Don't get us wrong: We love the men who have put Puerto Rico on the world food map. Alfredo Ayala, Wilo Benet, Roberto Trevino, José Santaella, and José Enrique, among others, have all devoted their impressive careers to promoting Puerto Rican cuisine at home and abroad, and they are largely responsible for stimulating unprecedented interest in the Boricua table among food lovers, an interest that has boosted tourism in the past few years.
Publicized by media as the face of Puerto Rican cuisine, no one would dispute the importance and influence of these talented chefs, but as a woman interested in food or a career in culinary arts, it's easy to feel left out, one top-ranking female chef told me earlier this year. “There are many talented women working in the industry here,” she said, “but you probably don't know their names.”
It's true. But start poking around and it's not hard to find those women, many of whom have launched their careers in hotel kitchens in the hopes they can eventually set off on their own ventures, building culinary empires like Benet and Trevino, and receiving the same kind of international recognition as José Santaella and José Enrique. And the women driving the Puerto Rican culinary scene forward aren't only in chef whites; women are playing crucial roles in every aspect of food production and service in Puerto Rico: from the exciting re-emergence of the island's agricultural industry, to artisanally-made foods, food education and culinary tourism. Here are a few we're watching.
Executive Chef, Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel and Casino
Member of Puerto Rico's National Culinary Team
From a young age, Jannette Berrios nurtured an interest in cooking. She recalls that one of her favorite pastimes, besides cooking with her family, was reading recipes and clipping them from newspapers and magazines, pasting them into her own “cookbooks.” When it was time for her to go to college, her parents initially succeeded in convincing her to study medicine, but she knew right away that the profession wasn't for her. Within two years, she had transferred to a culinary arts program, and upon graduation, she began working at Ritz Carlton San Juan before joining the kitchen crews of several different cruise lines.
Those jobs took Berrios to parts of the world she hadn't even heard of back when she was a kid clipping recipes on the island. From Dubrovnik to Dakar, Berrios visited more than 35 port cities in Europe and Africa, learning traditions and techniques that were totally new to her. She worked with chefs and prep cooks from equally diverse dots on the map, and was particularly influenced by an executive chef from South Africa. Along the way, she was promoted to executive sous and began to develop her own identity and philosophy as a chef.
Jannette Berrios' career trajectory is both like and unlike that of many of her female peers: unlike in the sense that she has trained and worked all over the world, and like in the sense that many of her career decisions have been influenced by a sense of obligation to her family. That includes the decision to remain in Puerto Rico, though she might have a more prestigious and lucrative position abroad; she returned to the island after her stint on ships because her mother was sick. Since her return, she has fixed her sights on becoming a corporate chef, and has worked in some of the capital's most prestigious hotels, including La Concha.
Executive Chef, St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort
Ask anyone plugged into the Puerto Rican food scene to name one female chef who's likely to claim a place among the island's star chefs, and they'll inevitably reply, “Rocío Varela.” Varela, who was Berrios' predecessor at Sheraton, is currently the Executive Chef at St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort, where she is responsible for overseeing almost all of the resort's food-related operations.
St. Regis is only the latest feather in Varela's cap, however. In addition to holding positions as a chef at several prestigious hotels on the mainland, Varela has worked as a chef instructor at the International School of Tourism and Hotel Management at Puerto Rico's Universidad del Este. In that role, she coached a team of her students in preparation for the 2002 Future Chef Convention; they went on to win four silver and two bronze medals. She also created the management culinary training program for Darden Restaurants and, to date, has been the only Puerto Rican female chef to present at The James Beard House. She was also the only female chef to reach finalist status in Starwood Hotels' 2011 Hot Chef competition.
Varela exemplifies the role juggling that the work of being a chef demands, but what sets her apart is her commitment to developing the next generation of chefs. She takes mentoring seriously, and spends a great deal of time and energy making sure her staff at St. Regis operates as a solid team.
Otero, a microbiologist, founded the island's first aged cheese business, Quesos Vaca Negra, in 2010. In four short years, she has managed to grow a bootstrapped start-up into a full-fledged artisanal cheese business, producing five flavorful cheeses and getting them in supermarkets and fine restaurants around the island... all with a small staff and amidst plenty of challenges.
Otero has earned the confidence and praise of some of Puerto Rico's top chefs, including Juan José Cuevas of 1919 Restaurant, who uses all of Queso Vaca Negra's cheeses. Her success has motivated her to expand her offerings to include yogurt. But beyond her role as a cheese producer and marketer, Otero takes her role as a public educator seriously, too, and she hosts regular cheese-making workshops and tours of Quesos Vaca Negra at her site in Hatillo.
If she's managed to do all this successfully in such a short time, Otero definitely ranks among those to keep your eyes on over the next few years.
Paulina Salach isn't Puerto Rican– not by birth, anyway– but the Polish-born food writer and entrepreneur has earned honorary Boricua status during her seven years on the island, thanks to the range of projects she has launched that are intended to bring international attention to Puerto Rican cuisine.
2012 was a landmark year for Salach; it was when she established Spoon Food Tours and co-founded Puerto Rico Restaurant Week, which will celebrate its third iteration in May. Salach was interested in food and tourism before she arrived in Puerto Rico, but became passionate about Puerto Rico's culinary history and its seminal dishes in the kitchen of her boyfriend's mother. “When I moved to Puerto Rico seven years ago with my boyfriend, who is native to the island, I began spending a lot of time in the kitchen with his mom, who is a phenomenal cook. She taught me the basics of Puerto Rican cuisine,” Salach says, “and together, we developed new recipes.”
Salach's experiences in that kitchen inspired her to explore the island beyond San Juan. “I fell in love with Puerto Rican food and was amazed at the simple ingredients used to create such savory dishes. I began exploring the island through its food, taking road trips with no plan and no map, on a mission to find the best eats. The island and its food became my passion.”
In addition to sharing that passion on her food tours and during Restaurant Week, Salach will be one of the hosts in the demo kitchen at Saborea 2014, and she has shared some of her favorite food secrets as one of the contributing writers to the forthcoming edition of Fodor's Puerto Rico.“My goal is to position Puerto Rico as the top culinary destination in the Caribbean,” Salach said.
Dr. Myrna Comas
Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture
Over the past year, the Puerto Rican government has announced a number of initiatives intended to revive the island's agricultural industry, which has been in decline since the second half of the 20th-century. The cultivation of sugarcane, rice, and tomatoes are among the priority projects, which, it is hoped, will reduce dependence on foreign food imports and make basic products more affordable for Puerto Ricans. She has also introduced or indicated her department will provide support for improving the viability and sustainability of local fishing since, as she has indicated, 96% of fish consumed on the island is from abroad, most of it imported from Asia.
One of the major players pushing these initiatives forward is Dr. Myrna Comas, who was appointed Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture in December 2012. Since then, the former chair of the Department of Agriculture at the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico has been aggressively promoting food security, her area of specialty, arguing that it is only by reviving domestic agriculture and increasing production that Puerto Rico's food security will increase.
She is not without her critics, including those who accuse her of not taking a firm position against the influence of corporations like Monsanto and others who question whether her passion for agriculture overshadows important environmental concerns. But given her position of power and the fact that she is only a year and a half into her mandate, Dr. Comas' influence over the future of food in Puerto Rico is undeniable and makes her a key figure to watch in the next few years.
Erica Reyes' iPhone is always ringing, but she never seems to get flustered. When I arrive at Café Cola'o, her coffee shop in Old San Juan, to interview her for TLK's illustrated guide to ordering coffee in Latin America, she has just wrapped up a meeting with her baristas and is making and receiving calls about the arrival and installation of a new espresso machine, as well as ongoing renovations at the School of Coffee and Baristas, which she founded, in Rio Piedras.
Reyes, who had a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry before she launched Cafe Cola'o, is adept at managing multiple projects. In addition to the café and school, which has turned out several award-winning baristas, some of whom have gone on to start their own cafés, she is a certified coffee grader, competition judge, and industry consultant. She also created the first “Campamento del Café,” part tourism, part educational experience, in which participants traveled to Hacienda Moraika in Reyes' hometown of Orocovis to participate in the process of coffee production, from bean to cup.
What is notable about her approach is how open it is. While many entrepreneurs guard industry secrets fiercely, Reyes actively mentors the very people who are likely to become her competitors. The education of Puerto Ricans and visitors alike about coffee–once one of Puerto Rico's most important agricultural products–is the passion that drives Reyes.