk, calibrate the grinder, and learn about espresso extraction, eventually becoming the lead barista.

"If you know what you want, you can come off as a bitch."

With Café Regina, she's doing something different from the other spots around, going beyond the milky espresso drinks and making what are essentially cold brew cocktails, such as the delicious Café Stormy (cold brew, cardamon, coconut, ginger beer, cacao and lime). She rotates between locally sourced beans, and US-based Puerto Rican roasters such as Metric Coffee and Máquina Coffee Roasters. "I think the coffee industry is a pretty masculine one," she says. "There are a lot of women, but I don't think they're as recognized. I do think it's a little hard to stand your ground as a woman."

Minelis Mendez (left) and Daly Gandulla.

"If you know what you want, you can come off as a bitch," adds Daly Gandulla, the head bartender at Vino Factoría in Old San Juan. She started working behind the stick seven or eight years ago. The job has allowed her to see the world, from the New Orleans festival Tales of the Cocktail to the industry whiskey experience Camp Runamok to Portland Cocktail Week, as well as trips to Mexico, Sweden, London, Panama, and Shanghai; she learns what's happening abroad and brings it back to compare with the island's scene.

"Though it's kind of competitive to work with boys, it's also a blessing to be one of the only girls, because I've had more opportunities," she admits, "but I also want more women to get into it. There are so many opportunities that are out there for us compared to the boys; we have a different perspective and way of doing things—the way we pay attention to detail and communicate with customers, a certain intuition that I cannot describe." There are still only a handful of women working as bartenders in the city, and she recognizes that there can be a "boy romance" among the men. "They're not doing it on purpose," she notes. "They're just boys."

One of the most boy-dominated industries around is craft beer. La Taberna Lúpulo, across the street from Vino Factoría, serves a huge array of brews, and Mendez knows them all—but not everyone always believes her even though she's been working there for six years. "My father has a small bar, what we call a chinchorro here in Puerto Rico," she says, "so I was always around beer." But at Lúpulo, she's been able to dive in deep. "Five, six years ago, people didn't connect beer with women," she says. Now, things are different. "It was a learning process, showing people that yes, a woman can drink an IPA."

Audrey Berry (left) and Kali Jean Solack.

A woman can also be a boss, as Audrey Berry, owner of Lote 23's El Baoricua with her partner, chef Paxx Caraballo Moll, proves. "I kind of run the place," she says. "I do everything, and Paxx just cooks. I'm the bad cop; Paxx is the good cop." Berry never intended to get into the industry, but she worked as a hostess at José Enrique for two years to learn the ropes, always planning to help Paxx open their business. And she's proven to be adept at it. "Explaining and selling product is kind of difficult for people who don't know," she says, because steamed buns aren't prevalent on the island, but it's been catching on.

"This is a guy industry," she says, but she doesn't see it as a challenge. "I like having 90 percent of my employees being girls," say Berry. That's her way of combating the male domination. "I like girls in a kitchen, promoting that we are as good, responsible, and clean—and it looks pretty amazing that we have girls looking cool and kicking ass."

Alexandra Rivera (left) and Nasha Fondeur.

And more of them them are doing just that. There's Alexandra Rivera, who's been running BAM, a spirits brand ambassador company, for two years. "They know now that we can be part of the boys' club," she says of how she's seen the industry change, and Daly Gandulla now serves as one of her reps. At 1919 Restaurant in the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, executive pastry chef Nasha Fondeur has become the most respected person in her field on the island and participates in events like Mujer Por Mujer, which brought together female hotel chefs for a recent celebratory event to promote the visibility of women in kitchens. At Grubb's Gallo Negro, Chicago transplant Mea Leech has taken over the bar program.

Back on that patio, my beheaded bottle sitting on the table, the women talk about local characters and all the cities everyone's been traveling to lately, how that's bringing fresh perspectives to the food and drinks. But it's gotten late. The party has to end. The damas cívicas are not off tomorrow.