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Ten years ago, no one considered San Juan, Puerto Rico a viable destination for culinary tourism.
If the island's food was renowned, it was for astronomical calorie counts, not cutting-edge cuisine.
Travelers to the island complained that the food was bland and heavy, and they wondered about the reasons for the lack of tropical fruit and seafood on restaurant menus.
There was a simple explanation, though it was one that wasn't necessarily obvious to visitors.
The island's agricultural industry—once Puerto Rico's economic engine-- had all but collapsed, so most staples were imported from the U.S. mainland. Even plantains, the island's primary crop, were exported and then re-imported because of complex tariffs that actually made such a shuffle economical.
Fast forward a decade, though, and quite a bit has changed.
Though the global economic crisis has left Puerto Rico reeling, its culinary scene is on fire.
In the capital of San Juan, there are now celebrity chefs, an Iron Chef, and two annual culinary festivals--SOFO and Saborea.
Beyond the spotlight, many chefs are experimenting with permaculture and microfarming in an attempt to decrease dependence on foreign imports of kitchen essentials, especially fruits and vegetables that could grow well in the warm, wet island climate.
Puerto Rico also has such exceptional restaurants that the island is quickly becoming the next "it" destination for food-focused travelers.
“Culinary tourism is growing in importance to us,” says Mario Gonzalez Lafuente, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the island's official tourism board.
It is so important, in fact, that the PRTC is partnering with other trade organizations to expand the reach of the Saborea festival. In 2012, says Gonzalez, the festival will feature “more than 60 of the island's restaurants and 40 culinary personalities,” both locally and internationally renowned.
The impact of the festival for the island's economy is significant -- in 2010, Saborea generated $1.8 million in tourism-related revenue and more than $30 million in unpaid publicity and marketing through blogs, social media, and articles written about the event.
Michelle Schusterman, a musician, writer, and self-professed Food Network addict from Seattle, is a frequent traveler who was impressed by Puerto Rico's food scene.
She attended last year's Saborea festival, which has been held each April since 2008.
The experience was “definitely worth the trip to San Juan,” she said, adding, “Even outside of the festival, I couldn't walk into a restaurant or turn a corner without seeing an Iron Chef or the host of 'Dinner: Impossible.'”
Schusterman was thrilled to talk with famous and local chefs alike, and was amazed they were “more than willing to talk and hang out,” chatting about the many uses of local ingredients, such as coconut.
One of the chefs leading the charge in Puerto Rico's culinary renaissance is Wilo Benet, who is often credited with elevating both Puerto Rican food and the fine dining experience on the island.
His upscale restaurant, Pikayo, is frequently celebrated for Benet's unique ability to meld distinctly Puerto Rican ingredients and cooking techniques with flavors and presentation concepts that were considered completely novel when the eatery opened.
Gandules (pigeon peas) and chicharrones (fried pork rinds) are staples in the Puerto Rican diet; as is characteristic of his style, Benet didn't discard them from his haute menu.
Instead, he presented them in a risotto, changing their context completely.
The change may seem simple, but on an island where people tend to cling to traditional flavors and dishes, Benet's experimentation could have been a career-breaker. Luckily, it ushered in a whole new era for food on the island, one where traditional ingredients could be used and presented in novel ways.
Benet's gamble was rewarded -- not only did he go on to establish a small restaurant empire in Puerto Rico (though Varita, a restaurant he opened in 2009, recently folded due to economic woes), he became the de facto spokesman for Puerto Rican cuisine. And he started cementing his status as a celebrity chef through appearances on mainstream cooking shows like “Top Chef” and “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”
Recently, he launched his own show, “Sabores de Ensueño con Wilo Benet,” on FOX Latino's Utilísima channel.
A quieter figure, though no less important, is Peter Schintler, founder and executive chef of Marmalade in Old San Juan, and Jam Bistro, in Condado.
Though his menu isn't rooted in Puerto Rican culinary traditions, Schintler ultimately may be credited with helping to resuscitate Puerto Rico's flagging farming sector.
Schintler, whose career has taken him to kitchens around the world, found a unique challenge in his Puerto Rico kitchens: sourcing quality ingredients in sufficient quantity.
Unhappy with the environmental and financial implications of importing the kind of ingredients he wants, Schintler has begun to work with local farmers to grow specialty items, such as microgreens, guaranteeing them work by promising to purchase specific quantities on a regular basis.
He acknowledges that a single chef may not reverse current trends, but if other chefs commit to the kind of relationships he has established with Puerto Rican farmers, then chefs, foodies, and farmers will all benefit.
Headed to Puerto Rico? In addition to Benet's and Schintler's restaurants, here are some more restaurants and events you can't miss:
Bar Gitano and El Barril:
This tapas spot and casual bar, located in the same complex in San Juan's Condado neighborhood, are both owned by Roberto Treviño, Puerto Rico's only Iron Chef. Treviño is also owner of the nearby Budatai, an Asian-themed restaurant. All three of his restaurants are local favorites.
This restaurant, located inside the El San Juan Hotel in Isla Verde, specializes in modern Caribbean cuisine like tropical BBQ oysters and “lollipops” made out of batata (a local root vegetable) and gingered pork.
This year's Saborea festival is scheduled for April 21-22.
Throughout 2012, the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association is partnering with MasterCard
to offer special prix fixe menus for diners who pay with their MasterCard. A complete list of participating restaurants can be found on the program's website: www.puertoricozest.com.
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a freelance writer based in New York City.