Maricel Presilla is a triple threat: A chef, culinary historian and restaurant owner, the Cuban-born food guru has a lot to say about the way history and gastronomy intermingle to define a culture and a people. In this Voices in Food story, as told to Anna Rahmanan, Presilla sings the praises of American customers (“they are grateful for good taste”), identifies supermarkets as windows into cultural shifts, and discusses how she believes the culinary scene will reemerge victorious after coronavirus. A bit of optimism can go a long way, clearly.
On the influence of Latin cuisine over time in the United States
I started working on the history of food because I realized that food is a window into different cultures. Traditionally, Latin people have had a historic influence on some parts of the United States but I would say that, later, more specifically, the Mexican influence has been tremendous. That has been the case not only in the border states but elsewhere. For example, New Jersey is now very Latin and there are so many Mexicans, but when I moved here there were mostly Cubans. There is also an incredible connection between the Caribbean and Louisiana. The beans and rice dish that they eat on Mondays? That’s essentially Caribbean!
On the ways supermarkets reflect changes in culture
New Jersey is now very Latin American and there are so many Mexicans, but when I first moved here in 1984, there were mostly Cubans. Something as simple as going to the supermarket and seeing the changes in the kinds of food sold there shows history at work.
When I came to Hudson County, New Jersey, they would only carry Cuban tubers, yuka, malanga and things like that. Slowly, I started seeing foods from all over the Americas. I saw mole, this dried corn from Peru or Ecuador, or these different tropical fruits that were not used in Cuban cooking but were used in Ecuador. I saw peppers from Peru, like the yellow aji amarillo. The market is the mirror into the history of immigration in this country.
You see it in drinks also. Obviously Havana was the watering hole for Americans during Prohibition and there is a bar culture and cocktail culture in Cuba that was very important and had a lot of influence in the United States. First it was the daiquiris and then the mojitos. You also begin to see the high-end wines from Argentina — like Catena or Susana Balbo — in restaurant names. That stuff is about the history of immigrants and the impact that we’ve had.
On the ideal restaurant customer
As someone who has been feeding Americans for 20 years — which is how long I’ve had restaurants and worked in them — if I had to choose the perfect clientele for a restaurant among people from different countries, I would pick people from the United States because I find that Americans are grateful. This might seem romantic because Americans sometimes are too critical and they don’t think of themselves as being great or open-minded, but what I have seen in 20 years of serving them food that isn’t their own is that they are grateful for good taste. They are grateful for good meals — that’s my experience as a chef. I never had to make compromises for my clientele. I never turned down the heat of my dish because I thought my clientele won’t like it. They appreciated the effort that I put into my food, appreciated the flavors of my food and they kept me going.
Through evolution, this country has become a country of great diners. With so many restaurants from so many different countries, Americans have gotten used to it. It especially happens in large cities where the whole world is there. You go to Los Angeles, for example, and there is Persian food everywhere, so Americans have gotten used to different foreign cuisines and really started appreciating them. Also, Americans are reading cookbooks and are learning and practicing at home.
On how COVID-19 will permanently change culinary endeavors
The restaurant business is suffering a lot everywhere, but I have to say that this isn’t the first time in history that a great catastrophe is, possibly, followed by a period of growth. People are desperate for the experience that restaurants give, so the minute that there is a vaccine or a measure of security, people are going to go back to restaurants with a vengeance. I know that there’s going to be a re-birth and, maybe, changes will take place. People will have learned lessons. I don’t know if a very high-end restaurant will have to be rethought but I know that restaurants will do well and will be full again. That is my prediction. I say that as a historian with an understanding that it even happened during the Black Death in the 14th century. There was a rebirth, a renaissance after that and even after the outbreak of influenza.
What I’ve learned is that restaurants are really fragile structures because your success depends on so many variables. Liquor stores are doing so much better, for example, as are online operations, so I think that people will look at the successful models and incorporate them because, obviously, this isn’t the last pandemic. I think we’re in for other surprises in the future.