Brush with fame: Food Network celebrity chefs in San Juan, Puerto Rico
On those rare occasions when I have access to television, my process is short and sweet. 1) Check the Travel Channel for Anthony Bourdain. 2) Flip to Food Network and leave it.
Chefs fascinate me. They’re both artists and scientists, teachers and students. Since moving to Seattle, I’ve visited Pike Place Market on an almost-daily basis, always with an eye out for Mario Batali. No successful sighting yet, but that just means I’ve had time to plan how to surreptitiously snap a photo that makes it look as if we’re shopping for tomatoes together.
With the invitation to Saborea, Puerto Rico‘s “Culinary Extravaganza,” came the opportunity to stalk even more Food Network badasses. I practiced my stealthy iPhone camera attack moves in preparation.
The First Course
I arrive in San Juan two days before the festival. I’m seated at Laurel Kitchen and in the middle of a teary-eyed moment of silence for the chilean sea bass with foie gras port reduction melting in my mouth when a fellow journalist at my table gets my attention.
“The guy from Dinner Impossible is over there.”
I swivel and choke. Robert Irvine is sipping wine at a round table in a private alcove on the other side of the small restaurant.
I turn back and try to act casual for all of two seconds, give up and post what must have been a nauseating Facebook status update. Then I hand my phone to my friend across the table to take a picture of me with Robert in the background, which I promptly email to my mother.
On my blog, I call myself an Iron Chef impostor. It occurs to me that I should probably add “impostor” after journalist as well. This is confirmed when Chopped host Ted Allen passes the table on his way to the restroom and I scurry after him, iPhone at the ready and professionalism back in my chair. (The door swung shut before I could get my shot.)
The Second Course
Smiling girls are handing out samples of Prilosec at the entrance to Saborea. I pocket them and make a beeline for the cooking demo tent, where I’m promptly asked to judge a paella contest.
Thirty minutes later I’m stuffed and there’s eight cooking demos to go. The paella, prepared by Chefs Mario Ferro and Harry Pagancross, included bits of shaved coconut cooked in coconut oil. I’ve never had paella like it. I watch two more demos, but don’t sample the food.
At 1:30, Ted Allen and Germania Maria Diaz, one of Puerto Rico’s few female executive chefs, take the stage. I cradle my camera and hover along the outskirts when their demo is finished.
“I want a picture with him,” I confide to the public relations specialist who organized my trip.
“We’ll get you one,” she responds without hesitation.
Five minutes later I’m in the media tent, holding my notepad limply and listening as other journalists ask Chef Allen questions with ease. “What have you learned about cooking in Puerto Rico?” one asks. “That there are many ways to cook a pig,” Allen responds with an earnest grin, then goes on to describe the confit of pork belly, head cheese croquettes and other dishes he’s experienced.
After each interview, he poses for a picture with the journalists. It’s becoming blatantly clear that I will have to ask a question for my shot. All I want is the picture! my mind shrieks, and then I realize how pathetic that is and give myself a mental slap.
Here we go. “How has travel impacted your cooking?”
His eyes light up. “One of the most amazing things about food is that it allows you to travel without leaving home,” he starts, and then he’s off – explaining how cuisine is one of the last bastions of some cultures; the way people eat, their rituals, how it all teaches us about their culture, their way of life. “Trying to understand a culture’s cuisine is like trying to understand their language,” he says, and I nod vapidly, then remember the notepad and start to scribble.
“Do you have any tips for travelers interested in learning more about food and cooking while they’re away from home?”
“This is what I do when I travel,” he says immediately. “My partner and I spend the first week of a trip eating out, trying the local food, as many different things as possible. The second week we get a group together and rent a house with a kitchen. We go to the market and try to figure it out, then experiment when we get it back to the house. I’d say take cooking classes whenever you can – try to find those that take you to the market and walk you through it.”
I get my picture and walk away in a daze.
The Third Course
The 3:00 demo features Jose Garces and Roberto Trevino. I followed the entire season of The Next Iron Chef that Garces won. And Trevino went up against the man himself – Mario Batali – on one episode. (The secret ingredient was…CATFISH.)
After their demo, I stalk the entrance to the media tent like the ruthless paparazzi I have become. No more giggling, no more blushing.
Once again, I’m the last journalist to get an interview. I walk up and introduce myself. Firm handshakes are exchanged. My self-confidence skyrockets when Trevino mentions he follows Matador on Twitter, then shatters when my response is to giggle like a twelve year old.
Deflated, I manage to power through. “What culture has most influenced your cooking outside of your own?”
“I’d definitely have to say Asian,” Trevino says. “Growing up in the San Francisco bay area, the most exciting and influential cuisine for me would have to be Asian food. It’s always been a strong base for me.”
“I grew up in Chicago with Ecuadorian parents,” Garces replies. “I was excited to cook Latin dishes and that included foods from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America…those are all distinct cultures in their own right, and I would say that I gathered influence from all those different places.”
I stick with my “tips for traveling cooks” question for the next one.
“I always recommend to just eat out while traveling,” Trevino says. “If you really want to learn to do things like fillet a fish or learn how to mix certain flavors, it really has to do with just being exposed to it.”
Garces nods. “I would say eat local, eat in the more humble, peasant-type of environments – but if you do have the ability to cook while you’re traveling, if you have a kitchenette or whatever, I would say…cook. Buy local, fresh ingredients and make simple meals. Plus, I think that way you’ll make out better on the waistline, overall.”
“And on the pocketbook,” adds Trevino.
I’m wandering the festival aimlessly, still on a high from having (somewhat) successfully interviewed two Iron Chefs, when I run into the owner of the Old Harbor Brewery, a man who introduced me to the glory of rum barrel-aged stout just two days ago. He introduces me to his executive chef.
They ask how the paella was that morning, and in the space of a second I panic. I cannot say “SOOOO GOOD!” I cannot be that amateur now.
“They did something really different with coconut,” I inform them, then explain what I’d learned about cooking coconut meat in coconut oil. Eyebrows raise; glances are exchanged. I can see the chef’s mind whirring.
“I’ve never had coconut in paella like that before,” I finish, and they nod.
“Neither have I,” the chef says. “Interesting.”
Amateur or professional, every chef can have a light bulb moment when it comes to cooking – even us impostors. If my Mario Batali stalking efforts are ever successful back home, I won’t cower behind the tomatoes. I’ll start up a conversation about coconut cooking techniques. And if I’m lucky, I’ll learn something new.
Michelle’s not the only one around here who loves food. Check out Matador’s Food Travel Focus Page for articles from all across the network.