There are so many rich experiences in Cuba indicative of its dynamic culture. One of the best ways to get in touch with Cuba’s liveliness and hospitality is to share an authentic meal with the locals. Cuban natives have a longstanding history of opening up their homes to visitors by way of paladares — private, in-home restaurants. While most paladares are no longer underground or illegal as they were when they first emerged in the early ’90s, the majority are still operating out of owner’s homes. Hubert and Manolo, the host and chef, respectively, of La Esperanza, have been running their paladar since 1995. Here, the duo describes why they love the tradition of the paladar, and share what makes Havana so special:
A cruise to Cuba is sure to offer a host of unforgettable adventures, like a stroll through the house where Ernest Hemingway wrote many of his great novels or a tour of a cigar factory. With Royal Caribbean’s sailings to Cuba aboard Empress of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas (itineraries include a three-night getaway and a eight-night immersive experience with overnight stays) traveling there is easier than you think.
We sat down with Hubert and Manolo to gain some insight into the Cuban paladar. Read on to learn more:
When did you first come to Havana?
Hubert: I came to Havana when I was 22 years old. When I arrived here, the first thing that impressed me was the scent. For me, it was the scent of the unknown. I was born in the countryside, but I have always felt metropolitan, and I was restless for the opportunities and cultural life of Havana.
Back then, the places maintained a wonderful spirit. For example in Vedado, that whole area of La Rampa – starting at the seawall – has an infinite number of wonderful places to “lose yourself.” You could turn left or right and always be met with “enchantment” — movement, charm and the mixture of people. Even today, I say Havana is my country, period.
What makes Havana so special?
Manolo: Havana has a lot of things other places don’t: The theater, a good concert or an inexpensive jazz festival — you can find those in Havana every day if you tried.
Tell us about paladares.
Hubert: The paladares get their name from a Brazilian soap opera. Basically, it’s a way to differentiate the government-sponsored restaurants from the private ones. Adopting this name gives the place a personality. The essence of the paladar is that it is in your house, people come in and have a meal in your living room as if they were part of your family. It’s unique in Cuba because there were state restrictions, and working around them became a way of life.
We opened La Esperanza on July 22, 1995. I remember that day; we began in a very precarious way. I had invested all my capital in the restaurant, but knew I had the space, the place and the knowledge to make it a success.
What has it been like to run a paladar for over 20 years?
Hubert: I love La Esperanza. La Esperanza is my life, and it has so many meanings to me that it would be impossible to describe them all. It can sound immodest, but I am proud that we continue to be genuine. We’re the same as we were in the beginning. We may have improved certain things, but the whole experience is the same.
Manolo: I think we have accomplished a beautiful thing, and to keep it that way is the hardest part.
What are your responsibilities?
Manolo: My responsibility in the kitchen—when I am not cooking—is to do whatever is needed. If I have to make a daiquiri, I do it; if it’s necessary to prepare some coffee, I do it; should someone want some tea, I make the tea. Whatever is needed, I am always on top of it.
Hubert: My relationship with Manolo regarding work is very clear and established. Manolo has total authority and control of all that happens in the kitchen. I have absolute trust in what he makes.
My job is to welcome our patrons, be nice and appreciate them sincerely. I have repeat clients who have been coming for as long as 10 years, 15 years and even 19 years—people tell me when they come here, they feel special. That makes me feel good. Every night is different.
If you were to invite someone over for the quintessential Cuban meal, what would you serve them?
Hubert: I imagine pork, arroz congrí [Cuban rice and beans] and beer; or maybe “ropa vieja” [Cuba’s national dish, consisting of stewed beef and vegetables] — everybody loves it.
What do you think food means to Cubans?
Hubert: Food can be a headache to some because our country has many limitations. But we are also a country of tremendous mixture, a mosaic of races, with foods we inherited from Spain to Africa. To be a chef in Cuba, you always have to be creative – scarcity forces you to invent, if you want to make something different.
Ready to discover the liveliness of Cuba and taste the nation’s authentic cuisine? Book your adventure to Cuba here.