Chef Gilberto Smith Alvarez, newly arrived from Havana on his first visit to the United States, is standing in the maw of American capitalism at its most voracious.
Next door, Brickell City Centre, a $1-billion, nine-acre development, is consuming the heart of the Brickell financial district, a hustle of hard hats and dust swirling in the street as three teal-glass towers sharpen toward the sky.
"It's good," Alvarez says, nonchalantly, of Miami. He is not here to sightsee.
The 36-year-old chef has come to South Florida as part of an entrepreneurial exchange program created by the not-for-profit Cuba Study Group, with support from the Knight Foundation. Alvarez is one of four chefs, from some of Havana's most successful privately owned restaurants, who spent a week working shifts with their peers in nine popular Miami kitchens to develop solutions to challenges they face in Cuba's evolving dining scene.
"We are pioneers," Alvarez says, in Spanish. "The private sector in Cuba is recent, only 2 years old. Sometimes you think you're doing it right, but …"
This is the third exchange to take place since the Cuba Study Group began the program in 2014 with a visit themed to female entrepreneurs. The response to this week's chef series "has exceeded all expectations," prompting talk of another exchange before the end of the year, says Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, based in Alexandria, Va.
The reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana this week has put more attention on cultural interaction with Cuba, Bilbao says. Alvarez's day included 10 media interviews.
"It's hard to tell whether the incredible interest in this third exchange is due to the diplomatic news this week or a new interest in Cuban food. It's probably a little bit of both," he says.
Alvarez was introduced to his trade at the knee of his grandfather, a chef well-known in Cuba. He cooked in the military before culinary training and a job with the Spanish hotel chain Sol Meliá, which led to a position as a private chef for the Japanese ambassador to Cuba. He then spent eight years as head chef at the Complejo Gastronómico Cultural Karl Marx.
In 2013, with the opening of the private sector on the island, Alvarez and his wife opened a 12-seat pizzeria under the name Pizzanella. Last year they expanded the menu and the business to 42 seats, and in December they opened a second location in the Miramar area of Havana.
Order and chaos
Alvarez's first shift in the exchange program on Monday put him at Stanzione 87, a warm, minimalist bistro on Brickell's bustling Southwest Eighth Street. Like Pizzanella, it's 2 years old, seats about 40 people, with pizza a specialty. Perhaps also familiar to Alvarez, Stanzione 87 is not a democracy.
The pizzas come in one size, Neapolitan style — prepared to exacting specifications with special flour, an imported 900-degree oven, imported tomatoes, house-made mozzarella and a chef direct from Naples — and are limited to what's on the menu. No substitutions. The results found on, say, the pancetta and Brussels sprouts pie or the speck and figs version, are extraordinary.
Stanzione 87's charismatic young owner, Franco Stanzione, 26, admits to being fanatical about the traditions of Neapolitan pizza, its bulbous crust belying its light touch, but says there is joy in such discipline: "I think there's more beauty in the process than in the end."
But there are practical concerns, too. With such a small staff — one guy in the kitchen, one working the tables — Stanzione says an efficient menu has been critical to success.
"We don't cater to everybody. Some people have a problem with it, but it's the only way," says Stanzione, born in Venezuela, raised in Miami and schooled in New York (finance degree from Pace University; pizza training from Giulio Adriani at Forcella).
Limiting your options is a lesson Alvarez has learned by necessity. When he first opened there was no store in Havana selling kitchen equipment, so he prepared dishes by hand. Sometimes the ingredients he needs aren't available.
"The tomatoes at this time of the year are bad quality. The farmers are still growing them, but there's no quality," Alvarez says. "As chefs, we are forced to create new dishes and adapt."
And sometimes you get lucky. Alvarez makes pizza of his own design covered in ropa vieja or lamb and curry, but one of the most popular menu items at Pizzanella translates as Coffee Lobster, a dish his grandfather came up with during a moment of chaos.
"A cup of coffee fell on top of a lobster," Alvarez says. In the Pizzanella version, "You sauté the lobster with onions and mushrooms, add white wine, cognac, coffee extract and cream. Usually in the kitchen, the best creations happen by chance or necessity."
Along with Stanzione 87, Alvarez was scheduled to visit Bodega, Golden Fig and Little Bread Cuban Sandwich Co. He's been impressed with the food in Miami, even if it tastes different from what he gets at home.
"Miami is a city that is full of immigrants, and the cuisine … it's good that it has this fusion of ingredients," he says. "You're never angry if you see a traditional dish that is not made in the exact same way. On the contrary, you're happy to see it … because that's what cuisine fusion is all about."
Other chefs taking part in the exchange program include Luis Alberto Alfonso Perez (whose restaurant is called El Gringo Viejo), pastry chef Yamilet Magariño Andux (who appears on a television program, "El Arte del Chef") and Michael Alejandro Calvo Oviedo (Atelier). They visited a list of restaurants that included Michelle Bernstein's Crumb on Parchment and Seagrape, as well as Sushi Maki, Cantina 20 and Area 31 in the Epic Hotel.
The visiting chefs and their Miami hosts were scheduled to gather on Friday at Tuyo restaurant for a dinner co-sponsored by the Miami Dade College Culinary Institute. The dinner was a quick sell-out, Bilbao says.
"Success is based on feedback from the participants. We go through months of preparation to make sure the program is helpful for them," Bilbao says. "Much of that is determined by the quality of the hosts, which continues to be excellent. The hosts in this case, much to my surprise, turned their kitchens over to our chefs and let them do whatever they wanted."
Stanzione says that when Bilbao first approached him about allowing a chef into his kitchen, he refused. Too much hassle. But he warmed up to the idea of "giving back" in the way that chefs in the industry helped him.
Cloaked in an apron emblazoned with the insignia of prestigious Caputo 00 flour, Alvarez would spend his evening prepping ingredients, cutting vegetables, sticking his hands in the 900-degree oven, cleaning up, anything that needed to get done.
"The biggest lesson my grandfather taught me is that inside the kitchen you have to be humble," he says. "Learn everything they teach you, never believe you know it all, there's always something to learn from somebody else."
It goes both ways, says Stanzione: "He should teach me. I only have one restaurant."