Meet the Queer Chefs Helping Puerto Rico's Culinary Community Shine

“I’ve never cooked in a kitchen with only queer people, mostly women, and centering Puerto Rican food and ingredients. There’s a lot to say here."

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Nov 27 2018, 4:45pm

All photos by Ron David Butler.

The chefs were supposed to arrive at Basico Jugueria in Santurce around 5 PM for their much anticipated pop-up. But when the clock struck five, Paxx Caraballo Moll, in a navy work shirt nearly soaked through, sweat beading along their sideburns, in a hat with the word “QUEER” stitched across its front, was confronted with a mass of ripe plantain gnocchi dough that needed rolling.

“Can you put on some Talking Heads?” they said, pushing their square-framed glasses back up their nose, readying for one last push.

They were in the prep kitchen at their current outpost inside the tiki bar Junglebird—where, just the night before, Moll had celebrated their first anniversary as chef of Jungle Bao Bao, Jungle-bird’s comida counterpart. Moll hadn’t slept much but simmered with energy anyway.

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Both Moll and chef Veronica “Vero” Quiles had been cooks at El Departamento de la Comida, the beloved San Juan restaurant opened in 2012 by food activist Tara Rodriguez Besosa. A little over a year ago, Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the island and shuttered El Departamento’s restaurant space once and for all. Tonight, Moll and Quiles would bring the restaurant’s classics back.

“El Depa, when it first opened, was the only place in Puerto Rico at the time doing fresh stuff grown here without any bullshit,” says Moll. “Que magico.”

In its heyday, El Departamento de la Comida was a shining beacon for local food, an intentional space serving wildly creative plant-based cuisine. Rodriguez-Besosa, through her tight network of farmers and producers, created a community that countered the status quo––a Puerto Rican population 85 percent reliant on imported foods. Her work has historically focused on reclaiming food sovereignty for the Puerto Rican people. Since the hurricane, her efforts have shifted to rebuilding the agricultural landscape through Fondo de Resiliencia, the Puerto Rican resilience fund she formed with mainland expat Irene Vilar in response to one of the most devastating climate events to pass over Puerto Rico.

Tonight, El Departamento de la Comida (or “El Depa,” as it’s affectionately called) returns to its former life as a restaurant for one night only, inside the walls of Basico Jugueria. That is, as soon as the gnocchi gets rolled.

In the kitchen, hustling right alongside Moll and Quiles, are three chefs from the mainland, who came to Puerto Rico specifically to connect with El Departamento de la Comida and its mission.
To the right, Barbara Stamatelatos methodically washes dishes from the day’s prep. Her sense of urgency belies her chill appearance––a black tank top and shorts, shoulders bronzed from the Caribbean sun, and a flat-billed indigo ball cap covered in tropical flowers.

Stamatelatos is a queer-identified Nuyorican chef based in New Orleans, where she’s the proprietor of Little Puerto Rico, a pop-up that serves Puerto Rican comfort food. She was introduced to El Departamento de la Comida through a monthly event she helps organize back home called Mi Canto. The monthly event showcases local Puerto Rican creatives and vendors and raises funds for Puerto Rican organizations that, she says, are essentially decolonizing Puerto Rico—whether by maintaining traditions through ancestral-type work, or reclaiming the earth (on the island).

At the prep table in front of Moll, out of whose hands gnocchi are furiously multiplying, are partners Amberle Gallup and Courtney Blake, two San Francisco-based chefs who run Private Dining Room SF, a small pop-up focused on sustainability through deepening the connection with the communities they feed and serve. “Our core values are centered around the table being a place of defiance and inclusion, simultaneously,” says Blake. “The table is a great leveler.”

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The couple is in charge of the mystery dish for tonight’s pop-up. They’re working, heads down, in a two-person assembly line, bundling lettuce together with purslane, culantro, and slices of starfruit. The bundles will eventually be used to scoop baba ganoush bolstered with beet (for col-or) and starfruit (for sweetness), and their version of pique, Puerto Rico’s beloved pepper-vinegar, made with Thai chilies, banana peppers, and aji dulce peppers, the star of Puerto Rican sofrito.

Such a scene isn’t unusual, except this group of chefs is comprised of a mix of female and transgender chefs, all queer-identified; individuals who are largely underrepresented in the culinary industry and celebrated far less than their cisgender male counterparts. But that is changing, and events such as this one, where activism meets solidarity, are being led by the LGBTQ community more and more. Just that week, Moll had received word that they and three other Puerto Rican chefs were invited to cook at the James Beard House, where Moll would be the first trans chef to grace the famed kitchen.

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Though they just met each other a few short hours ago, the kitchen fills with the unmistakeable energy that precedes service, a delicious tension that injects hustle into the chefs’ every move. Quiles steps out to pick up the spicy guava sorbet she made earlier that day with a promise to meet everyone at the pop-up location. The clock ticks.

At Basico Jugueria, as evening settles onto the cityscape, a small sign tented on the sidewalk reads “Pop-Up HOY por El Departamento de La Comida” in bright neon marker. The doors hadn’t even opened yet, and a group of people pool near the entrance in eager anticipation.

When the doors open at 7 PM, the small juicery and cafe fills its 40 seats within half an hour and then twice more over the course of the night. The frenetic energy of the rush to service calms into a fluid ease. There was no blueprint for the evening, only each chef’s muscle memory. Each one found their rightful place in the operation. Stamatelatos jumped on dishes again. Blake landed at expo. Gallup on garde manger. Moll and Quiles on the fry and saute stations, respectively.

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From Moll’s fry station came crisp yucca latkes with avocado cream, a sprinkling of togarashi, and scallions. It was the very first item to sell out. Next to them, Quiles sautéed seitan for the bíf sandwich de embustido, a classic El Depa dish, and browned the plantain gnocchi. She plated the gnocchi with local white beans, queso del pais, pickled radishes, and chimichurri made with cilantro and culantro. On the cold station, Gallup carefully molded the pastelón de malanga, a layered terrine of taro root and guiso of chayote, pumpkin, and eggplant with romesco sauce, toasted almonds, and carrot tops.

Plates flew out the swinging door to the dining room, which was abuzz with happy customers. A quick look revealed a mix of former El Departamento customers and industry peers from establishments like Vianda, Café Comunión, and Junglebird. Above all, it was a testament to the magnetism of El Departamento de la Comida, its food, and its community-centered mission.

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“I know people have been wanting this,” says Moll. “The closing of the [El Depa] kitchen with Irma was the last time we were cooking our regular plates.”

At the end of the night, Stamatelatos takes a seat at the bar to eat something post-hustle. She takes a bite of the pastelón. Her head drops and begins to shake in disbelief. “I’m gonna cry,” she says. “These flavors, they remind me of my mother.” Stamatelatos’ mother, Sandra Maria Ortiz Stamatelatos, passed away in 2001 from leukemia. Stamatelatos’ pop-up back home is an homage to her. For Stamatelatos, today’s pop-up has many layers, just like the pastelón on her plate.

“I’ve never cooked in a kitchen with only queer people, mostly women, and centering Puerto Rican food and ingredients. There’s a lot to say here,” she says, speechless after that.

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Blake observed, “Even though we had different reasons for cooking, when you have the same heart and the same caretaking sense, it’s not about ego or being flashy. It’s about feeding people and being part of a team. Everything just worked out.”

The evening’s energy floated back into the kitchen and the chefs, giddy with a post-service high, huddled together for one last photo, arms around each other, filled with contentment for a job well done. It would be posted later with Moll’s favorite hashtag: #queersinthekitchen.

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