Juan José Cuevas lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he’s the executive chef at 1919, the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel’s fine-dining destination with beautiful beachfront views.
Chef Cuevas, who was born in San Juan, cites his love of food writing for sparking his interest in cooking professionally. “When I was younger, there was a newspaper that had a section on Sundays and Wednesdays, which wrote about restaurants, food, and wine,” he says. “As a kid I loved the section. It was a way of transporting myself to that subject place.” In high school and college he began working in restaurants, first as a dishwasher before working up to a waiter, cook, and bartender.
As a project for a college marketing class, he was tasked with creating a business plan. “Most people were doing standard jobs,” chef Cuevas says. “I said, ‘Let’s do a restaurant.’ So I picked up the telephone, called a few restaurants, and asked to interview a chef.” One of those chefs asked him to work a few days. “I did and I never looked back,” he says. “I fell in love with the energy.”
He finished his degree before going on to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he lived for 12 years. A quick four-hour flight from the island, these days he likes to visit the city for just a few days at a time. For longer trips, chef Cuevas heads to Spain and southern France.
“I worked in New York, San Francisco, Spain twice, Monaco, Copenhagen,” says the chef. Living abroad helped him learn about different ways of eating and enjoying life. “I grew up eating rice, beans, root vegetables, and tropical fruit like bananas, pineapple, mango,” he says. “But I had to learn so many things every time I moved, so every year I continue to expand my knowledge.” He’s always learning and likes to visit farmers markets whenever he travels, to learn about food local to that area.
Puerto Rico has changed a lot since chef Cuevas first left nearly 30 years ago. “Beside our regular foods — rice, beans, root vegetables — there wasn’t anything else,” he says. Policies enacted on the island by the U.S., such as the 1920 Jones Act and Operation Bootstrap (which began in 1947), severely limited local agriculture. Even high-end restaurants used canned and frozen produce.
“After going to school in New York, seeing what was happening there, I wasn’t ready for that,” the chef says. “When I came back in 2012, it had changed a little bit.” And from 2012 un
til now, it’s changed a lot. “There’s more connection between farmers and chefs.” Farmers continue to grow culturally important vegetables, but they’ve expanded their variety, too. And more chefs are working with them and sourcing local. But what’s missing, says chef Cuevas, are people and a system to support them. “The government has to support more and push supermarkets or chains to source from local farmers, not from outside the island,” he says.
When visiting Puerto Rico, be sure to seek out the chef’s favorite local food, alcapurria. “It’s a mix of different root vegetables,” he explains. “Make a filling of beef, or seafood stew, put it inside, fold it — it looks sort of like a tamal — fry it. You eat it on the street, or if you’re at the beach, stop at a kiosko for one, and get a beer.”
Speaking of beaches, that’s his favorite way to spend time. Besides studying food and wine, of course. “Old San Juan is amazing,” chef Cuevas adds. “Stay in San Juan, don’t drive.” If you stay longer, go to Aguadilla on the west side, or visit Culebra, a small island off the east side of Puerto Rico. “It’s laid back, you wear swimsuits and flip flops,” he says. “Take a book, get a beer or wine, spend a few days reading.”
Puerto Rico offers plenty of food options, but something that may surprise people, says the chef, are restaurants like his. “I love my island, I love the food shacks by the beach, going to the mountains for their different styles of food,” he explains. “But we can provide a fine-dining experience too. Not everything has to be flip flops — and I love my flip flops. When it comes to dinner time, then I like to dress up a little bit and have a nice dinner.”
Be on the lookout for Dreams Abroad’s ongoing Meet the Locals series. Get to know the work and lives of more global professionals who turned a passion for travel into their livelihood.
by Kara Elder