This Restaurant Is a Vegetarian Oasis on an Island of Meat and Cheese
Puerto Rico isn't exactly a vegetarian destination, and until a few years ago, few health food stores or vegetarian restaurants could be found in San Juan. But chef Jerome Valencia is trying to change that, one raw vegan mousse at a time.
Chef Jerome's vegan pancakes, topped with papaya, bananas, and almonds at The Dreamcatcher in San Juan, Puerto Rico. All photos by the author.
Chef Jerome Valencia brings artistry to the vegetarian culinary scene in Puerto Rico. As a follower of the Rastafari movement, Jerome and his friends began a campaign in a place where there wasn't even a market, leading to a decade-long sojourn that Jerome refers to as his life's path. Equal parts chef, musician, and visionary, Jerome is propelled by a different way of seeing things, a consciousness that's rooted in the art of soulful living, and very, very delicious cooking.
In the late 1990s, you could only find two health food stores selling vegan and vegetarian supplies in Puerto Rico, but by the time Jerome's cuisine took hold in the commonwealth, a small movement of misfits had begun to shape the emerging lifestyle. "Back then, it was so difficult to find vegan ingredients," Jerome says. "It was a constant challenge."
On an island largely known for being carnivorous—where fried cheeses and heavy meats fuse together in almost every meal—just like Jerome, The Dreamcatcher is a change-maker: Allowing only vegetarian meal prep in its communal kitchen, guests of bed and breakfasts flock to the idyllic retreat for a healthy break from their routine. Owner Sylvia De Marco immediately set the tone of The Dreamcatcher, but fate led her to Jerome, who has been helming the kitchen there for the last two years.
"The Dreamcatcher is the only hotel offering this lifestyle in our community, and it also represents our energy and intentions," says Jerome. "The philosophy and ambiance is to connect with yourself, and the food is an essential part of this. There's really a soul and energy here in every corner."
His first foray into this lifestyle began when he was studying music in college. "While I was playing reggae music in Puerto Rico, I started studying the Rastafari culture. The more I learned, the more I began to change my life," says Jerome. By 2003, he became fully vegetarian, requiring him to cook mostly for himself, as at the time, there weren't many options for vegetarians in Puerto Rico.
As Jerome became more intimately involved in the art of cooking vegetarian cuisine, his passion for delivering quality meals sprouted, inspiring him to share his craft with others in his community. "I started selling fruit shakes at reggae parties every Saturday. It was my first step into selling what I was learning," says Jerome. The line to his fruit stand grew so long, he knew he had to take his concept even further.
"In 2007, my friends and I created a concept for the San Sebastian Street Festival, the biggest cultural activity that we have in Puerto Rico. It happens the third week in January every year, and we created a kitchen in Old San Juan. I had a basket, and went around selling burritos and juices to anyone who would try them," says Jerome. He received such positive feedback from the festival that he became even more serious in his pursuit of promoting vegetarian and vegan cuisine in his home country, propelling him to launch his own company, Ki' Organic Vegan. After finding success in the private cooking and catering sector, Jerome launched his own food truck the summer of 2014; as fate would have it, this also led him to Sylvia De Marco and The Dreamcatcher. "At the time, the food truck concept was growing in Puerto Rico. I wanted to make my own food truck, but with an all-vegan twist," says Jerome.
As a vegetarian, Sylvia immediately took note of the food truck, and was impressed with Jerome's creations. "She ordered my collard wrap, with salsa, avocado, and cashew protein. Of all the things I've done, this is the masterpiece that really gets to the heart of the people," says Jerome with a smile. After trying the wrap, Sylvia offered Jerome a job as The Dreamcatcher's assistant chef.
Now as the head chef at The Dreamcatcher, Jerome focuses on the bed and breakfast's revered three-course vegan and vegetarian spread. I sat down to enjoy the meal firsthand, where I began with a raw oat and flax seed muesli, made with coconut milk and ginger, topped with papaya, bananas, and homemade granola. Moving to the second and main course, I feasted on quinoa in arugula sauce with a fried egg and cheddar cheese, topped with a mango garlic honey glaze. Rounding out the meal was a raw vegan avocado and cacao mousse sprinkled with hemp seeds and almonds, which I washed down with Jerome's homemade hibiscus flower juice, infused with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves for an extra spicy finish.
Just as Jerome, his entire team of sous chefs exude a palpable warmth and energy. "Right now, I have a beautiful crew that's part of this with me. There's an exchange of genuine intentions in what we do," says Jerome. "We're constantly inspired by the feedback we receive from people. At the end of the day, what we do is soul food."