News & Politics

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

As Puerto Rico struggles to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the island’s food industry is rising to the challenge

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On a sweltering Saturday in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Héctor Graciani sits at one of the picnic tables with the calm but weary-eyed look that, by now, Puerto Ricans have become accustomed to seeing regularly. Before Hurricane Maria pounded the island last month, Graciani was poised to celebrate the first anniversary of his Céntrico restaurant in San Juan — the same week that Hurricane Irma struck the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico. The aftermath of Irma wasn’t too dramatic — at least relative to what came later — but it did leave hundreds of areas, including the one where Céntrico was located, without electricity. Graciani re-opened, fully stocking the pantry and preparing himself to welcome back his customers in a bid to celebrate not only Céntrico’s anniversary but also surviving nature’s wrath. But then, roughly two weeks later, Hurricane Maria showed up, permanently altering his life as a chef and a restaurateur.

“We prepared ourselves as much as we could, but Maria hit us with so much fury and so much force,” he says. “It took everything — the whole roof of the restaurant. It was an antique house with a new, wooden addition in the back. That part was saved, but the wall of a neighboring building crashed through it and through the kitchen. We found our roof in a neighboring lot. There wasn’t much we could do. We tried, but who can win a fight against nature?”

As a new business owner, Graciani was crushed by the loss of Céntrico, a Caribbean-French fusion restaurant whose presence on the web was affectionately hashtagged #LaCasitaColorPapaya — the papaya-colored house. It was a bright, unique structure in the Miramar district of the capital. “At the beginning, we took out everything we could so they wouldn’t vandalize the place, which they did eventually,” Graciani explains. “The second reaction was to save the food.”

“All the food that we had in our restaurant was kept safe in a place with a generator, so we managed to save that,” he continues. He might have lost the restaurant, but he could still help his hungry neighbors, and so Graciani became one of the many members of the restaurant industry that responded to the Spanish-American chef José Andrés’s call for help in the wake of Maria. “We worked together with [Puerto Rico–based] chef José Enrique and José Andrés to donate all the food. We worked with them for several days, cooking for the people in need. But, apart from that, we also keep helping each other until we get back up on our feet. What has been lost doesn’t matter, we’re alive, so we’re gonna keep helping people and our colleagues.”

Along with his World Central Kitchen organization, Andrés landed on the island on September 25, five days after Maria hit, and quickly converted San Juan’s largest concert venue, the Coliseo José Miguel Agrelot, into a massive kitchen with hundreds of volunteers and professional chefs donating their time and effort to counter FEMA’s and the Puerto Rican government’s dangerously slow response in distributing aid. A typical day in El Choliseo, as the coliseum is endearingly known, is a dizzying mix of people waiting in line for their orders of hot food, people signing up for volunteer shifts, and organizers stacking pan after pan of food to load into trucks and distribute to communities. On the day I went there, chefs and cooks from Paellas y Algo Más, a well-known Spanish-food catering service, were stirring a mixture of rice and proteins into massive paelleras and sweating amid the heat. It was a jovial atmosphere, despite the seriousness of the task at hand. The fruit of World Central Kitchen’s labor has been seen daily across more than sixty communities on the island. To date, the organization has managed to distribute 1.5 million meals all across Puerto Rico.

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While few members of the food industry could hope to match the scope of Andrés’s titanic endeavor, chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs from Puerto Rico and beyond have answered the call. And, with 80 percent of the island still without electricity, there is much to be done. Manolo López, a young New York–based chef specializing in traditional Puerto Rican cuisine with a new-school twist, closed his famed Smorgasburg shop, Mofongo NY, in order to head south and offer his help. “We need to be down here and give whatever we can to the situation,” explains López. “Most of the crew that came from New York City are all Puerto Ricans. Their families are down here. My family is down here. And as much initiative as we did out in New York — fundraising, giving speeches, talking to the right people — there was a very big need for us to come down here and do physical work.”

López grew up in the northwestern coastal town of Aguada and moved to New York in 2011 to study design; he launched Mofongo NY in 2014, bringing a taste of his homeland to hungry Brooklynites. In the days after Maria hit, Lopéz found himself simultaneously raising money and being overwhelmed by the shocking and devastating images of burned-out nature, torn-down neighborhoods, and people pleading for help in unreached areas of the island. Two weeks ago, he landed in Puerto Rico with his crew, and now that he’s on the ground, Lopéz says he’s experienced a mixture of exhaustion, frustration, and rage watching the slow response of both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments to the disaster.

“Look, I don’t want to talk negative about it, but at the same time, the reality is very different from what we’ve seen from afar,” López says. “I think the response has been handled very carelessly. We still don’t have power or drinking water. There’s areas that still haven’t been reached. I’m frustrated out there, and in here as well.”

López is sitting at La Jaquita Baya, a San Juan restaurant that relies on locally sourced ingredients, owned by chef Xavier Pacheco. This is López’s provisional headquarters, where he’s focusing on joining efforts with local economic development organization ConPRmetidos to raise and designate funds toward the provision of solar and diesel-powered generators to unreached communities affected by Hurricane Maria. His first mission was to Vieques, an island municipality off of Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast, and one of the remote areas that FEMA had been unable to reach in Maria’s immediate aftermath. He was joined by Pacheco and a team of doctors, veterinarians, and psychologists to provide food, water, and medical aid to Vieques’s Esperanza community. Both López and Pacheco spent the day there, not only feeding the hungry, but assessing what was needed to help the community get back on its feet and help the restaurant industry recover at the same time.

“We can cook today, but tomorrow they’ll be hungry again,” López says. “How are we gonna establish these routes or connections with these communities and bring food every single day? That goes back to my main mission right now in Puerto Rico, which is to actually get all the local restaurants involved, help them with the production, and outsource orders to them so they can make sure to take care of this community this day, that sector this day, and at the same time, we’re actually helping the local economy strengthen again.”

Restaurants like Pachecho’s are one of many that have had to downsize staff or reduce their hours because of the difficulty of operating in such dire conditions. Fuel costs are soaring; maintenance on generators, which are running twelve or thirteen hours every day, is laborious and expensive; and getting people to come to the restaurants (Pacheco’s La Jaquita Baya, for example, is in a dark area of the Miramar district) and spend money they may or may not have is more than a challenge. “We’ve had to transform ourselves — open for lunch, take the kitchen outside to help the community, lower prices and set them between eight and fifteen dollars,” Pacheco explains. “This is a beautiful industry because we can help in direct ways, but we also hurt ourselves. You kind of put that part on the back burner, because we’ve got to put our war paint on and get creative to see how we’re gonna get this country up and running and how we’re gonna maintain this industry. It can’t die.”

Paxx Caraballo Moll, owner of the famed Baoricua, an Asian–Puerto Rican fusion outpost at Lote 23 — San Juan’s popular open-air food market — is on a similar journey, fighting to stay open against all odds. “I wake up really early every day, we look for something that we deem that we can cook, and then we kill it,” Caraballo Moll says. “I just want to feed people. This is the only thing I know how to do, and I want to do it right.”

Caraballo Moll and their business partner, Audrey Berry, managed to open a little more than a week after Hurricane Maria hit, but the heat, lack of electricity, and customer base struggling with challenges of its own has made it difficult for them to continue operating. “I’m working here with Audrey to cover payroll because this is our first business, our first year,” explains Caraballo Moll. “I’m trying to keep myself active to create loyalty and family. I want to be able to pay my whole crew, which is what matters.”

Like Pacheco, Caraballo Moll and Berry have had to reduce staff hours, and they have tweaked their menu to suit whatever produce they can find from independent vendors on their morning shopping runs. Their usual creations are a very specific fusion of Asian and Puerto Rican ingredients, the star of the show being bao. “We’re going to all the vendors we can find,” Caraballo says. “I’m not selling a lot of bao, I’m not finding the kind of bread I like. I found recao today and I couldn’t believe it. The main farmers’ markets in Río Piedras and Santurce are closed. There’s a vendor outside one of them, but he’s a bit overpriced. I don’t want to charge more, but vendors are raising prices every day. So, that makes it harder for me because I like to do an inclusive, affordable menu.”

On the day I visited, Berry and Caraballo Moll had concocted a “hurricane menu” of two plates: vegetable egg fu yung, and steamed vegetables over coconut rice.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in Caraballo Moll’s future, and they might just be heading to New York City for a while until the dust settles. “I was gonna leave for New York City, but it didn’t happen because of all the canceled flights,” they say. “I think I’m leaving in November though. I want to see if I can do pop-ups or get work, something temporary. In the meantime, we’re cooking every day.”

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In the years leading up to Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican restaurant industry had undergone a massive reinvention, focusing more on local produce and coffee from farms in the central mountain region and the southern coast, and meats and dairy sourced from cattle ranchers and dairy farmers in towns like Manatí, Arecibo, Lares, and Hatillo. That has all come to a full stop, with Maria causing a preliminary figure of $780 million in losses in the agriculture sector, according to Puerto Rico’s department of agriculture. Organizations like Serve PR, which is providing relief to the hospitality industry, are concentrating their efforts on keeping businesses afloat and their personnel employed, while other industry players, like Tara Rodríguez Besosa of El Departamento de la Comida, are focusing on reviving and restructuring the supply chain itself.

“People were thinking of the first 24 hours, the emergency relief, but I want to think about the long run,” says Rodríguez Besosa, whose group is targeting one of the most important and embattled parts of the industry: the agriculture sector. With an emphasis on cooking and sourcing food from sustainable agriculture, El Departamento de la Comida is aiming to help the reconstruction of the industry with the Fondo de Resiliencia de Puerto Rico, started in partnership with author Irene Vilar, the founder and executive director of the Colorado-based nonprofit Americas for Conservation + the Arts.

“This might not seem like part of the emergency relief, but it is,” Rodríguez Besosa explains on the phone from New York City, where she spent the night packing seeds donated from farmers across the U.S. mainland to send to sustainable farmers in Puerto Rico. “The more we wait, the longer it’s gonna take for us to have our own food. It’s very urgent to get farmers back to farming because, the sooner we can do that, the sooner we can go back to what our food sovereignty is.”

According to Rodríguez Besosa, the Fondo de Resiliencia de Puerto Rico is a general fund that could help all sustainable agriculture on the island and, in the long run, create a stronger pro-agriculture movement with support from the larger sustainable farming community in the United States. “A lot of farmers in the United States have really been active in the past few weeks,” Rodríguez Besosa says. “We’re getting a lot of seeds from Latino and non-Latino farmers — non-GMO, heirloom seeds. We have emergency kits that include a chainsaw, collapsible water tanks, solar energy. Something that’s been really amazing in New York City is that a lot of the people that are involved with farmers’ markets, restaurants, kitchens, even in community organizing, are doing canning and preserving brigades.”

So far, the fund has been getting help from community organizers in New York City such as Ora Wise from Harvest and Revel, Aris Mejías from Ecokit Puerto Rico, the Queer Kitchen Brigade, Gerardo González at the vegan restaurant Lalito, and Philadelphia Urban Creators. Rodríguez Besosa notes that these are just a few of the organizations involved.

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Pierre Michelle Trazanco opened his new restaurant, Arado Cocina de Raíz, five months ago in Arecibo, a town on the island’s north coast with some of the best waves for surfing and some of the most sprawling, breathtaking beaches in the Caribbean. Arecibo is a huge municipality, with a town center that was once vibrant with economic activity but is now one of the most downtrodden areas in Puerto Rico. With its rows of empty buildings, graffitied storefronts, mostly empty streets, and bridges in disrepair, its desolation can be overwhelming.

Arado sits on one of Arecibo’s most quiet streets, on a steep incline leading to the city center. It’s a quaint Cuban–Puerto Rican restaurant with a farm-to-table concept that thrives on creativity. Inside are beautiful, rustic wood tables and a small bar where they serve specialty cocktails, crafted in-house. In San Juan, Arado would not be out of place, but in Arecibo, where most restaurants focus on the usual rice, beans, chicken, pork, and beef combo, Michelle Trazanco’s restaurant is special. Before the hurricanes hit, Arado had managed to breathe new life onto the forgotten street. The progress was slow, but things were looking up — not only for Michelle Trazanco, but for the whole neighborhood. When Hurricane Maria hit, that progress ground to a halt.

“I’m in an area that is prone to flooding. This is the worst area,”Michelle Trazanco says. “I didn’t spend the hurricane here, but I live on top of the restaurant. The next day, I had to use a machete and an ax to be able to come back here. Arecibo was completely flooded. There were six feet of water in some parts, twelve feet in others. The most flooding was in my area. I’m seeing cement utility poles on the ground, cement structures on the ground, and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have a business, I don’t have a home.’ But, when we got here, everything around us was full of water except the restaurant.”

Michelle Trazanco knows he was lucky. Arecibo’s city center is peculiar, sitting beside the Río Grande de Arecibo’s estuary. Both the river and the Atlantic Ocean flooded the town, and after the water receded it left in its wake mountains of mud and debris. It took two days to clear his corner, Michelle Trazanco says, but he was worried about what was going to happen next. Without power and running water, and the streets full of trash, the restaurant couldn’t open. More than thirty days later, he says, the municipal government has not come up with a plan to get the city up and running.

“After Maria, what’s going to happen with the business owners?,” Michelle Trazanco asks. “A city without commerce is nothing. The guy who sells piraguas, the hot dog vendor, and the restaurant owner are equally important. There’s no plan, everything is full of mud and trash. You kind of want to quit, but what do I do? I have five employees. Do you just close up shop and go? No, you get to work.”

Pivoting away from fine dining for the time being, Michelle Trazanco and his staff are serving up a two-plate menu at lunch time in an area where few businesses are open. Before, he had managed to buy a whopping 90 percent of his produce and meats locally, but he lost his two main suppliers, he says. They were dedicated farmers in both Cabo Rojo and Lares whose farms got flooded and lost their electrical systems, water pumps, and, most importantly, their crops. Echoing many others in the industry, he says he doesn’t want more help, he just wants the relief to come from community-based efforts like the ones that have popped up since the hurricane hit more than a month ago,

“We have to mobilize the communities, give them the tools…and also target the agricultural sector, the restaurants, the suppliers, the farmers’ markets,” he says. “I need [Arecibo’s] farmers’ market there because if not, I will close. In these next two months, I’ll do my part by bringing other restaurants, have other chefs come with their teams — a bartender, a cook. On that day, they’ll make some money that they can save up for stocking the pantry so they can open up. Right now, one work day is worth a million.”

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