‘I always find good food, even in the most improbable places’

Maricel Presilla shows her James Beard award at her Zafra restaurant

[dropcap] M[/dropcap]aricel Presilla (born Santiago de Cuba) is truly versatile. As a chef, she has cooked for President Obama at the White House. Her two restaurants, Cucharamama and Zafra, and food store and bakery Ultramarinos, embody the spirit of Latin America in the New York area as a result of her constant exploration for the best Latin American food in its country of origin. (For Maricel, a tapado soup in Rio Blanco, Guatemala, could be as inspiring as a rabbit terrine served near Notre Dame in Paris.)

As a cacao expert, she likes to get her hands dirty by visiting cacao plantations in Central and South America, not only to speak to the farmers, but to examine the pod colours and shape, open them up, bite into the seeds and taste them,  in order to determine the best cacao varietal.

As a writer and medievalist, she has written the ‘New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes’ and is about to publish a bible on ‘Gran Cocina Latina’, (WW Norton), where every little region has an extraordinary secret to share.

And if that is not enough, last week, the James Beard Foundation awarded her the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic prize – an Oscar in terms of food – at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Seventy% had the pleasure and honour of speaking to her.

What was your earliest dream?

To explore the world.

What was your very first job?

Selling lemonade at a Cuban political rally when I was a child, but that lasted only one hour until I was told by a soldier to close shop because private vendors should not be making a profit in a socialist country.

Who was your mentor?

For cooking, I trained with the late Peruvian chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, the first to introduce the concept of tapas to the Unites States. He was the long-time assistant of James Beard.

As a graduate student of medieval history, my mentor was the famous medievalist and prolific author Norman F. Cantor. He had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

For cacao, I learned a lot with Venezuelan cacao agronomist the late Humberto Reyes and his wife Lilian, a cacao pathologist.

Did you ever consider another career apart from being a chef or food writer?

I had been programmed (genetically, I believe) to be a history or literature professor, or an anthropologist. But I would have loved to have been a geographer or an archaeologist.

My first job was selling lemonade at a Cuban political rally when I was a child


You have travelled throughout Latin America in search of the best food. Where did you find it?

I always find good food, even in the most improbable places. Mexico has an embarrassment of culinary riches, but Peru and Ecuador, in South America, have wonderful regional cuisines. I am currently smitten with Ecuadorian food and obsessed with Nacional cacao.

As a chocolate expert, what are the main signs of good chocolate?

Maricel Presilla doing research at the San Joaquin farm in the plains of Venezuela in the late 1990’s. Once owned by Chocolates El Rey, the farm no longer exists as it was occupied by squatters with the support of the current government of President Hugo Chávez.

I have always looked for round chocolates that tickle my palate with a variety of sensory experiences, that linger in my mouth for a long time. I appreciate the combination of complementary flavour notes: the lush acidity of dark fruit, the soothing calm of nuts, the complex sweetness of brown loaf sugar, and the subtle jolt of spice.

But I am learning to appreciate more dominant single notes of wood and herbs, or the assertive floral aromas that are characteristic of some rare Ecuadorian cacaos with strong Nacional blood.

What varietal flavours make a perfect chocolate?

I have always been partial to nutty Venezuelan criollos like Porcelana or Guasare or more complex trinitarios with a strong criollo blood and round dark fruit from places like Barlovento, Cuyagua or Chuao, but now my palate is more refined and I appreciate the inherent quality of other Latin American cacaos.

I now enjoy the black olive notes of a Nicaraguan cacao (as in Duffy’s  Nicaragua Nicaliso) or the deeply herbal nature of a Pacari Raw Ecuadorian cacao from Los Ríos.

Who would you invite to your ideal dinner party?

Twelve is the magic number of guests for me because they will fit snugly around my 18th century Filipino table.

I would invite people of all ages (dead or alive) and from different walks of life to keep the conversation lively. I would invite James Beard for obvious reasons. Anton Mosimann, a refined Swiss chef with a restaurant in London (a true gourmand who enjoys my food and my restaurants), Prince Charles (because I like the way he thinks and writes about organic food and sustainability), and Oliver Sacks, a famous neuroscientist who adores Latin American food. Hoping that he would play the saxophone after dinner, I would ask my Cuban friend, Paquito de Rivera, a fantastic jazz musician, to join us.

Of course, I would include some of my chocolate friends. Santiago Peralta of Pacari Chocolate is one of the best dining companions I know.

Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate would fly from Utah to New Jersey to eat anything I cook for him and would bring his delicious chocolates.

Paul A Young would sit by my side and keep me entertained telling me about his latest flavour experiments, and Martin Christy, who has a discriminating palate, would be at the head of the table talking about his latest chocolate and cacao adventures. He would be pleased with the certainty that I would go out of my way to prepare special vegetarian Latin American dishes just for him.

I am learning to appreciate more dominant single notes of wood and herbs, or the assertive floral aromas that are characteristic of some rare Ecuadorian cacaos with strong Nacional blood.

Susana Cárdenas Overstall and Monica Meschini would also be at the table. Susana will cheer when I serve roasted ripe plantain with a peanut condiment from her home region, and Monica, who is very choosy and opinionated, will test my culinary abilities and keep my use of cilantro to a discreet minimum.

What would you serve?

I would start with my Caribbean squash soup laced with cacao and a small torchon of foie gras (for the non-vegetarians) and a spoonful of Ecuadorian mantequilla blanca (a type of crème fraîche) from Manabí.

I will follow with my Cuban-style fresh corn polenta topped with shrimp in vanilla and chipotle sauce and a touch of chocolate and cacao.

As a main course, it would be a contest. My Cuban-style roast pork with a side of mote (Ecuadorian hominy) and roasted oca, an Andean tuber, and rice and vegetarian Cuban black beans. This is always a hit. But I also enjoy a pan-roasted breast of duck with crispy skin, thinly sliced and served over a tamarillo (tree tomato) mole sauce laced with chocolate flavored with Andean mortiño and a side of Manabí-style roasted ripe plantain with the peanut condiment called salprieta.

For dessert, expect something creamy and delicious made with chocolate, but also a tasting of at least a dozen chocolates made with Latin American cacaos paired with special after dinner drinks.

What is your biggest extravagance?

Buying a very expensive and huge Spanish Renaissance wooden door (from a palace no less) in New York and shipping it to my house in Spain and paying a special import sales tax for it.

What is your greatest disappointment?

Not to be able to help the cacao farmers of Cuba’s Jauco region, including my own family. While I have been able to commercialise the cacao of small farms in countries like Venezuela, the state-controlled cacao industry of Cuba does not allow anyone to deal directly with Cuban farmers.

The state-controlled cacao industry of Cuba does not allow anyone to deal directly with Cuban farmers

And your greatest achievement?

Three milestones come to mind. My cacao and chocolate books The New Taste of Chocolate for Ten Speed Press (2001 and 2009), the chocolate bars I was able to create with the late Robert Steinberg with cacao from my favorite farm in Venezuela, and my most recent award for Outstanding Best-Chef Mid-Atlantic given to me by the prestigious James Beard Foundation on May 7, 2012.

Maricel Presilla is the first Latin American woman and the third woman in history to win this award. She is a member of the Grand Jury for the International Chocolate Awards taking place in London from 28 May – 3 June.

1 Comment

  1. OB October 8, 2012

    Her book, “The New Taste of Chocolate”, is a great introduction to all the various beans and the different types of criollos. Makes you feel like a bit of an “expert” once you’ve finished reading it and you become harder to fool by all that packaging out there. Some interesting recipes as well.

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