Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Meet the San Franciscans who opened a restaurant in Cuba

Meet the San Franciscans who opened a restaurant in Cuba
By Jonathan Kauffman August 15, 2016 Updated: August 15, 2016 12:00pm

Shona Baum had lived in San Francisco for 20 years. Paver Core Broche
had left Cuba with the intention of never returning. Yet, a few years
ago, the San Francisco couple decided that new laws allowing Cubans to
own their own businesses offered them a rare opportunity, and they moved
to Havana. In May 2015, the couple, along with Paver's brother Ibrham,
opened California Cafe, a restaurant in the Vedado neighborhood. With a
casual-boho vibe and a bar that looks over the Malecon, Havana's
picturesque esplanade, the cafe has become a destination for tourists
and Cubans alike. The Chronicle recently interviewed Baum about the
restaurant while the couple vacationed in San Francisco.

Q: How did you decide to open a restaurant in Cuba?

A: Our idea was to bring California-style dining to Havana. We basically
designed the cafe around what we wished we could have (had) when we were
going down to visit. Everything's local and sustainable — everything
that's important to European and American people who go down there now.

Q: What does it take to operate a private restaurant in Cuba?

A: You get a license from the state. That's not as complicated as it is
here, from what I hear. A lot of the (problems) we have to deal with are
food shortages, so we focus on a menu that's composed of items that are
always available. Food is very expensive. Probably more than 50 percent
of our money goes back into buying more food. It's a very tough
environment. We look at ourselves as pioneers.

The other thing I should mention is that we employ all Cubans. For them,
it's a big deal to have a regular income. There, it's traditional to
have shifts that are 20 hours long. We have two shifts, and we pay
people a reasonable wage for each shift.

Q: Are you serving Cuban standards or California-style dishes?

A: We serve some California-style dishes. We had a friend living in Cuba
for six months who is a vegetarian and helped us make a vegetarian
burger and a couple of vegetarian entrees. That has become sort of our
niche, because there are very few vegetarian restaurants there. We also
do fish tacos, which are a big California thing, though they're also
Mexican. We do hummus.

Then we do traditional Cuban food, again focusing on fresh, local foods.
We don't want to have just tourists, so we see ourselves as a bridge for
the emerging Cuban middle class. There are young people who are
vegetarians now, or who have different ideas about what they want to
eat, so we're giving them different ways of experiencing cuisines.

The economy is not good, but when Cubans go out for a birthday or
anniversary, they go out and party. There are a lot of Cubans in Havana
who are starved for things that are different. They're excited about
being in a place where the service is better, so we do a lot of training
of our waitstaff in terms of how to provide American-style service.

Q: I've heard over the years that Cuba farms organically. How does
farm-to-table work there?

A: It's funny, because there's only farm-to-table there. Everything is
inherently local and organic, except for the chicken. They import it.

Q: What's the most exciting thing about food in Cuba?

A: People generally go to Cuba and come back saying, "The food is
horrible!" Since there's no advertising, the only places that get
promoted and are easy to get to are the state-run places. Cuban cuisine
is really delicious but plain — no spices, all natural flavors. I don't
think it's conducive to a large restaurant trying to serve 100 people
pork loins and the way Cubans cook rice and beans.

It's exciting, though, that the actual products and what you can cook
with them, if you do it right, (the food) comes out amazing.

Maybe because Cuba is an island, anything that's packaged or imported is
very exciting. My brother-in-law does the shopping, and one day he came
to me and said, "Shona, look what we've got!" He brought me to the car,
where he had a box of prepackaged butter packets imported from Europe.
We already have a girl who comes from the country and brings us fresh
milk, fresh butter and homemade yogurt every day. (So to my
brother-in-law), I was like, "Why did you buy that?"

We're introducing to Cuba the concept that what they have is really great.

California Cafe: Calle 19 (between N and O, near the Hotel Nacional),

Jonathan Kauffman is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jonkauffman

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