How Puerto Rico's Chefs Are Surviving the Island's Economic Crisis

Alicia Kennedy

Alicia Kennedy

When Puerto Rico defaulted on its multibillion-dollar debt this month, it created a precarious situation for the restaurants and chefs that have been reinvigorating the nation’s cuisine and helping to rebuild the island’s agricultural bounty.

Long associated with deep-fried tostones and roadside lechón, Puerto Rican cuisine has undergone a transformation in the last decade. Having previously depended on imported fruits and vegetables (which is still the norm in big supermarkets there), younger chefs are now rediscovering the produce that the island has to offer, dealing directly with local farmers. Chefs like José Santaella, José Enrique, and more have earned international acclaim by focusing on using local produce and stepping away from traditional preparations while still being respectful of the island's culinary history.

Right now, though, the island is in the midst of an economic crisis, as the government of Puerto Rico defaulted on a $72 billion debt this month. What happens next is a bit of a conundrum, as Puerto Rico's status as a commonwealth of the United States leaves it in murky territory. It can't declare bankruptcy like Detroit did, and it can't seek help from the IMF because it's not a country.

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Robert, a worker at El Departamento De La Comida, prepares squash.

For now, austerity measures are being implemented on the island, such as a sales tax increase from 7 to 11.5 percent. This is a big jump, especially considering that unemployment is at almost 14 percent. Puerto Ricans—who are US citizens—are departing for the mainland in droves; many of them are young college graduates, leaving behind an aging population.

It all adds up to a seemingly precarious situation for the restaurants and chefs that have been reinvigorating the nation's cuisine and helping to rebuild the island's agricultural bounty.

Summer is always the slow season, according to Parcela's Sebastian Ramirez, who closed up shop for the end of July. His restaurant is located in the touristy San Juan neighborhood of Condado, where native Puerto Ricans know not to go in the winter. In the summer, though, it's about a 50-50 split of tourists and locals coming in for pork adobo-filled mini arepas, escalivada, and veal brains with brown butter. Parcela is the industry favorite on the island, with a menu that changes weekly depending on what's available and what's not too pricey.

"Dealing with local farmers has cut out middlemen," Ramirez tells me by phone. "I go directly to the source. I'm not paying a percentage over that. Sometimes the price of getting it through a middleman from the US is cheaper, but I would rather—even if it's a little more expensive—go with the local to cut the chain."

As for whether people are still spending despite the economic crisis, he says, "Definitely, people are more conscious of when they're going out and what they're going to buy, what they're going to consume. But people are still going out drinking and eating. There's definitely a sector that's been pulling back on that, but it's nothing too major. It's been a good moment for a lot of people to make changes in their restaurant operations." For him, this means paying very close attention to the numbers and even occasionally letting employees off early. "Employees know to prepare for the slow season, and to prepare for the winter season," he says.

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Breadfruit beignets.

Maria Grubb works as the executive chef at Gallo Negro in Santurce, which is further southeast and more inland than the Condado area. She recently got back from New York, which is where she always does her spice shopping. Her restaurant, she says, hasn't yet seen the potential impact of the government's austerity measures: "The reality is they're just adding an additional tax. It's not really hitting people yet. If we're going to see it, it'll be in the next two months when the laws settle in."

Near the farmers' market and art museum in Santurce is Santaella, owned by the Le Bernardin-trained chef, José Santaella. He isn't worried about the current economic situation: "I always say that in this kind of difficult time, if the concept is good, it works no matter what." He does consider people's wallets, though, by having $12 criollo-style lunch specials. That time of day has been a bit slower, but nights continue to be packed. His style of cooking accommodates those looking for a classic Puerto Rican meal, as well as those seeking something less traditional to the island. His philosophy is "you can have foie gras here, but we also always have tostones," and he uses a lot of local and organic produce to achieve it.

The focus on local produce among the island's chefs has had a trickle-down effect on the culture at large. Tara Rodriguez Besosa, who owns the grocery store and café space El Departamento de la Comida in Tras Tallares, has seen a shift: "Since the crisis, a lot of people have noticed that importing a lot of food doesn't help our local economy, so a lot of people in local business are trying to collaborate with their local producers to help our nonexistent local economy."

Being more aware of the laws governing the movement and sale of food on the island has made Besosa more pessimistic than the chefs. The Department of Consumer Affairs (DACO) in Puerto Rico—which sets the prices of imported goods as well as some local produce, depending on the crop—has the power to make things, as she says, "sucky." "The past two weeks, coffee has been an issue because they lowered the price of coffee that is imported. And now local coffee growers have to compete with that price when they were already trying to go for a higher price." That puts growers in a bind and makes it more difficult for already cash-strapped Puerto Ricans to support local businesses, even if they want to.

Photo by the author.

Plating a squash dish at El Departamento De La Comida.

While many chefs on the island have moved away from mofongo, Manolo Lopez is trying to introduce Americans to the classic Puerto Rican dish through his Smorgasburg stand MofonGO in New York City. It's been a massive hit, and he goes through 4,000 pounds of plantains every week. Despite the fact that his family owns "acres of plantains" in Puerto Rico, he has to source his own stock from Ecuador or Panama. Puerto Rico doesn't have the infrastructure in place to export its plantains, and MofonGO doesn't yet do enough business to warrant filling up shipping containers on its own.

Lopez's mother, though, is opening a food truck focused on serving healthy lunches on Puetro Rico's west coast, and will source everything from San Sebastian, Moca, Aguada, and Añasco. Even during the crisis, he thinks the timing is right: "The best opportunity to do it is right now. Through all the challenges and negativity, there has to be positive news, to contribute to actually fixing the island and all its problems." He does note that "with all the taxation, it gets even harder; it's a bigger challenge to launch businesses."

While for now the island's adventurous restaurants are optimistically maintaining the status quo, further dependence on tourism seems inevitable, new businesses might not be able to get off the ground, and local products will command higher prices than imports. Puerto Rico's culinary renaissance will undoubtedly continue, but with additional austerity measures and without new regulation, it has a significant challenge ahead of itself.