Snapshots from Havana’s evolving food and farming scene. Photos: Varun Mehra
Snapshots from Havana’s evolving food and farming scene. Photos: Varun Mehra

In the last year, Chez Panisse chefs, staff, and alum have embarked on gourmet global diplomacy trips to Japan (in an informal expedition under the auspices of a group known as OPENrestaurant) and China (in a formal affair the restaurant’s owner, Alice Waters,  presided over herself.) Now comes word that a contingent from the acclaimed restaurant are headed to Cuba to plant seeds of change on the food and farming front — and learn a thing or two about Cuban cuisine and growing greens from this Carribbean island country.

What’s more the trip, scheduled for December 4-12, coincides with the Havana Film Festival, and is open to the public. The delegation includes Chez Panisse downstairs chef Jerome Waag, former Chez Panisse pizzaiolo Charlie Hallowell, Steve Sullivan from Acme Bread (a former Chez Panisse chef), and Cuban-American line cook Danielle Alvarez, who will set foot on Cuban soil for the first time.

At this stage, Alice Waters isn’t scheduled to join the group, which will take a charter flight to Havana, said Varun Mehra, Waters’ personal assistant who is spearheading the nine-day itinerary, following a fact-finding trip to Cuba earlier this year, which he chronicled for Paper Magazine. (“Havana’s food scene is changing rapidly and the Cuban government is phasing out its system of rations and cautiously allowing private restaurant ownership,” Mehra noted in his travelogue. “As a result, the population is rediscovering its own pre-revolution culinary history — a delicious mix of Spanish, African, and Caribbean influences.”)

Participants will have an opportunity to attend the film festival, learn about the country’s rich traditions in dance, music, and art, and visit urban architectural gems, as well as take day excursions to mountain communities and beach resorts, according to the itinerary. Some meals may take place at paladares, privately owned restaurants run by families often directly from their home kitchens.

Central to the culinary cultural tour: a series of dinners cooked by the Chez contingent and Cuban chefs using local organic foods.

Since Cuban cuisine has historically featured homogenous fare — think rice, beans, and meat —  one goal of the visiting chefs is to expose local cooks and eaters to Chez-style dishes with a more fruit and vegetable focus, said Mehra.

A Cuban farmer talks about growing greens with a visitor. Photo: Varun Mehra

The meals will be a cross-cultural affair: a diverse cross-section of Cuban residents will be invited to dine with the visiting Americans. Trip participants will also have the opportunity to converse with local urban farmers, seed savers, edible educators, Slow Food leaders, leading restaurateurs, and others connected to the Cuban food scene.

The mission has goals beyond good meals. “It is the beginning of what hopefully will be an ongoing project to improve the Cuban diet and encourage local food cooperatives, working with Cuba’s leading environmental organization, the Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation,” said Tom Miller, who is also co-organizing the pending “Planting Seeds” trip, a collaboration between the Cuban foundation and his non-profit Green Cities Fund.

“Cuba has suffered greatly as a result of U.S. policy and for years my wife and I have been actively working for better relations with Cuba. As board members of Global Exchange we have taken many ‘people to people’ trips to Cuba,” said Miller, an Oakland-based attorney, who has defended U.S. citizens facing fines from the U.S. government for going to this communist country. “I introduced Alice to a wonderful Cuban environmental expert who cleaned up the terribly polluted Almendares River that runs into Havana and she fell in love with the idea of working with Cuban chefs and local source organic food experts helping to build a healthy, sustainable alternative to a diet which currently requires importing 70 percent of Cuba’s food.”

This is a licensed, legal trip and visas will be provided, said Miller. Participants on this edible excursion can expect to clear U.S. Customs upon their return without hassles — as long as they don’t try to smuggle in contraband such as Cuban cigars and rum, said Miller, who noted that Cuban art can legally be imported to the U.S.

Details: The trip costs $6,000 per person ($6,400 for single room accommodation), and includes charter air fare from from either Los Angeles or Miami, a full program of activities during a 9 day-8 night stay, and accommodation in a boutique hotel in historic Old Havana. To secure a spot, a $500 deposit must be received by August 15; the balance is due November 1. Half the cost of the trip is tax deductible, said Miller, as it will be used to support the work of the non-profit Antonio Nunez Jimenez Foundation. Space is limited to 30 people.

Checks should be made payable to “Green Cities Fund” and mailed to: Tom Miller, Green Cities Fund, 725 Washington Street., #300, Oakland, CA 94607. Questions? Call Miller: 510-891-0616, ext. 102.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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