The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival features Cuba this year in its Cultural Exchange Pavilion, where the local Cuban catering and pop-up operation Congreso Cubano (www.congresocubano.com) will serve traditional dishes and offer a cooking demonstration. Owner Orlando Vega spoke to Gambit about his Cuban heritage and the roots of traditional Cuban cuisine.
What's your background in Cuban cooking?
Vega: I was born in the United States and raised in Miami by Cuban parents. In the early 1970s, a lot of the families were forced to leave (Cuba), and they were exiled to Spain and some of them landed in the United States. My family has a long history in Spain, and it's where a lot of them still live. In those years when you weren't allowed to visit Cuba, my primary influence was Spain, and that has been a big culinary influence.
I worked in restaurants my whole life and I always wanted to open up my own establishment, but it wasn't my plan when I moved here. I never made any Cuban food in Miami. It wasn't until I came here that I started cooking the food of my grandmother. I moved here and I helped start a tour company, and after two years I burned out. I decided to take a few months off and make some Cuban food for my friends and see what they thought about it. ... At the moment we're a catering service. We do a lot of pop-ups. We've been enjoying a residency at the Music Box and we're always on the hunt for a brick-and-mortar. ... We've been doing a pop-up every Tuesday at Barrel Proof and we recently launched a very fun tapas night at The Franklin.
What influences are present in traditional Cuban cuisine?
V: It's a complicated question. Spain is ultimately where the story starts. The other half of the story is Africa, which is where a lot of Cuban ingredients and a lot of Cuban dishes come from. It's very much the same as the New Orleans Creole story.
Cuban cuisine, for the most part, is pre-revolutionary Cuban cuisine. It's what I grew up eating in Miami, and what my grandparents cooked. It's the food they grew up with in Cuba before the revolution, before resources went scarce. ... In large part, what we call Cuban food is what is preserved and perfected and developed in Miami and in those exiled communities. Now there are people from the new generation who are coming from the island and trying this food, which is new to them because they were too young and never got to experience it because they didn't have the resources.
It's fun for me. I'll make picadillo and ropa vieja, which I ate growing up every weekend in Miami, but now I'll get to make it for a 35-year-old trumpet player who tells me, "I've only ever heard about this."
I think there is a newfound interest now that Cuba is open. I think New Orleans is rediscovering its interest in being a Caribbean city, whether that's Cuban food or Latin food or Caribbean food. I think what's happening in Cuba is really inspiring people to go down that trail.
What are you serving at Jazz Fest?
V: We'll have a big 30-foot tent next to the Cuban (Cultural Exchange) Pavilion and Congo Square tent. We'll be serving a menu of traditional Cuban food every day. On the second Thursday at 2 p.m., I will be giving a tostones and fried plantain demo. (At the booth) we'll have a five-item menu and we'll be serving arroz con frijoles, which is the traditional black bean stew, served over rice. We'll also have ropa vieja, which is braised and shredded steak that's been sauteed with the Cuban [trinity], what we call our sofrito, and some wine and tomato sauce. We will also be serving tostones, which are smashed and fried green plantains. Those will be served with a side of mojito, Cuban garlic and olive oil sauce, and we'll also have Cuban coffee and ice pops.