A Re­turn to Tra­di­tion

With fast-food cul­ture loom­ing, one Puerto Ri­can chef is re­claim­ing his coun­try’s proud culi­nary roots

Coastal Living - - BOUNTY - BY CHRIS HUGHES

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.

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