A Return to Tradition
With fast-food culture looming, one Puerto Rican chef is reclaiming his country’s proud culinary roots
JOSÉ SANTAELLA was raised in the kitchen. Whether at home, in his grandmother’s house, or in one of his father’s many casual restaurants in San Juan, he was drawn to the aromas, the clash of culinary perspectives, and the sense of community. But as he got older, he watched those traditions fade.
“With the introduction of McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants, it seemed to me like so many of the early recipes, and that time spent around family, were just being forgotten,” Santaella says. “I wanted to change that.”
At his eponymous restaurant in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, the chef is reintroducing Puerto Rico to comida Criolla (“Creole food”), the island’s principal culinary style that combines European (mostly Spanish), African, and Caribbean influences. Having trained under mentors including chefs Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin
in New York) and Ferran Adrià (elBulli in Spain), Santaella brings a sophisticated approach to national dishes like mofongo, a fried plantain preparation, and sofrito, the aromatic tomato-garlic paste that serves as the foundation for many of Puerto Rico’s soups and sauces.
“My menu falls somewhere between modern and classic,” says Santaella. “You’ll find something like fricasé de pollo [chicken fricassee] alongside foie gras and tonnato.”
After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the chef says his goal was to immediately reopen in order to provide both financial and familial support for his 40-plus employees. That nurturing impulse is at the forefront of the restaurant’s mission, from the food to the convivial atmosphere so typical of Puerto Rican home kitchens—the same ones that triggered Santaella’s love of cooking in the first place.