Combine food, travels and passion, and you get creations by Guillermo Pernot, a self-taught chef and winner of two prestigious James Beard awards.
The Argentina native's Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar has branches in Philadelphia; Atlantic City; Orlando, Fla.; and Washington, D.C.
As a child, Pernot spent lots of time cooking with his family, and after he moved to the United States, he took a job at a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania, where his work first attracted the attention of food writers.
"So I said, 'Whoa, I can make money with this. I can do this for a living,' " he tells Michel Martin, the host of Tell Me More. He later headed the kitchen of Gloria Estefan's Latin restaurant Allioli, in South Beach, Fla.
Pernot has become a master of Nuevo Latino cuisine, which he describes as food from Latino communities everywhere — Miami to Argentina, and anything and everything in between. There are wide-ranging ingredients and flavors, as a result of influences from the Spanish, Africans, Chinese, French and Americans. Dishes feature seafood, pork, chicken and basic Latin vegetables such as malanga, yucca and coconut. Cooking techniques are clean and precise, Pernot says.
He specializes in Cuban cuisine, but some Cubans have criticized his food. "They say, 'But that's not ... what my grandmother used to do!' Well, your grandmother is not here. And the food that you're eating right now, that you know as Cuban cuisine, is 60 years old. So there is new food coming out. And I proved that through my trips through Havana," Pernot says.
His most recent trip to Havana was in late April. He and his wife, Lucia — the great-great-granddaughter of Cuba's third president — led more than a dozen Americans, whom they met in their travels, to historic landmarks and to taste the new flavors of the island country.
"They were very, very skeptical about what they were going to find, and then they find that Cuban food has an array of flavors and colors and presentations that they never expected. They love it. We ate. We definitely went into a coma – food coma. Absolutely. For four days, we ate and ate and ate and drank, and had a great time," he says.
Pernot adds that traveling for his work has gotten easier since Cuba began opening up.
When asked what he most wants people to know about the cuisine he's spent so much time developing, he says that it's "honest," with natural and traditional ingredients from Cuba and sometimes the rest of the Caribbean. There is a huge array of flavors and the possibility of new, undiscovered ingredients, he says.
"Our food is what would have been if Fidel [Castro] wasn't in power right now. Actually, Cuba would have been culinarily liberated," he says.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we turn to the world of Cuban cuisine with the award-winning chef, Guillermo Pernot. His Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar launched in Philadelphia in 2001. Since then, it has expanded to Atlantic City, Orlando and Washington, D.C. and Chef Pernot is a native of Argentina, but his travels throughout Latin America have greatly informed his recipes and menus. He recently came back from Havana, Cuba, where he took more than a dozen Americans to see historic landmarks and taste the new flavors of Cuba.
And Chef Guillermo Pernot joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Chef, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
GUILLERMO PERNOT: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So you're from Argentina, but you identify with Cuban cooking. How did that happen?
PERNOT: Well, I think the whole reason is because I marry a Cuban and we've been married for over 20 years, so (unintelligible) I probably assume the cuisine.
MARTIN: Wives can be very influential that way, can't they?
PERNOT: They can.
MARTIN: Yeah. Well, how did the cooking bug bite you? Do I have it right that you're actually self-taught?
PERNOT: Yes, I am. When I was a child, I always loved cooking and I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and my parents and the family cooking. But, when I moved to the United States, I didn't know what I wanted to do, so I enrolled in university and I didn't - that wasn't my call. And then I moved to Philadelphia from New York City and I got involved in the restaurant business, but it was so much work and I wasn't really happy with it.
So I said, why don't I start cooking? So I took a job at a bed and breakfast in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania and, all of a sudden, cookbooks, get-aways for (unintelligible) the mid-Atlantic. I start writing about my food. So I said, whoa, I can make money with this. I can do this for a living.
So I got involved in other restaurants after the bed and breakfast and then I moved to Miami, South Beach. I worked for Gloria Estefan, then I was...
MARTIN: That's a destination. It's still a destination.
PERNOT: Yeah. And then I moved back to Philadelphia and I worked for the (unintelligible) House Hotel, which is a five star property, and I was the chef of cuisine for three restaurants.
MARTIN: Well, how did your folks feel about that? You know, because you started cooking at a time when - just to be honest - it wasn't as glamorous as it has now...
PERNOT: That's correct.
MARTIN: ...become. You know, there are television shows. I mean, there was one famous television chef. That was Julia Childs.
PERNOT: That's correct.
MARTIN: But, you know, did your parents think, what is he doing?
PERNOT: I migrated from Argentina, so my parents were still in Buenos Aires. They weren't quite sure what I was doing, but they knew I wasn't complaining. I wasn't asking for money, so I was doing OK.
MARTIN: So it's all good. You know, you are known for something called Nuevo Latino cuisine.
PERNOT: That's right.
MARTIN: How would you describe it?
PERNOT: Well, Nuevo Latino food is the food that ranges from Miami to Argentina and anything and everything in between, so there are ingredients from different countries, different flavors, different techniques. This type of cuisine is very clean, very clear, precise. There are a few people that do it in this country and they do it well.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you. Do some of the purists - how do they feel about the cuisine? Because, you know, a lot of people in this country think the whole Latino thing is just a made up American story and some people are - I'm just saying they're not feeling that. And I'm just wondering - do you get some of that push-back around?
PERNOT: I do, especially now that I'm cooking Cuban cuisine. The Cubans definitely - they're up in arms about it and they say, well, that's not what my grandmother used to do. Well, your grandmother is not here and the food that you're eating right now that you know as Cuban cuisine is 60 years old. So there is new food coming out and I prove that through my trips to Havana.
But, again, everybody has an opinion and everybody has a grandmother and a mother and I respect their cuisine and...
MARTIN: And that's what Thanksgiving is for. Right?
PERNOT: And I adore them, but my food is different than what your mother did or your grandmother did.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're visiting with the award-winning chef Guillermo Pernot. He's considered a specialist in Nuevo Latino cuisine and he's the founder of his Cuba Libre Restaurants and Rum Bars, which launched in Philadelphia in 2001 and, since then, can be found in a number of cities around the country.
You were mentioning that you've taken a number of trips to Cuba. You wrapped up your most recent trip - I think it was in late April. Do I have that right?
MARTIN: And you went with your wife and then you took more than a dozen Americans along, letting them sort of taste the food. And I'm just wondering - what was that experience like? I don't know if the people you took were people who'd previously been to Cuba or who had any relationship with it.
PERNOT: Well, I met everybody at the airport at three o'clock in the morning in Miami Airport and didn't know anybody from this group and I was pleasantly surprised that - what a wonderful group of people they were. These are people that are professionals. They never been to Cuba and they adore food. So they were very, very skeptical of what they were going to find and then they find out that Cuban food has an array of flavors and colors and presentations that they never expected. They love it. We ate. We definitely went into a coma - food coma. Absolutely, for four days, we ate and ate and ate and drank and had a great time.
MARTIN: That's not very nice. You're making me jealous right here. I'm just sitting here. I'm getting hungry. I'm getting thirsty. I'm feeling very alone here.
PERNOT: Well, it's another trip in November, so you're welcome to come.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I was going to ask, though. The travel - is it getting easier to take these excursions to Cuba over the time that you've been doing this work?
PERNOT: Yes. First of all, all these times that I've been traveling to Cuba, I've been traveling with a family visa because my wife is Cuban, but I used to bring all these people. We use a people-to-people license and we have to also visit some specific places and have - the government of Cuba want us to do and we really enjoy it. It was a really pleasurable experience.
But it's getting easier. Absolutely. Cuba is opening up slowly, but we'll see what happens after next election.
MARTIN: And I know you don't speak for your wife, but I am curious. What are her impressions going back and forth?
PERNOT: She was very - oh, my God, it's so emotional because we actually touched Cuban ground at the same time after almost 40 years and we had a great time together.
MARTIN: You're still very emotional.
MARTIN: Still very emotional.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming and talking to us. What would you most want people to know about the cuisine that you have spent so much time developing? I mean, there are people - in some parts of the country, you know - food choices all over the country have greatly expanded, but in some parts of the country, not as accessible as others. I mean, we're in a major metropolitan area where - I mean, even Washington, D.C. used to not be known for a great diversity of food, but now has become much more international.
What would you like most people to know?
PERNOT: The type of cuisine that I'm doing is honest. I use ingredients that are natural and traditional from Cuba and, sometimes, I use a little of the rest of the Caribbean. Cuban cuisine has such a huge array of flavors because of the influence of the Spanish, the Africans, the Chinese, the French, the Americans, the English.
The basic vegetables - they are the Latin vegetables. Malanga, yucca, coconut, all the seafood, pork, chicken. But it's so much more. There are so many foods that we don't even know about. Our food is what would have been if Fidel wasn't in power right now. Actually, Cuba would have been culinarily liberated.
MARTIN: Culinarily liberated. OK.
PERNOT: So that's basically what our food is.
MARTIN: Guillermo Pernot is an award-winning chef. He's the owner of Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio.
Chef, thank you so much for speaking with us.
PERNOT: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.