Photo by Chris Hoppe.

How Puerto Rican Chefs Are Feeding People After Hurricane Maria

"A typical day starts at 4 a.m. with four people in different gas lines, just because they only sell $20 worth per person."

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Oct 9 2017, 8:00pm

Photo by Chris Hoppe.

"We got lucky after Maria," Stephen Hoppe tells me. He's the co-owner of La Penúltima, a bar in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce that usually serves a really good carbonated Negroni—one I crave from home in Brooklyn. Since Hurricane Maria, though, the offerings have been slimmer, crafted on a daily basis out of necessity.

"We sustained no major damage and were able to be pretty prepared," he says. "Honestly, if not for Irma, I'm not sure we would have managed to get back up so fast. But Irma had us prepared; we had already spent ten days with no electricity and had managed to slap together enough extension cords to run the most essential pieces of equipment. So after Maria hit, I immediately wired our 8000-watt generator back up." Immediately following the storm, both a curfew and a dry law were instituted, making it hard for food businesses to make any money using their usual models. This spot you'd go to for a cocktail suddenly became the place to hit for breakfast, while you recharged your phone and accessed wifi (La Penúltima lucked out in another way, too, as it's right across the street from the central office of a fiber optic cable provider).

"We hooked up with Mario Juan from Pernilería Los Próceres a day or two into the aftermath and he brought the contents of his fridges over," Hoppe says. "We rocked $5 plates. By the end of that day, Mario was walking up and down the street in front of the bar handing out pork sandwiches." "That day was the day I'll choose to remember best from the hurricane," Mario Juan says. It was the point at which the situation went from looking dire to manageable. "After the storm hit, I have to admit, I was caught in this weird and paralyzing thought process in which I was confronting all sorts of difficult questions." He had to wonder whether his new business would be forced to close or if he'd be able to pay his team of close friends and cousins. "Am I gonna have to pack my knives up and go back to the States for a while? What does that mean? Am I part of the problem if I leave? If I stay, what is my role in the rebuilding process?"

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But once he was able to feed people again, those questions faded to the background. "We just cooked a bunch of stuff, gave it out to people at the bar, gave it to the folks from the elderly center and the people spotted up outside a building with free wifi across the street," he says. "It helped me realize that as a cook my role in the aftermath of the hurricane is to cook."

Under these conditions, though, it's not that easy to do. Leslie Cofresí, who co-owns the bars La Factoría, Jungle Bird, and Caneca, also runs La Alcapurria Quemá in La Placita de Santurce, serving traditional Puerto Rican food mere feet from where José Andrés was recently filmed serving sancocho with José Enrique.

"We opened the day after the hurricane and we've never looked back," Cofresí says. "It's been a real struggle. It's a nonstop endurance race. This is literally gonna be survival of the fittest for the restaurant industry in Puerto Rico."

That's because to keep a business running without a solid source of electricity requires intense logistical considerations.

"A typical day starts at 4 a.m. with four people in different gas lines, just because they only sell $20 worth per person. My commercial generator runs through $100 a day," he says. "If there's gas, then you move to another line to get food to cook. It's literally the most intense conditions to operate. You're calling in every favor vendors owe you just to get supplies—and all that to be able to open at noon. We've hustled a few gigs serving a couple hundred lunch services to some companies trying to feed their employees, and with that we've secured some money to cover operating costs."

Cooking on a wok burner outside of Mai Pen Rai. Photo by Chris Hoppe.

Finding that food to cook has been another challenge. "We got into Costco after three hours in line and only found half the things we were looking for," says Chris Hoppe, co-owner of La Penúltima, Old San Juan beer bar La Taberna Lúpulo, and Santurce restaurant Mai Pen Rai. The latter sustained more damage than the others and took a longer time to reopen. "We have set up an outdoor kitchen and are cooking up stir-fries on a portable propane wok burner and Thai-style 'pinchos' on a grill," he says.

The line outside of Costco. Photo by Chris Hoppe.

"The main operational difficulty is product. We have very, very limited refrigeration, so we need to operate day to day, but buying food is difficult due to long lines at supermarkets and wholesalers," says Mario Juan. "A few distributors are operating, but with high minimums and large quantities per item, it's hard to balance buying in bulk with the storage issues we have. Fresh and delicate products are harder to get as well. A lot of farms locally have been severely affected and stores can't carry fresh products, imported or otherwise, if they can't be properly refrigerated. For us at Pernilería, we've been fortunate that our main herb is oregano brujo, a local plant that grows super easily, and our small garden of it survived the hurricane."

Coffee is another decimated product. Abner Roldan was planning to open his coffee shop, Café Comunión, this month, but the entrance was destroyed during María. Now he stands outside the shop, serving drip coffee to passersby.

"My main concern for me as a coffee shop owner is that I need coffee to serve in my business, and since we will not have Puerto Rican coffee available in a few weeks, we will need to import green and roasted coffee from the United States," Roldan says. "The main problem about importing coffee is that importing green coffee is illegal in Puerto Rico, and to import roasted coffee you have to pay $2.50 for each pound of coffee. Both circumstances are held by old laws that were created to protect Puerto Rican coffee and increase its sales. Now that Puerto Rican coffee will need at least three years for a new harvest, I believe both laws need to be modified."

Pricing and menus have had to shift, of course. Staying "on brand" no longer matters. "We started serving breakfast since there seemed to be a need for it combined with the relative ease, operationally, of cooking eggs," says Mario Juan. "I imagine people are also less able to cook at home and, since not every place has reopened, there is a smaller pool of options in the area as well. As a result, our sales have actually gone up since the storm. But if running a restaurant or food truck is hard enough on a good day, after a category 5 hurricane it's easy to wonder if it's even worth it."

"We've had to adjust our prices to accommodate everyone," says Chris Hoppe. "Our goal is to serve the community and do our best to give our employees hours and an opportunity to make tips. We aren't making enough to pay our rent or cover basic overhead, but right now that doesn't matter." #PostMariaSurvivalism is the hashtag chef Paxx Caraballo Moll of El Baoricua

has been using on Instagram in the aftermath, as they try to continue to operate despite depleted funds and a major loss of food owing to the lack of refrigeration. "We are literally coming up with a different menu every day according to what we can get," they say. "Improvisation is key. There are no fresh fruits and veggies, really; suppliers are not receiving product either because of the damages in the airport. Cilantro is nonexistent."

Beyond the day-to-day operational difficulties, which Cofresí says are creating a Groundhog Day feeling, everyone is concerned about whether those who can will leave the island as soon as it's feasible. "Puerto Rico's restaurant scene has been growing both in numbers and quality for the last ten years," says Chris Hoppe. "We've been on such a good track and this has really hurt, but we all know we must keep moving forward both innovating and recovering."

"Improvisation is key. There are no fresh fruits and veggies, really; suppliers are not receiving product either because of the damages in the airport. Cilantro is nonexistent."

"It's hard because with all the economic problems the island was going through, the service industry, hotels, restaurants and bars at least were experiencing a boom," Cofresí adds. "As in any economic downcycle, you had highly skilled and educated people turning to the service industry because these jobs became very well paid. Right now, all of these young people are the first to have opportunities to leave."

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Ivan Torres Lespier, a bartender at La Penúltima, has already made his way to New York City. "My stay here, it's not permanent," he says, "because I've got to go back for my kids. They need me now more than ever." He was able to make it to the States through a partnership between Don Q rum and Lush Life Productions that's getting bartenders from the island work on the mainland for as long as necessary. "With the absence of power and water, I couldn't work for three weeks," he says. "Normally, if you don't have responsibilities like kids, you can manage. That's not my case. I've got 3 kids—Sebastian, Carlos and Camelia. If I don't work, it's going to be more difficult for them right now. That is my drive: to get enough money so they can be okay. After Maria, my emergency money was $200."

"It's not an easy decision to leave," Cofresí says. "We're islanders. It's a different mind-set. It's not natural to our idiosyncrasies to hop in a car and drive to the next state or city and try your luck." Even so, Caraballo Moll tells me that most cooks want to leave.

Despite all of the logistical issues and long lines for gas and food, these residents of San Juan have found themselves in a better situation than much of the island. As Stephen Hoppe notes, "I'm very concerned about the fate of the rest of the island. Many communities remain isolated with little or no resources."

"The island is devastated," says Caraballo. "The cable news doesn't bring the whole story; Trump disrespected us. There's more to Puerto Rico than Guaynabo," the affluent area he visited. "This kind of event makes structural problems evident: Dependence on imports for food and fuel, lack of planning and economic inequality," they note.

Mario Juan says that once he streamlines what he's doing in San Juan, he can move on to other areas of the island. "If everything keeps going at least as well as it is now," he says, "[I can] start finding ways to cook for more people and reach those in areas that were hit harder by the hurricane." Chef Wilson Davalos of CLMDO in Isabela just made it off the island on a humanitarian flight after two weeks with no power, water or cell phone service. "CLMDO lost most of its equipment, including refrigeration from water damage," Davalos says. "The eye of Hurricane Maria hit Isabela direct." He's now in San Antonio, Texas, trying to schedule some pop-ups.

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There are great organizations already at work to help those hard-hit areas. "I've been coordinating with a group called Waves for Water to receive and distribute Sawyer water filter systems and get them to communities that have no access to potable water," says Stephen Hoppe. "Turns out a bar has the ability to connect organizers with people who are working directly with people in need. It seems to me that the most vital concern on the island is getting resources to the most isolated communities." The networks bartenders themselves have are proving useful, as well: Milton Soto, who works at La Taberna Lúpolo, has been raising funds and distributing items and food to those areas himself.

At the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, where chef Juan Jose Cuevas runs 1919 Restaurant, he was lucky enough to be able to buy as much as possible from his local farmers as a precaution, with which he's been able to serve food to hotel staff, homes for the elderly, and hospitals. Some people are trying to think long term and have banded together to keep all the talent from leaving the island. Maria Grubb, the executive chef at the Santurce restaurant Gallo Negro, got together with Chris Hoppe, chef Kelly Pirro, and Carrie Bacon to create a nonprofit called ServePR (I recently organized a fundraiser for this group in Brooklyn).

"This is our attempt to keep the food industry labor force afloat," Grubb tells me. "Much of them haven't been able to work since Irma, a month ago. They have families; they need money. Without them, we can't reopen. We don't want them to be forced to leave the Island. We also want to help farmers rebuild so that we can pick up where we left, better."

The optimistic notion that the island could rebuild its agriculture in a more sustainable way has become a popular one. Doing so might make it less necessary for the island to import 80 percent of its food.

Chef Xavier Pacheco of La Jaquita Baya, in the Miramar neighborhood of San Juan, had been a major proponent of supporting local farmers, but that's had to change in the immediate aftermath of the storm. He's writing menus on brown paper bags, serving home-style food at a lower price point.

"As a Puerto Rican, I feel we are going to have rough times, but we will learn, refocus, unite and reconstruct our island," Pacheco says. "Mother Nature sent a clear message; she came to clean the area so we can have a better product, and keep achieving what we have been working at: sustainable farming, meat production, dairy... We are going to be okay." Everyone can agree that that won't happen without visitors, though. "We need people to continue visiting Puerto Rico," Cuevas says. "We need tourism." And soon.

"Come November, I hope to start seeing and serving visitors and tourists," says Chris Hoppe. "I might cry when I see a gringo in flip-flops walk into our bar or restaurant again."

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