Maricel Presilla, New Jersey’s most decorated chef and an internationally recognized authority on Latin American cooking and chocolate, announced this weekend that she is permanently closing her acclaimed Hoboken restaurant, Cucharamama, which she shut down in the pandemic lockdown in March.
Outdoor dining, which became a lifeline for a number of restaurants in June, “did not make sense for us,” she said. Though situated on a corner, Cucharamama has narrow sidewalks and a very small footprint, allowing only a few tables, she said. “It wasn’t worth it. We sell an experience.” Indoors, she said, that includes the wood-burning oven, the walls filled with paintings by her father and herself, the handmade wooden bar, the handmade Mexican tiles underfoot.
“We don’t have a financial cushion,” she said, speaking for herself and her longtime business partner, Clara Chaumont. “Any cushion we had went in Sandy. There are no investors to turn to. For us to make ends meet, we need to be packed and lively every night, and we need all our seating.”
There was never very much of that, only about 30 seats. Compounding matters, she said, “Our kitchen is minimal. We realized that with social distancing, you could only have two people in it. When you’re cooking, you’re focusing on the food, you cannot guarantee safety.
“Before the pandemic,” she added, “there were a lot of people walking around Hoboken. You don’t see that anymore—not in our area, on a side street, and maybe not even on [the main thoroughfare] Washington Street. It’s like a different town.”
Cucharamama, which opened in 2004, has appeared on every one of New Jersey Monthly’s annual Best Restaurants list since the list was established in 2007. In the last two years, Presilla closed her two other Hoboken establishments, the Cuban restaurant Zafra, and Ultramarinos, a market and cooking atelier.
A native Cuban, Presilla won her first James Beard Award in 2012 as chef of Cucharamama, which is dedicated to the cuisines of South America. She won her second a year later for her fifth book, Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. In 2015, the James Beard Foundation had inducted her into the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. In 2017, she published her seventh book, the 900-page Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor.
On Saturday night, Presilla announced the closing of Cucharamama on Instagram. By Sunday afternoon, there more than 180 comments, expressing a mixture of heartbreak, gratitude and admiration.
“Closing this restaurant is the most painful thing I’ve ever done in this country,” said Presilla, whose career highlights include cooking at the Obama White House. “I put so many years of my life into Cucharamama. When I wrote the [Instagram] post, I was crying. I haven’t slept, because I’m answering all the people who wrote to me. I’m answering every single one because I feel I owe it to them. I’m not done answering them all yet.
“I am so glad I opened Cucharamama,” she added. “It has been a lifeline for me, a place where I put experiments into action. All the experiences of my travels went into Cucharamama.
“I feel that we have been embraced, and people really appreciated what we did and gave us back so much affection. These were great experiences, and I will always cherish them.”Click here to leave a comment