My first night at Mama Ines, I was astounded by my good luck. When I entered, there was only the host and one other guy—a slender old man eating fried chicken off a paper plate in the corner.
"Erasmo?" I asked.
His mouth was full, but his long arms waved something along the lines of, "Yeah, that's me." Half an hour later, I was eating cilantro-peppered ceviche with the man who'd made the same dish for Fidel Castro for 30 years.
I had come to Havana with a mission: find Fidel Castro's chef. I'd received a vague grant from my journalism school to report from Cuba, and when I heard equally vague rumors that Fidel's former chef had recently opened a private restaurant there, I narrowed my focus.
Still, I only knew this guy existed because my professor had heard from another professor who'd heard from another mysterious source. And that was it. Google was useless. So with the help of a Spanish-speaking mentor—educational travel is one of the loopholes through which Americans like me can visit Cuba—I hit the streets of Old Havana.
"Have you heard of Erasmo?" she asked pedestrians in perfect Spanish. "Erasmo's restaurant?"
"¿Yeah, dónde está?" I mumbled after her.
Tomas Erasmo Hernandez, whose business cards list him as simply "Erasmo," was working as a chef's apprentice in a Havana hotel when the Cuban Revolution broke out. Only 16 years-old, he ran off to the Sierra Maestra Mountains to join Che Guevara in the fight for communism. Che Guevara was successful, and only a few years later he was able to hook Erasmo up with a pretty sweet cooking gig.
And so Erasmo began his 30-plus-year tenure as Fidel Castro's chef. Over the decades, he cooked for countless celebrities and heads of state—a small photo of him alongside Fidel and the late Gabriel García Márquez hangs unpretentiously in the restaurant's center.
"The two are like brothers," he says.
His restaurant, Mama Ines, is one of a growing number of paladares, or private restaurants, recently legalized by the Cuban government. And Erasmo's transformation from loyal servant of Fidel to successful private businessman says a lot about the changes happening in Cuba as a whole. In order to support tourism, Cuba's most important source of income, the country is relying increasingly on small business owners like Erasmo—not only to serve food, but also to drive taxis, mix mojitos, and sell Che Guevara key chains.
Originally, the government restricted paladares' size and influence by limiting their seating capacity to 12 and requiring owners to run them out of their own homes. But in the past five years, Fidel's younger brother Raúl has gradually expanded the rights of private business owners, cuenta propistas.
As of 2013, official records state that one in five Cubans is a registered cuenta propista, but many researchers put the percentage much higher when taking into consideration not only unregistered private business owners, but also government employees who work on the side to supplement their meager official income.
Income, after all, is what this is all about. In Cuba's complicated dual-currency system, tourists and foreigners spend CUCs, or Cuban convertible pesos, which have a value drastically higher than that of the peso used by Cuban residents. As such, those who've opened private businesses geared toward tourists can earn salaries on par with prestigious government jobs.
Prestigious government jobs like working as Fidel's chef, for example.
After I introduced myself, I asked Erasmo if a friend and I could hang out in his kitchen. For most chefs, especially chefs you've only met five minutes ago, that's a tall order. And yet one minute later, Kelly and I stood between a spice rack and a refrigerator, me scribbling notes and Kelly taking photos, the both of us moving occasionally so the sous chef could lug meat out of the freezer.
We spent time in the dining room too. Over the course of a week, I tried everything from Erasmo's traditional Cuban fare—fried plantains, shredded pork, rice and beans—to more creative, upscale dishes like lobster and fried octopus.
The bacas fritas, tender shredded pork with chunks of vegetables, had me sopping up leftover juice with rice until I could eat no more. Fresh cilantro garnished an unbelievably refreshing plate of ceviche. Light, crispy breadcrumbs coated a basket of fat shrimp, and we finished every meal with sweet slices of guava drizzled with syrup.
I washed it all down with thick, pulpy piña coladas and strong mojitos. It was phenomenal, the best I had in Havana, but let's be realistic—I wasn't there for the food. I was there to hear about Fidel.
"Fidel has an angel," said Erasmo as he began a story about one of the two assassination attempts he witnessed. The CIA failed to assassinate Fidel more than 50 times. Erasmo shared the statistic proudly. "Fidel is so strong, nobody can kill him."
At 71, Erasmo has seen decades of historic changes in Cuba, but it doesn't show. Tall and slender, he zips between his kitchen and dining room with youthful energy, both to bark orders at his staff and sweetly welcome diners. Mama Ines opens out onto an unassuming cobblestone side street of Old Havana, a haven of silence compared to the main tourist strip rumbling just a few blocks away. The restaurant itself is quiet; usually only a handful of parties dine each night to the muted sounds of a pianist playing by the front door.
Meanwhile, Erasmo happily regales guests with stories of his former boss upon request. Fidel's favorite food? Erasmo's vegetable soup. Fidel's manners? "Sweet like a father." First time he met Fidel? Through his buddy Che, of course.
"For me, he has this warmth," he said to me one evening, his eyes sparkling. According to Erasmo, Fidel's only fault is that he is too kind, wants to give too much.
For the most part, he's telling these stories to foreigners. I wonder if he shares these tales with fellow Cubans. Dinner and a drink at Mama Ines will run you about $20—fine for an American traveler, but an enormous chunk out of the average Cuban's monthly wages.
"I would like to have more Cuban clients, but they don't have the money," Erasmo says.
Still, that's hardly stopping the paladares' proliferation. At Doña Eutimia in Old Havana, for example, guests sit on antique cushioned chairs in a wood-paneled salon while the bartender mixes piña coladas behind a stained-glass partition. Nearby paladar Nao is cheaper, but more expansive; tables sprawl onto two floors and an outdoor patio.
For a tourist, all of this is a welcomed change from the uninspired government-operated diners that previously reigned supreme. At least it was for me. On my last night in Havana, I walked in amidst a chorus of holas from the staff, all of whom recognized me by this point, and saddled up to the bar for a caipirinha. Later, I ordered my go-to: bacas fritas with ceviche, tamales, and rice and beans.
When it was time for the bill, I noticed my group wasn't charged for the main dishes, and I blushed with gratitude as I waved the bill toward the server.
Never mind. It turned out to be a mistake.
But it got me thinking about the place regardless. And a few moments later, after a goofy goodbye hug from Erasmo's lanky arms, my thoughts turned sentimental. Maybe it was the mojitos, but I felt unbelievably lucky. I'd found Mama Ines without the aid of the internet, and it remains relatively unknown. If Erasmo had a kitschy Fidel-themed restaurant and his waiters wore Che Guevara t-shirts, I wouldn't be writing this story. But instead, there's a small, charming restaurant down an alleyway of Old Havana. And if you know what questions to ask, you just might be chatting about Fidel over the best mojito of your life.
If Raúl has anything to say about it, places like this will proliferate. And so far, paladares have created opportunities previously unthinkable for certain Cubans. Much can change over a few years, but I like to hope that, sometime soon, the average Cuban won't just be working behind the restaurant's bar.
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in October, 2014.