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Mojito Diplomacy: Chefs Plan Culinary Tours To Cuba

A vendor reaches out to catch a pineapple at a food market in the outskirts of Havana.
Ramon Espinosa

Miami Chef Douglas Rodriguez is known as the "Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine" for the pan-Latin American style of cooking he helped pioneer. But, as the son of Cuban immigrants, his early cooking education was firmly rooted in the traditions of his parents' homeland.

Now that the U.S. has taken historic steps to ease tensions with the island nation, — a James Beard Award winner — wants to expose American tourists to all Cuba has to offer. This March, Rodriguez is planning to lead a weeklong culinary excursion — a trip "designed to immerse you in Cuba's contemporary art and culinary scene."

Rodriguez, who had led culinary trips to the communist country before the U.S. implemented hard travel restrictions, sees the trip as a great opportunity to teach. So do other chefs leading similar tours. Renowned Miami chefs , , and , the Cuban-American of the bunch, are also inviting tourists to join them as they explore the culinary history of Cuba this summer.

"My main intention for participating in this trip," DeRosa tells The Salt, "is to help people understand the culture and to find ways to better support the people of Cuba, all the while sharing with them something we love to do."

The trips aren't cheap: Rodriguez's will set you back $6,500, a price that includes all transportation costs, meals, hotels, guides, tips and medical insurance. Travelers will take part in walking tours of the preserved colonial city of Trinidad, a cooperative farm in Alamar and more. The days are capped off by group dinners prepared by local chefs.

DeRosa's trip, organized through , a Florida-based travel company, runs at about $3,300 a head. Participants will dine at famous eateries like La Barraca, located in El Nacional, Havana's iconic, luxury hotel left over from the pre-Castro era and known for its mojitos, and they'll participate in private cigar and rum tasting sessions.

"When I was first asked to curate this trip in August of last year, I jumped at the chance," DeRosa says. Planning for the tour had been under way for several months prior to President Obama's announcement in December that he would begin normalizing relations with Cuba, but the news is likely to generate more interest in such ventures.

All of these jaunts will highlight the changes in Cuba's agricultural sector since President Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel in 2008. Those on DeRosa's trip will visit farmers markets in the capital and learn about the limited economic liberalizations the younger Castro has instituted in farming. These experiments, which have permitted some private farming and allowed farmers to sell directly to consumers, represent some of the most significant changes to the Cuban economy under Castro.

Although chefs like DeRosa and Rodriguez see these culinary expeditions as a form of cultural exchange, other Cuban-American chefs are outraged by the concept — chiefly because the topic of food in Cuba is so politically fraught.

It's no secret that many Cubans depend on limited monthly rations of government-subsidized staples like rice, beans and coffee to get by. And despite Castro's focus on food production, chronic shortages continue to be a problem — a fact highlighted by the existence of Cuba's black market for food.

While DeRosa and company view these tours as purely educational, other Cuban-American chefs in Florida have denounced their efforts. Sean Bernal, a well-regarded veteran chef in Miami, says the tours are culturally insensitive. And Alberto Cabrera, chef and owner of , a beloved sandwich shop in the heart of Little Havana, called the concept "a joke."

Still, DeRosa and the rest stand by their enterprise. Their hope is to create a meaningful dialogue centered around food and the art of cooking. "I grew up hearing my grandfather's stories about his country," DeRosa says, "and I'm excited to experience firsthand the culture that is such a big part of my family history and so influential in Miami, where I make my home."

Juan Vidal is a writer based in Miami and a critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter:@itsjuanlove

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Juan Vidal
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