The Returnees: A Cuban chef cooks up a new restaurant

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Chef Mauricio Estrada in his restaurant, Toros y Tapas. Photo by: Jon Braeley

In recent years, hundreds of young Cubans have returned from abroad to open businesses, building on skills and market knowledge they gained overseas. Many have entered tourism-related fields and launched restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and art studios. Some have set up shop in information technology, accounting, and other services. This is part 1 of 3 in our “The Returnees” series. 

The proposal from his brother came suddenly in 2014. The Cuban government had recently authorized the sale of private homes on the island. There was a Mediterranean-style house available in Havana’s upscale Miramar neighborhood that could be perfect for a large restaurant, one of the 50-seat establishments now allowed. Would Mauricio be willing to come back from Spain and start up a new venture?

Mauricio Estrada had left Havana in 2003 for love – to join a woman living in Europe. The couple had married, and years later, divorced. Mauricio had fared well overseas, made lots of friends, become accustomed to 24/7 internet, and prospered as a chef. He’d be giving up plenty to return to Cuba.

“I thought about it for two days. All chefs dream of having their own restaurants,” said Estrada. He knew the venture would be risky. He had never run his own business, let alone in Cuba’s state-dominated economy. Yet the opportunity looked too good to pass up. “In Europe, to buy a house like this in a good neighborhood would have cost millions. In Cuba, it was affordable. In Spain, I’d be just another Spanish restaurant. In Cuba, I’d stand out.” He took the chance.

Estrada launched Toros y Tapas, a 50-seat eatery that has become popular with international customers, many of whom live in the Miramar area and work full-time in Cuba. Patrons who post on the website TripAdvisor have given it a 4.5 out of 5 in 65 reviews as of early December. They have called the food delicious and authentic, and the service excellent. Prices average between 15 and 20 CUC, without wine, in a spacious home decorated in a bullfighting theme, with dining indoors and outside.

Adapting hasn’t been easy for Estrada on either side of the Atlantic. Though trained in hospitality in Cuba, Estrada found that in Spain, “the way of working was so different. In Cuba, there hadn’t been much private enterprise. And when business is private, the owner is present and pays closer attention. The work that three people did in Cuba, one did in Spain. The workload was much heavier.”

In Spain, Estrada learned to master the ropes as a cook working in the Barcelona area, Madrid, Ibiza, and the Canary Islands. He learned how kitchens run most efficiently. But bringing back some of those best practices to Cuba for his own business has proven complicated.

Obtaining consistent supplies at reasonable prices is a serious challenge. While Havana has at least one store that sells items in bulk, the city lacks markets that sell at wholesale prices. And many items are not regularly available even in retail shops. When whipped-cream spray disappeared for a month recently, Estrada switched to offering desserts that didn’t require it. He typically chooses daily specials from what’s for sale: “Oh, there’s broccoli. I’ll make something with that.”

Nor is staff used to working in the way Estrada learned in Spain. For example, Cuba’s state employees are known to take home products from work to supplement their limited wages, and that practice initially spilled into Estrada’s restaurant. “Now I do inventory every day,” he said. Customer service also has been little emphasized in state businesses, so Estrada now keeps close tabs on staff to make sure they’re consistently friendly, attentive and efficient. “I prefer young people I train to older workers who may have bad habits,” said Estrada. “And every day, I tell them how they have to treat the customer.”

Advertising differs, too. With internet access limited and costly, Estrada depends on word-of-mouth or ads in travel magazines and the Paquete Semanal, or Weekly Package, which provides digital content to customers across Cuba on flash drives. “In Spain, restaurants set up pages on Facebook, and that’s about it,” said Estrada, who is 50. Still, the chef is glad that he moved back to Cuba – and right after private home sales and larger restaurants were allowed. “The early arrivals found things cheaper. Now, this house would cost double,” he said. What’s more, the Cuban government has suspended issuing new licenses for restaurants.

More importantly, Estrada is happy to provide work in Cuba both for a staff topping a dozen people and for masons, landscapers, plumbers, and others hired for specific projects. He’s also excited that the opening of new private eateries with more diverse menus is encouraging local farmers to grow more varied vegetables, from cherry tomatoes to zucchini, helping to expand food options for the island. “Restaurants,” he said proudly, “are a source of jobs for so many people.”

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