The taste of the town

World-renowned culinary stars take shine to Saborea Puerto Rico festival

By Darian Rivers
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There’s nothing else like it.

That was the consensus about Saborea Puerto Rico: A Culinary Extravaganza among the celebrity chefs and other culinary luminaries that played starring roles in the most recent edition of the annual food and wine festival that has helped put Puerto Rico on the gastronomic map.

Simon Majumdar, a world-renowned food critic, TV personality, and author who has earned a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense judge on chef competitions including Bravo’s “Top Chef” and the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” was all smiles at Saborea.

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“This is incredible. The setting, the food, the people – everything,” Majumdar told BIENVENDIOS in a seaside interview during the festival last April.

Majumdar, who has embarked on a quest to “go everywhere and eat everything,” was making his first trip to the island and already planning his return.

“My wife and I have traveled all over the world for all kinds of events. This is the one where we immediately agreed we can’t wait to come back,” he said.

And that’s no surprise. Every spring, a grassy bluff along the azure Atlantic Ocean serves as the stage for a flavor-packed weekend of food, drink and fun. Trade winds and tastings are the order of the day as nearly three dozen of Puerto Rico’s best restaurants set up shop under the big-top, dishing up their delicious delights. A wide-array of beer, wine, and spirits purveyors are on hand to help wash it all down. Sit and soak up the sunshine and meander through the cavernous main pavilion that covers much of the action. Don’t miss the Puerto Rican rum bar, where the island’s world-famous grog flows freely atop a Spanish-colonial embattlement that rises above the festival grounds at San Juan’s Escambron Beach. Dozens of international and local culinary personalities take part in cooking exhibitions in the state-of-the art open-air kitchen onsite.

The featured guests really sink their teeth into Saborea, making the most of their time to sample as much as they can from the array of eateries. That was clear as Bienvenidos set up camp inside the air-conditioned VIP lounge set up for the luminaries, expecting to find them waiting in the wings for interviews, and their scheduled appearances in the exhibition kitchen. But that was not the case, as they were far more inclined to mix it up with the festival-goers and give their taste buds a whirl.

“I am just struck by the quality of the food being prepared here. It is truly excellent,” said the British-born Majumdar, who also took time to sign copies of his newly released book, “Fed, White and Blue,” which traces his journey to American citizenship. Its publication, and his appearance at Saborea, kicked off a marathon tour that saw him eating, drinking, and sharing with people across the entire United States.

Acknowledging his reputation as a tough but fair judge on popular cooking competition shows, Majumdar said he is more than happy to give credit where credit is due. “And Saborea and the restaurants cooking here today deserve a lot of credit.”

Colorado-based Susie Jimenez is as effervescent as champagne and was bubbling over with praise for Saborea and Puerto Rico. “I am absolutely having a blast here. Saborea is so much fun and San Juan is a revelation. I can see myself spending a lot of time here,” she told BIENVENIDOS.

The daughter of a mother and father who migrated from Mexico to California, Jimenez’s relationship with food began with picking fruit with her parents. She followed her passion for food to the California Culinary Academy and through a series of managerial and chef jobs at various restaurants before landing in the mountain resort town of Aspen, Colorado and launching Susie’s Custom Catering and Farmer’s Daughter. She also takes part in activities where she teaches students how to cook with a variety of techniques and flavors. Her skills in that setting were on full display in Saborea’s exhibition kitchen pavilion, where Jimenez’s big personality was on full display.

“Saborea has been the best experience. The people here are so much fun. I’d come back in a heartbeat,” she said.

Ben Vaughn, an author, award-winning chef, successful restaurateur, and TV personality best known as the host of Food Network’s “Health Inspectors,” has won acclaim for his focus on food found south of the Mason-Dixon line. At Saborea, he discovered a love and appreciation for Puerto Rican-style criollo cuisine rooted more than 1,000 miles still closer to the equator.

“The parallels between southern and criollo cooking are pretty stunning. These are cuisines that came from hardship that came from scarcity. The people took what ingredients that they had access to and turned them into something special, something comforting, something to be proud of,” Vaughn told BIENVENIDOS.

Vaughn had just finished his latest book “Southern Routes,” which explores southern heritage and culture through authentic cuisine and the real stories behind the recipes and the people who created them, when his buddy Roberto Treviño, the Puerto Rico celebrity chef who is the driving force behind Budatai, Casa Lola, Bar Gitano, and other popular eateries in San Juan, reached out with an invitation to take part in Saborea.

“It was a no brainer to come to Saborea,” he said. “And spending four days in Puerto Rico? I have four kids and this has just been incredible.”

While all of the food stars interviewed were thrilled to take part, perhaps none was sweeter on Saborea than Jonathan Grahm, the chocolatier to the stars who fuses art, flavors, design, culture, fashion, and style at the historic Compartés Chocolatier shop in his hometown of Los Angeles.

“I mean look at this. Just look around at the ocean, the palm trees, and all these amazing people. The food being served here is simply sensational,” Grahm said.

Grahm started making chocolate in his teens at Compartés and bought the business within a decade. Despite no formal culinary or business training, he has grown it into an international brand, producing small batches all by hand in his chocolate kitchen, of more than 200 different – and often unexpected – flavors. At just 30 years old, he made it clear that he is just getting started and still finding inspiration in his travels across the globe. That was evident in Puerto Rico.

“Being here has me thinking what I can do with papaya, mango, and some of the other great produce found in Puerto Rico. I’m going to create something out of this visit. And I will be back.”

If interested in attending Saborea Puerto Rico 2016, save the date: April 7-10; for more information visit www.saboreapuertorico.com.






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