How Do You Cook Fancy Local Food When There's Nothing to Cook?

by Alicia Kennedy

Romesco Chicken with creamy Risotto, almonds, rosemary and garlic. #PuertoRico #CLMDOmenu #CLMDO

A photo posted by CLMDO (@clmdo) on Oct 7, 2015 at 11:11am PDT

The Puerto Rican food supply is fragile: Eighty percent of it is imported, and pricing regulations generally favor imports over local goods. This is often lost in the discussion of its ongoing $72 billion debt crisis, rampant unemployment, and people leaving the island in droves for Florida or New York. Its native agriculture is being restored, but the pace is too slow to supply the island’s restaurants, while the Jones Act, enacted in 1917, still requires the U.S. territory to buy all imported goods from American-made ships staffed with American crews, severely limiting options and increasing costs.

Chef Wilson Davalos owns and operates the twenty-seat small-plate restaurant CLMDO in the west coast city of Isabela. He went from working in tech, to being a photographer, to moving back to Puerto Rico and teaching himself how to cook and opening the restaurant in 2014. CLMDO comes from the word “colmado,” which is what they call bodegas on the island. “My menu was changing weekly. One week a tagine, the next Portuguese codfish and potatoes,” he told me. He makes homey, refined food, like lemon chicken with red quinoa, chili eggplant with almonds, and creamy egg with butter-poached beets and feta. But right now, he’s still suffering the effects of food lost because of a cargo ship’s early October sinking in Hurricane Joaquin.

How do you usually stock the kitchen at CLMDO?

Shopping in Puerto Rico is difficult. From what I understand, only two percent of farmland in Puerto Rico is actually farmed. Tourists always ask me if the soil is bad; I say that it’s not. Monsanto has an R&D lab in Isabela.

Puerto Rico does not have many wholesale suppliers. And CLMDO, being such a small restaurant, I can’t buy in massive bulk from the ones that do exist. I use weekend markets, road-side sellers, small independent farms. I also have to use warehouse club stores like Costco and Sam’s Club.

Since my menu changes often, I’m able to adapt. Until last week, our entire menu was handwritten on butchers’ paper and hung on the wall. Fillet steak and spinach have been my biggest problems. My salads are spinach based; I’ve considered using Iceberg or Romaine lettuce, but even those were gone. I was able to find fresh spinach in small, less popular supermarkets, buying up every bag of spinach that I found.

What is the food availability like in Isabela? Is it worse than in San Juan, and how does it compare to the rest of the island?

Food diversity in the majority of the island, including Isabela, is not too dissimilar. You’ll see large stocks of soda crackers, rice, beans, plantains, and soft drinks in supermarkets. San Juan has much more food diversity. I remember once freaking out because I found fresh rosemary at a market in San Juan.

How long after this ship’s sinking did you begin to see and feel the effects?

Immediately. By the next week, greens started to disappear. Sam’s Club still has a sign posted saying that fruit, vegetables, meats, and baked goods are in low supply or not available because of the ship that sank. It’s shocking how fragile the food supply is in Puerto Rico. About six weeks have passed and I still find it hard to find something as simple as spinach.

How is the economic situation on the island affecting business outside of San Juan?

In my case, most of my customers are not locals. The majority of my clients are Puerto Ricans driving in from San Juan just to eat at CLMDO, then heading back to San Juan. The rest are tourists who have read about CLMDO while researching their trip. During the week, it can get pretty slow at CLMDO, then the weekend comes around and I have customers waiting out the door.

I see small local businesses struggling, especially mom-and-pop shops. Walmart is king in Puerto Rico. Walmart in Puerto Rico isn’t like it is in the States, where it’s your most affordable option. Outside of San Juan, it’s often your only option.

This past weekend, José Andrés hosted a culinary event with Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, and Jose Enrique at a resort that cost $1,712 to attend. Does this kind of event have any real impact on day-to-day life?

Resorts in Puerto Rico are not like resorts in most of the world. They are not closed off. People who attended that event ended up in Isabela this past week. As for the culinary perception, rice, beans and mofongo are staples on most menus. Tourists might come to Puerto Rico expecting this, and quickly they’ll realize that the resort has a fancy version of rice and beans that the mostly locals restaurant down the street had too. By the time tourists hit my side of the island, they are surprised to not see mofongo or rice and beans on the menu.

The image of Puerto Rico in the U.S. is generally tourism and a crisis, with no in between. What would a more accurate picture look like?

We can’t hide from the crisis in Puerto Rico; it’s a reality. But commercial farming is starting to grow thanks to nonprofits like Hacienda la Esperanza in Manati, a former sugarcane plantation with some two thousand acres of land. They hold workshops on conservation, agriculture, urban farming and even lease farmland.

Farming in Puerto Rico is heavily taxed. Until last year, it was hard finding chickens raised in Puerto Rico in a supermarket. If you did, it would cost more than a chicken processed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and sent to Puerto Rico by cargoship. The current government changed some tax laws on chicken and egg production, and thanks to this change, we see more local chickens sold at markets. That is the change we need.