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Sustainable Fishing and Farming in Puerto Rico: A Visit to Slow Food Boricua

Aug. 15, 2015

gala

by Dana Honn

Last December, my wife Christina and I took a 5-day research, rest and recreation excursion to Puerto Rico. On our trips over the past few years, we’ve tended to make as many connections to local food communities as possible, and we were lucky enough to be put in touch with some wonderful people who are really at the center of sustainable agriculture, fishing and food preparation on the island. With the help of Richard McCarthy, we were able to make contact with leaders of the Slow Food Boricua Convivum (chapter) previous to our trip. Coincidentally, we were in San Juan for the 25th anniversary of the Organizacion Boricua de Agricultores Eco-organicos (an organization of ecologically conscious and organic farmers), and had the amazing experience of attending their sparkling anniversary gala, which featured locally-sourced food prepared by some of the islands best chefs. Additionally, we were able to visit the Earth Market in Old San Juan, which is held every Saturday at 8 a.m., which is a can’t-miss event for people who care about quality local food.

Elena Biamon was one of our gracious hosts from Slow Food Boricua, who introduced us to Laura Daen (Mercado Agricula Natural “Earth Market” Co-founder), several organic producers, as well as the chefs who use their products and produce on a day-to-day basis. She and her husband Miguel Sastre, are also organic coffee growers on their farm in Finca Gripiñas. Anyone looking for a truly spectacular coffee to bring back from PR for themselves or as a gift, their “Café Tureygua” definitely fits the bill.

Meeting all of these wonderful people who make sustainable fishing and farming seem so rich and viable in Puerto Rico might veil the fact that the vast majority of the produce, fish and meat consumed on the island is imported, and generally produced via industrial agricultural methods. Starting a farm or fishery-to-table system in such an environment seems an almost insurmountable task, and that’s why the work that these true food pioneers are doing is so rare, and so valuable. It sometimes requires commitments that put one at a competitive disadvantage, and sacrifices that may threaten one’s economic stability and take decades or more to realize. But for the individuals we spoke with, commitment and sacrifice are taken in stride and even help bind them together as a movement, or collection of movements.

Chefs play an important role on the island, and there have been a handful who have been supporting sustainability in different forms for dozens of years. There’s also a new vanguard who are forging new ground in the sustainable and locavore movements, chefs like Gabriel Hernandez at Verde Mesa, Juan Jose Cuevas at 1919, Xavier Pacheco at La Jaquita Baya and Peter Schintler at Marmalade, among others.


Interview with Xavier Pacheco (La Jaquita Baya), December 8th, 2014

Could you tell a bit about your history with respect to sustainable sourcing and how you began as a chef?

I studied journalism, but I've been cooking all my life. I went to Miami to study culinary arts, after that I went to Spain and I was there for about a year. That's where I really learned about the difference between good produce, fish and everything. It's incredible, it was like I was in shock. Yes, in Puerto Rico we do have markets, but you've got to find them, really. Many happen maybe only once a week, and that's the way I've met a lot of my partners. I've been searching intensely for the past four years. So, after I left Spain and returned to Puerto Rico I opened my restaurant. I worked for five years, the economy crashed, so I closed down and went back to Miami. There I was working as a chef and always fighting to find good products. I found some farmers who were doing a good job, but it was a struggle. Eventually I decided to return to return PR. My first year back was really just another long search for local product. I traveled around the island, went to pretty much every fish market and vendor and I began learning about the realities of sourcing here, like those relevant to fishing. We are still a colony, and we only have access to a couple of areas where we can fish. Consequently, the best fish caught here goes to the States, so that's the sad part. Still, we have a lot of things to play with. So now, I'm really an activist here. I'm really into it and we've seen that we have helped a lot of local farmers, who all started very small. Now people are realizing the difference in the product because you can taste it; when you have a good product you don't need that much. In addition to produce and fish, we've been working with pork. PR consumes a lot and has a large industry, but not a large local one, so we import most of what we use. Now, we are expanding on our local production.

lobster

Can you speak more about the federal verses local control of PR's fisheries?

Yes, the world is changing, everything is changing ... climates, seasons. You can see it in the fisheries, for example the mahi mahi season has changed completely. Snapper season also changed. There is loss, and there are some seasons when you can't fish due to overfishing, the fish are reproducing, etc., and that is really true. But they (those responsible for federal fisheries) also have to understand that everything is changing. So maybe species that come in with the winter season are going to come a little later. So if appropriate adjustments aren’t made to regulations, they're not playing the entire game. Additionally, it is sad that we have very little space for our fishermen, that's why our industry is so handicapped.

So if I'm understanding you correctly, areas designated as local fisheries don't extend beyond coastal habitats the insular shelf, out into the areas where one would find the larger pelagic species, which are harvested by large non-Puerto Rican commercial vessels.

Yes, our fishermen don't have access to the swordfish, the yellowfin, etc.

And of the species which you do have access to locally, do you see bright spots or possibilities in terms of sustainability and what makes it to diners' plates?

My philosophy is 100% local or nothing. If you see my menu, you'll see what the fishermen caught. However, depending on where the fish was caught locally, I won't use it. For example, fish coming from PR’s east coast fisheries … it's not that it's necessarily bad fish, but there may be higher levels of marine water contamination than on the west coast fisheries, which sees stronger ocean currents, so you'll get robalo, mahi, wahoo, grouper, hake, mackerel, yellowfin tuna and others.

Do you see and use much bycatch or underutilized species?

Yes, you've got to use it ... we get skate, we also have lots and lots of shark, which are impacting other fisheries. I've served it and there are people who have responded negatively, primarily in online forums. But you have to respond with knowledge and information. I've consulted with a local expert on our fisheries and he explained that we are not overfishing shark, it's a management issue. Also, a lot of fishermen only have that to eat, so the situation is more complicated that catching them or not. I also believe that we, as chefs, have the responsibility to make people (fishermen and the public) conscious of overfishing. When I see an illegal fish brought in, I'm the first one to get pissed off. If you can only take this (one type of fish) ... come on, then just take this and go home. If not, tomorrow we won't have anything left.

If there is a goal for the future that you have, what would it be?

Yes. My goal is to use 100% local product. I hopefully will make that happen, and definitely create consciousness ... here in Puerto Rico I believe that a lot of Puerto Ricans misjudge our food. I love our food. For them it's maybe it’s just more criolla (Creole) stuff. But when chefs from around the world come here many don't expect our food to be like it is. And you're going to experience this at my place. I have a different flow, but it's really local food. Yes I have my influences because I've traveled, and I have been influenced by a couple of chefs.

What about preparing ethnic foods which may require other non-local ingredients?

I do believe that you can even have, for example, an Italian restaurant and use at least 70% local product. OK, as far as produce maybe there are two things that we don't have enough production of, garlic and onions. But on the other hand we have a big industry of mushrooms, kale. If you don't have something, you use something else. OK, yes, we do need garlic, we do need onions, so that's the 10-15% that it might be tough at this point. But we're seeing what we can do. If we can work with farmers and help them and say let's do an experiment, let's try raising onions, do it year round and we will buy exactly what you produce so you won't have a loss. When you worked with farmers, you have to have a commitment. If I tell someone I'm going to buy 10 lbs of something, I've gotta buy 10 lbs. I cannot call you tomorrow and say this week I'm going to buy a pound and a half, and next week three. You've got to get creative if you really want to make that commitment, and we are seeing more young chefs here willing to do that.


Interview with Peter Schindler (Marmalade), December 5th, 2014

Can you talk a little bit about your efforts from the beginning and how things may have changed regarding procuring sustainable seafood and bringing it to diners' plates?

I think in the very early years those social and ecological questions weren't really present in Puerto Rico, and they probably were much more so in major metropolitan cities like New York or San Francisco, where they had been around for 25 or 30 years and the single most important thing in the culinary scene. I think it's been kind of a progression little by little. For us, we are isolated in the sense that we don't have access to everything in the world, and some of the products we do have here aren't consistent and reliable. The problem that we do have with seafood is, not only the quality of the product, but how it's been harvested or obtained too. At some stage I found it better not to support a local product which has been improperly harvested or unlicensed and not being taxed rather than buying a properly-harvested product which may come from New York or New Jersey or San Francisco or Maine or Seattle. So, as much as you'd love to be 100% locally driven, it has to be paired with sourcing ecology and social choices as well. I think in the last progression of the four or five years we've developed the business levels where we can really really begin to put our foot down on a lot of those issues, and be uncompromising. Puerto Rico is a tough place to plant your foot down, as often times you might be the only guy who has their flag on the top of the mountain, so to speak. But we've had success, the customer is willing to pay for those social choices which is the most important I think in any business, that the customer identifies it, can afford it, and appreciates it. That's the magic three when we talk about chefs in our business, that there's no better feeling to having somebody notice that you're doing it, appreciate it, and then happily pay for it at the end of the process. That's kind of a win-win-win for everybody. Still we have a significantly long way to go, I think the key restaurants, some of the major restaurants on the island have been strongly participating the last few years, with great chefs, for example the restaurant 1919 at the Hotel Vanderbilt Chef Cuevas who used to man the kitchens at Blue Hill also shares a strong commitment to ecology, locally-harvested, sustainable foods. For me, he's perhaps the best chef of the entire Caribbean, I really really love his food. We share a lot of the same ecological and social choices when it comes to fishing and growing. Things that we can improve on, accessibility ad accountability, those are always two things. Today, for example, I was reading a menu of another restaurant and it said "diver scallops" and I thought, these are incredibly hard to get our hands on right now and they're incredibly expensive in Puerto Rico. We bring in completely untreated seafood, no hormones, no antibiotics, nothing in it. At the same time it's hard to imagine that this restaurant that shared that menu description was using that specific product. Maybe even their supplier, and you have to remember that we have to use our supply sources, and they're also going to fabricate things, we have to follow up on our supply chains. Just because the print out says this and this and this, we need to source accurately and then make those people accountable for those processes as well, which hasn't hit full stride yet in Puerto Rico. Some of it being an economic situation too. The bottom line is that not every restaurant can afford for that to be one of their founding principles. But we're moving in the right direction I would say.

chef

Are there any purveyors who you work with that you feel have systems in place which provide you with reliable information regarding their sourcing, when, where and how something was caught?

At least with the contacts I've used in our recent history, last four to five years, like Brown Trading in Portland, which his commitment to sustainable seafood, sustainable caviar is well-documented, and he's very good at it. Again, it comes back to price tag, you pay for that level of service. I suppose there's a level of trust and honesty in our industry, and there are certain things that can't always be followed up on, but if the server says these are radishes that came from Ivon's farm, then there's no reason to believe that they weren't. We're excited to have those today, and it is a process that can be fabricated by some, but I think as the farm to table movement hits full stride which is everywhere in the western hemisphere right now, I see those things more prevalent now, you see everybody on board trying very hard to have the image of those things, but maybe not always being able to deliver it with consistency.

Do you change your menu drastically from season, and are there certain things you've been able to source consistently throughout the year?

Yes I do, especially with respect to fish, most people don't think of fish as seasonal, but it actually about as seasonal as a vegetable. Things that we love ... we love the halibut cheeks coming from Alaska, I love the Copper River baby sockeyes. So there are definitely these repetitive dishes which are usually different every year because we get bored as chefs and we want to create something new every summer and do a different version of Copper River, maybe two different for the early summer and spring and then the late fall season. But I do find that, the mackerels, the scallops that we get in winter, the shrimp season in North Carolina. So sometimes the presentation of the ingredients will change. But even the sourcing with respect to meat now that we've found a great source for lamb shanks with Niman Ranch, we're very happy to be able to lock into that antibiotic, hormone-free product, that we committed to six hundred cases over the course of the next year, so that somebody can keep that in stock for us in Puerto Rico, reduce the carbon footprint through plane emissions and everything else to get the product here, and I would imagine that more restaurants will follow suit, plus the pricing becomes more affordable when we commit to a larger sum like that. But yeah, I do find that even with the specials we use the turbot as it comes into season in the winter time, the john dory, red mullets for a little bit here and there. In the caribbean, while there's access to great local fish. Unfortunately most of them are super high mercury fish, we get into the wahoo and marlin and the bigger fish, which are very flavorful, similar to Pacific Hawaiian fish, so kind of very similar varietals, just very high mercury. Maybe it's my age catching up with me, but trying to eliminate those, or shrink those down to a point where we use smaller varietals, like the baby yellowtail that comes from Baja, which is a better source for tuna than is on the higher Pacific side or all the way across into Japan. And also you have to consider all of the concerns of Fukushima, there are a lot of unknowns in there, and the information that we get, if we're going to get it from the fishing industry, it's not always going to be always a 100% accurate, it's a big industry. It's the same thing that happened in the Gulf, you want to support it, but you want that affirmation that it's coming out of the water clean, and those things are hard to measure too. But I would say that the fish probably changes much more often that the meat and poultry dishes on the menu, and meat's a little more narrowed. The lamb gives me an opportunity to be a little bit more playful because it holds spice, and it holds different ethnic and cultural cuisines, but the beef, the styling of it is rich, it's bold, it requires a sauce, whereas with fish you look forward to that ability to have Copper River salmon, I just love it. It's one of those things you can't wait for, I'm already asking when's the release date by late April, and it's so good raw, smoked, lightly cooked, fully cooked, you can do just about anything with it, and it's just absolutely fabulous. It's just one of those things that if a chef messes it up, they probably need to move on, like a pork belly.

market

Earlier, you'd mentioned a local lobster fisherman who's supplying you with shrimp. Could you speak a little bit about how that relationship developed?

Shrimp is tough sourcing everywhere in the world right now. We don't have access to ... were using Oregon for a bit, we use wild out of Hawaii. We had some coming in from Ecuador, which were farmed through a contact in New York. North Carolina is in season right now. But this one (the local supplier) is fairly recent, and he brought them in with his lobsters no more than three or four weeks ago. He harvests his lobster traps, it's a one man show. He and his wife were at the market (famers market) and I asked him, he's down near Ponce (about an 1.5 hours by car) which also creates limitations in PR when you think about distribution channels. Not only is it just product, but now we have to get the product to us, invoice it, pay for it, administrate it and all of those things, so it's not Manhattan, Boston, New Orleans or San Francisco. He asked how much I can go through and I told him I can go through 100 pounds a week pretty easily in season. He said that he'd be willing to do the ride up here three times a week for me, so that's it. I think as of now we have most of his harvest. So we're looking forward to that. The bay scallops, the oysters and lobsters have always had a lot of variants in quality, like sourcing from properly clean water. So those are some of the issues where I say that if I don't use that Puerto Rican product which a lot of people might use ... chicken, for example, there's no reason to use the chicken sources that I know of right now, because they're not cleanly sourced, and I'm supporting a process which at one stage might be more farm to table, or more regionally motivated but, at the same time, it supports a process that isn't good and that we don't believe in. It's not an easy decision to either use something local, or not use something local. The great thing about small communities is that things grow faster, and word travels very fast. So when people decide to do something ... when one person buys red shoes, everybody buys red shoes. Whereas in a big community people are driven by their individual agendas. In PR, when it catches the fire spreads very fast. So in some ways we're behind on a lot of issues, but we'll also catch up very quickly. Also, the community that drives it is very small, so when you get the right community of people that, like last night's event for example (explain), in just a few years there will be another half dozen really really good chefs that need to be there. The guys that everybody looks up to and lead by example. And that's when things will really hit full stride. And you start to force the vendors to outsource different products than what they currently source. And it's sort of a self-progressing machine hopefully.

Dana Honn is Executive Chef and co-owner of Carmo in New Orleans. He is co-chair of Slow Food New Orleans.

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