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Our men in Havana

17 March 2005 by

Havana's number one eating and drinking destination is not a destination because of its food. Floridita (the original after which Conran's newest London joint is named) is packed to the rafters with tourists because it's where, among a blur of other dens in the city, adopted Cuban son and American writer Ernest Hemingway used to drink. There's even a statue of him at the bar.

The nostalgic appeal doesn't extend to the food, which, although resembling something out of a seventies cruise ship, follows that noncommittal culinary diagram dubbed "international cuisine". Which parts were French or Italian have been lost in the Cuban translation, and it's really just a formula for putting meat in the middle and decorating it with veg from a tin. Chef de cuisine Joaquin Montalvo doesn't seem too fussed. His favourite food, he shrugs and explains, is "beef stuffed with bacon".

For the two winners of Young Chef Young Waiter (see page 39), assistant restaurant manager Nicolas Mori from the Greenhouse and chef de partie Nathan Green from Thyme, going to Cuba might not have been the most obvious choice for a prize. Cuban cuisine, as Montalvo demonstrated, is not the foodie's dream that, say, Sri Lanka is, or Vietnam. There is, to be fair, a dearth of ingredients, and with agriculture kept to the basics (tobacco is prioritised, along with sugar cane - the raw material for rum) the national dish is little more than rice, black beans, grilled pork and some fried plantain. It's by no means disgusting, but it is bland.

When you consider the region's cultural history, this lack is a little hard to explain. The island is only 50 miles from spice-loving Jamaica, and 30 from the rich culinary heritage of the USA's south coast. And as a much fought-over stepping stone in the race to colonise the Caribbean, the island has at various times been home to Spaniards, Brits and slaves from Africa and China. A melting pot of delicious culinary ingredients, surely?

Well, for nearly 50 years Cuba has been a communist state, which hasn't nourished culinary creativity. There's education for all, and health care provision that few other countries could compete with - but, as the local joke goes, nothing on the table for breakfast. The average Cuban earns only about $15 a month, so they usually worry about the basics first rather than splashing out on anything finer. More importantly, because of the trade blockade imposed by the Americans, there isn't actually "anything finer" on the shelves - Cuba would have to import from markets much further away. And as most Cubans can't afford a holiday, they've never been exposed to anything else.

But this is now posing the Cubans a problem. After the economic collapse of the early nineties, when the Soviet bloc and its trade safety net disappeared, it was decided to open up the country to foreign investment - and mass-market tourism. Visitor numbers are increasing - this year the island's main package holiday destination Varadero, a peninsula three hours east of Havana, expects a 6% increase on last year, itself a 11% rise on the year before that - but with the visitors come expectations, and one element of the Cuban experience constantly cited is disappointment over the food.

You can't shoehorn food into a culture, but the issue raises interesting questions about how Cuba manages its ascent as a tourist favourite. On our first day in Cuba we were taken to Havana's hospitality school, Formatur, one of 18 around the country which teach everything from languages and cooking to hotel management. According to Cecelia Moleon Mejias, an international collaboration specialist at the school, the dilemma is how to satisfy demand while maintaining the country's national character. "We want the Cuban product to be an attractive product but we don't necessarily want it just to mimic other places," she explains. "We want to insert our culture into tourism but not tourism into our culture." One strategy is to improve the style of the Cuban and Caribbean cuisine.

Are they succeeding? The sun-and-beach appeal means Cuba has become a package holiday paradise. Indeed, this is the most lucrative market and has led to a whirlwind of joint ventures with international hotel companies. Varadero now has 48 hotels on its 14.2sq km of land, and the ministry of tourism wants to increase the peninsula's current 14,000 rooms to something like 26,000. The foreign companies put up money for the buildings, then enter into management contracts, while the state-owned Cuban companies like Gran Caribe take the majority of the profits and control the lease of the buildings at the end of the contract. The profits wouldn't be acceptable for the international chains in other parts of the world, but the need to maintain a presence in one of the fastest-growing hotel markets dictates that they play ball.

Even in central Havana, the new Hotel Parque Central features a rooftop swimming pool, in which Western tourists sunbathe, exclusively, against a backdrop of poverty-stricken Havana. Many commentators predict that Cuba will change when Castro dies, but in truth it has already happened. Mori commented that these aspects were unwelcome: "I was disappointed by some of the hotels that were so modern, especially the Hotel Parque Central. The concept has been adapted to suit tourists," he said.

And the food? At Formatur the chefs are taught that "international" style after they learn about Cuban food, because the hotels need chefs who can serve up what the guests expect. At the Sandals resort in Varadero, the 440-room Princessa del Mar, that means French, Italian and Japanese restaurants, which create the illusion of choice, despite it being an experience similar to other resorts. As Green points out, for this market "the majority don't want to eat local food - they just want pizza and pasta".

Never mind. Varadero is a peninsula, designed to be sealed off for those who want to escape. More worryingly is the impact on Havana. This is the goose that lays the golden egg after all, and with a target of about 39,000 rooms by 2010 (there were only 10,000 in 1999) the challenge is to manage the growth. Some signs are positive. The old town in Havana has been earmarked as a world heritage site, meaning old dilapidated buildings are being restored into hotels with profits ring-fenced from other hotels. New-builds are banned in the area, meaning open spaces are kept intact and the atmosphere, crucial to the city's appeal, is preserved.

The hotels also offer a social benefit. In the old town on the Plaza Vieja, profits from one hotel paid for the refurbishment of a school next door, while the students from Formatur have to do part of their training if they are becoming a chef, say, cooking in hospitals and schools. It's called the "social programme". The boom is also revitalising Cuba's own industries, with the production of bottled water, tableware, silverware, furniture and other related accessories to the hospitality industry.

It's obviously a tricky tightrope on which to balance. On one hand, appeal to the package market and sacrifice some of your idiosyncrasies. Entice the independent traveller, and lose money and investment. But it's still early days. Looking ahead, the ministry sees eco-tourism, adventure holidays, and third-age tourism, what Mejias describes, for example, as extended stays for health or medical reasons. And of course the nation's rich musical and artistic culture can't easily be ignored, even by those more attracted by the sun and beach. "We've done a lot, but we still have a long way to go," she says.

Young Chef Young Waiter Last year's Young Chef Young Waiter competition followed the time-honoured tradition, whereby the 16 chefs and waiters had to wait until a gala dinner held on the evening of the competition's final (4 October) before they found out who had walked away with the titles. The venue - the House of Commons, courtesy of the evening's host, sports and tourism minister Richard Caborn - was a bit special, and for the eventual winners, chef Nathan Green, 22, from London's Thyme at the Hospital, and waiter Nicolas Mori, 24, of the Greenhouse restaurant, also in London, the extra hours of suspense proved worthwhile.

The business end of the day took place down the road at Westminster Kingsway College. After early-morning briefings by the chairs of each judging panel - Philip Howard of the Square in London for the chefs, Annie Schwab of Winteringham Fields, Lincolnshire, for the waiters - the finalists got to work.

Their task was to prepare and serve a three-course lunch with an amuse-bouche for 32 guests. The competitors were paired up for the test, but marked separately. And while the chefs got on with the job of cooking, the waiters had a series of basic tests to get through. The eight chef finalists came knowing what they would be cooking for their starter and main courses. The starter was a dish of their own choice. The main, although it was their own recipe, had to be centred on squab pigeon. "Squab is a luxurious and outstanding product screaming out for autumnal garnishes," commented Howard at the evening's award ceremony. "We weren't after anything too complicated to accompany it."

Dessert was built from a surprise basket of ingredients with lots of autumnal fruit (pears, prunes, apples), plus a few nonseasonal red herrings like strawberries and passion fruit. Also included were pistachios, chocolate and the basics of sugar and flour.

The waiters had four skill tasks to get through in the morning: identifying mistakes on the menu, presenting a cheese plate (including identifying and talking through the qualities of six cheeses), making a classic dry martini and preparing a steak tartare. But the nitty-gritty for them was lunch service and its preceding Champagne aperitif. Several guests were asked to be tricky in order to test the finalists' professionalism in an as-near-to-live-service way as possible. "There were some very difficult guests to deal with," conceded Schwab, not without some glee, "but everyone dealt with them beautifully. The standard was very high." Mori, for instance, had to deal with a spilt glass of bubbly; and he tirelessly answered all questions flung at him about the meal and wines. "I realised I'd made mistakes," he says, "but I knew the way I handled them was the best way I could. It's about how you deal with problems."

For Green, the competition is a great springboard. "It gives you a head start," he says. "But this is just the beginning of what I want to achieve."

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