When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, I knew it was going to be serious—and I knew I had to do something. I had already seen what Hurricane Harvey did in Houston a month earlier, and I knew of the damage that Hurricane Irma had left in her wake. After a disaster, the urgency is all about now. It’s when people need to be fed, and cooks have a special skill when it comes to this kind of situation. We are used to acting quickly, and our job is to feed the many. So I called a few of my chef friends.
But this is not about me. This is the story of the people of Puerto Rico feeding the people of Puerto Rico—the #ChefsForPuertoRico team that came together to feed the island; the volunteers who supported the movement; the many, many people who did everything they could to help their neighbors and their communities. There were so many amazing people.
There were the two little girls in the town of Loíza, Rosela Angela and Yolaida, who helped us out by serving meals, and they insisted that they would not eat until every single person in the community had a plate of food. There was the pastor, Eliomar Santana, who drove across the island from Naguabo to offer his church as a kitchen to feed his community and those around him. We went and visited Eliomar’s church, and the congregation stood in a circle and prayed. These are just some of the moments I will never forget.
Now, nearly a year later, Puerto Rico can be a perfect travel destination. To support the island and its recovery process is as easy as showing up! There are so many small businesses, delicious restaurants and food trucks, and local shops that will be so happy to have visitors as they are continuing to get back to work.
As an island in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico has cuisine that benefits from its geography. This is American soil and American waters, but there is also the influence from my home country of Spain. The base of many recipes is a version of the tomato-onion sofrito that I grew up with, but made with local ingredients like culantro and ají dulce. There is a huge influence from the native Taíno population and the African slaves who were brought to work in the sugar industry and mines. This difficult and sad colonial history led to a rich cultural blend, an island of diverse cuisine. And you cannot forget rum! Rum has been made in Puerto Rico for centuries, and today 70 percent of the rum we drink in the United States comes from the island.
I ate some of the most amazing chicken in my life at a little spot called Maelo’s Chicken Fever in Morovis, about 30 miles from San Juan. It’s worth the drive to get there. Maybe it even deserves a Michelin star for its chicken. If you’ve never had land crabs, or jueyes, you need to get them in Piñones outside of San Juan—that’s where you can taste the very best arroz con jueyes. And there is this dish called asopao de langosta—a soupy lobster stew—that is just incredible. There are excellent oysters in Boquerón that grow on mangroves in the bay. Then, of course, there are the famous pork dishes of the island. One of my favorites is lechón, roast suckling pig, which they have in Guavate. I would travel halfway around the world for these pigs.
La Placita, the historic market plaza in Santurce (a popular district, or barrio, in San Juan), is packed every weekend with dancers. I love the distinctive pink restaurant run by Jose Enrique, a friend and a driving force behind the #ChefsForPuertoRico team. His kitchen creates some of the best food in America and was the beating heart of our relief-effort cooking operations. While you’re in San Juan, you must get a rum sour at José Santaella’s place and make a reservation at Mario Pagán’s restaurant. And don’t miss the food trucks. Look for Peko Peko, Yummy Dumplings, and The Meatball Company around the city and at the Miramar Food Truck Park.
Puerto Rico has always been a beautiful halfway point between my Spanish heritage and my American identity. It is a place where I feel happy, a place where community is so deep and people are so welcoming. After I spent time there over the last year, my love for the island became even stronger—I have seen some of the most selfless, generous people of my life. Puerto Rico is America at its best, humanity at its best.
José Andrés, a Washington, D.C.-based chef and humanitarian, has written a new book, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, which comes out on September 11. You can follow him on Instagram @chefjoseandres.