Speak Quickly, And Carry a Big Spoon

Whether cooking at her Hoboken restaurants (or at the White House), hunting edible lizards in Peru or hairy chayotes in Weehawken, Maricel Presilla is an ebullient culinary force.

Presilla harvesting hot red peppers in her backyard garden in Weehawken.
Photo by Christopher Villano.

Should you ever get invited to cook at the White House with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the guest list, chef Maricel Presilla will be delighted to pass along her recipe for pasteles. A member of the tamale family, pasteles are to Puerto Rico—where Sotomayor’s parents grew up—what pâté is to France.
“I wanted to make something in honor of our first Latina Supreme Court Justice,” says Presilla. The event was a White House reception marking Hispanic Heritage Month last October. “We’d heard the justice was a hearty eater, and I said, ‘Well, if she likes traditional Puerto Rican food, she’s got to love pastel.’”

Few chefs understand the differences among Latin American foods as well as Maricel Presilla. And few can prepare the dishes with such intelligence, imagination, and brio. The James Beard Foundation, recognizing the quality and vivacity of her cooking at her two acclaimed Hoboken restaurants, Cucharamama and Zafra, has twice nominated her as best chef, mid-Atlantic, and once, last year, as best chef in America. Gourmet has called her “a major authority on Latin American food.”

“Because of that location [in Hoboken], she’s somewhat outside the mainstream,” says Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation. “Maricel’s restaurants have a real sense of place, yet at the same time, on account of her much broader influences, they’re also destinations. There’s nowhere in New York City like them. By staying in New Jersey, she’s created something unique in an industry not always generous to women.”

A scholar of cuisine and culture (with a doctorate in medieval history), Presilla is the author of five books. A revised, expanded edition of her 2001 publishing debut, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, was published by Ten Speed Press in November. Her long-awaited magnum opus on Latin American cooking is forthcoming, and may be published this year.

This month she opened Ultramarinos, a Spanish and Latin American specialty food store and catering facility next door to Zafra. The shop has an open kitchen, Presilla says, so she can talk to guests while she cooks.

Presilla speaks English at the speed of Spanish, which is to say, very fast. Recently shopping at a Weehawken produce market, where she was searching for hairy chayote—a pear-shaped gourd native to Central America—the chef reminisced about the time she joined a famed hunter of edible lizards on a hunt in northern Peru. (Their quarry, she says, were “wonderful in an omelette.”)

That reminded her of another adventure, an expedition to Lake Titicaca, 12,500 feet above sea level in the high Andes of Bolivia, where she learned a method of freeze-drying potatoes: the peasant women let the tubers freeze in the cold night air, crush them with bare feet in the morning, then spread the bits to dry in the sun for days until they resemble chalky pebbles.

Last year, in the course of researching her chocolate book, she learned that cooking vessels containing turkey bones and traces of cacao and hot peppers had been unearthed at Mayan archeological sites. Inspired, she created a recipe for turkey thighs in a smoky broth flavored with toasted cacao nibs, charred tomatillos, and fresh ground chili peppers. “I can’t vouch for the dish’s authenticity,” she said, before leaving on a working trip to Cuzco. “But if I were an ancient Mayan, I would have eaten it.”

Presilla has been wildly in love with food since childhood. Maricel Espinosa Parladé was born (about 50 years ago, she says) into a Cuban middle-class family of artists, schoolteachers, and cacao farmers who were also marvelous cooks. Before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the family enjoyed long, proper lunches and afternoon soireés.

After the revolution, they were reduced to eating rice and mangoes and scraps of boiled meat. Maricel’s fifteenth birthday party was broken up by police after a neighbor denounced her to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution for the sin of playing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul.

“At a certain point in my childhood,” Presilla recalls, “food was so scarce I used to have to cross a river for a jug of milk. Once, in a dream, I tasted a single olive.” An aunt who played Mozart on the piano after wringing the necks of the chickens she was about to cook for lunch taught her to pluck the ubiquitous birds. An uncle explained how pigs were slaughtered. At a very early age she knew how to make something good from both.

In 1970, her family emigrated to Miami. As “anti-revolutionaries,” they were not permitted to take anything with them. Upon arrival, the Americans gave Maricel a five-dollar bill and a hunk of yellow cheese. A year later, her fiancé, Alex Presilla, joined her by swimming from the Cuban shore of Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. naval base there. He later crossed to Miami on a military plane.

In Miami, Presilla studied history at Florida International University, sold hosiery, taught Spanish, and devoted what little free time she had to reading cookbooks and recreating dishes from her childhood. After she and Alex married in Miami in 1971, he departed for Valladolid, Spain, to attend medical school. She joined him a year later, enrolling as a student of medieval history at the local university. The Franco regime was coming to an end, but while the student demonstrations were worrisome, tuition was dirt cheap.

Returning to the States, Alex established a cardiology practice in Union City, and the couple settled in nearby Weehawken. Presilla loved the town’s “tropical” golden light and broad view of the Hudson River as well as the willingness of the Latino merchants to deliver Andean peppers and yuca to her doorstep. Newark Airport was just thirteen miles away, convenient for her frequent forays to Central and South America for culinary research.

While working on her doctorate at NYU, Presilla trained in the kitchen of the Ballroom, the New York restaurant and tapas bar run by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, a pioneer of Spanish fusion cuisine. She earned her doctorate in 1989, then taught medieval history at Rutgers, wrote for magazines, and worked as a food and restaurant consultant. It was while consulting for Victor’s Café, the famed Cuban eatery in Manhattan, that she met her future business partner, Clara Chaumont, who was the restaurant’s manager.

After opening Zafra in Hoboken in 2000, Presilla and Chaumont set their sights on establishing a second restaurant in New York. Then came the attack on the World Trade Center, and suddenly, Presilla says, “New York seemed very insular. It didn’t seem like the right place at the time.” Four years later they opened Cucharamama a block away from Zafra.

While Cucharamama has about 40 appetizers on its menu, these small plates are not to be confused with Spanish-style tapas. “Tapas is something you have standing at a bar,” she explains. “It is never sit-down. You can make a complete meal at Cucharamama by ordering small dishes, which by the way are not that small. In Latin America, we tend to be a little more generous with our food.”

Overall, “the main idea of Cucharamama is South America,” she says. “We didn’t want to cannibalize Zafra. Although it has some other dishes, Zafra is Cuban at heart. Cuba is the most important food tradition in the Caribbean. In Central America, Mexico has the most important tradition.”

Cucharamama, on the other hand, “is deeply influenced by Peru. I concluded it is the most exciting cuisine of South America. The colors of the restaurant are very much the colors of Peru. I wanted cement floors, like in Peru.”

Yet, the whole continent gets involved. “We have a dish of shrimp sitting on a bed of eggplant and plaintain purée, which I learned from a dear friend in Colombia,” Presilla says. “That dish is a reminder of her influence on me. Even the black beans we use at Cucharamama are different. We use Venezuelan black beans, which are very sweet, not the Cuban-style beans we use at Zafra.

“After you eat at Cucharamama,” she says, in sum, “you get the feeling you have visited South America.”
Remembering a stay with a family in Paraguay that had a woodburning oven, Presilla insisted Cucharamama have one, too. “I think it was the wisest decision I ever made,” she says. “It took me three months to master, but now it’s so much a part of who we are I couldn’t imagine life without it. When we have had blackouts, we have done everything with that oven.”

One of the things she makes in the woodburning oven is pizza. Pizza? “Italians settled in gigantic numbers in Latin America, starting in the nineteenth century,” she explains. “There are an enormous number of Italians in Argentina and also in São Paolo, Brazil. But I give it a Latin twist with the toppings.”

Cucharamama is decorated with paintings by Presilla’s father, Ismael Espinosa, who is 89. “The bar is blue and made of cement because that’s what I saw in the kitchens of many people I stayed with in Venezuela,” she says. “I wanted that blue. The chairs are covered with material from Amazonian Peru. Everything is there for a reason.

“What I’m doing is sharing moments from my own life. When I get back from a country where I found something that really appealed to me, I put it to work in the restaurant. So basically I am having a conversation with you.”

Presilla takes special pride in the achievements of Latinas, and works with women whenever possible. Which brings us back to Justice Sotomayor. “She must have really liked my pasteles,” she says, exultant. “Good as her mother’s, she said!”

With reporting by Laurel Berger.

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