He spoke of Cuba with the kind of passion, excitement, and love you expect from a child on the brink of what they perceive as the most fun they will ever have.
Cuba is not only a country filled with beautiful people that come in every shade our melanin has to offer. It’s a country where they love the skin they’re in and they love the land they walk on. What you see in books and pictures doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the land offers. You can visit beaches with sand so fine and white you can naturally exfoliate every inch of your body. You can get lost in the streets of Old Havana stumble upon a bakery and eat freshly baked bread. You can sit in a quaint café with local artisan works while drinking tea or espresso and let the rising sun kiss your skin while planning the rest of your day. I walked down dimly lit streets without any trepidation. I felt safe, loved, and the air I breathed was crisp and clean. I also now knew that Cuba offers more than you can fathom, and only a visit or two or eight could allow you to fully experience every nuance at one’s disposal.
Cuba is also a country in love with its food. I am a foodie. So of course, had to find a culinary experience that would immerse me in Cuban cuisine. I linked up with Ariel Causa of AlaMesa, an app he designed with partners to help people find great culinary experiences. Ariel calls himself a “word bender, spoon bearer, reckless mixer, chameleon, and a permanent explorer that connects the mind with your mouth.”
To find Ariel, I journeyed to La Catedral, a beautiful restaurant located in Paladar, roughly twenty-five minutes outside of Havana in a neighborhood that resembled historic Savannah, Ga. The neighborhood was quiet and as I walked down the street, I had the feeling of home. Had I not heard thick Spanish accents coming from the porches as I walked by, it would have been hard to discern that I was anywhere else except someplace familiar.
It was early, just before lunch, and Ariel sat at a table with my friend, shades on and barely a smile on his face. My friend waved and motioned me to the table. I casually walked over, taking a seat on what would have been a grand porch to a palatial home. Ariel told me that he was no good before coffee, and barely even a gentleman! He did, however, ask if I wanted anything to drink as he called over a lovely waitress to take my order. It was a beautiful sunny morning with just a slight breeze, so I ordered mint tea.
As Ariel began to revive himself, we spoke of past loves, his dreams, visions, aspirations, and loyalty to the country of his birth. He spoke of Cuba with the kind of passion, excitement, and love you expect from a child on the brink of what they perceive as the most fun they will ever have. There was a light in his eyes as he spoke of the expansion that is possible in Cuba and the resilience of his people. Ariel is a person who you never expect to meet and hope to never lose touch with. He embodies what you look for when you travel abroad and want to be shown what life is like rather than what tourists see. It’s the stuff memories are built on. (By the way, this was only the first 15 minutes!) It felt like I have known him all my life, he was family and we were just reminiscing and kicking it over morning coffee.
After the pleasantries were over, Ariel took us inside and instructed us to duck under the counter and stand behind the bar. We did as we were told and the bartender greeted us with silver cups, mint leaves, and a pestle. Ariel said, “you’re going to make Cuba’s most famous drink, the mojito.” We muddled mint until we got oil from the leaves which is the foundation of the drink. With mojitos in hand, we moved to the next phase of our culinary experience. We not only toured the kitchen, but we learned how the restaurant was managed on a daily basis. From the person who goes out and negotiates with vendors for the freshest ingredients to the sous chef whose job it is to ensure the kitchen has the necessary fruits and vegetables at their disposal ready to be incorporated into the entrees. We stood in the kitchen and made oxtails in a red sauce with onions and peppers. The oxtails were tender, as the restaurant only keeps enough meat for three days to ensure what they serve is always fresh.
To completely convey to someone how the staff of this establishment functions requires that you understand that every member of the team is trained no matter where they have previously been employed. They’re very secure and knowledgeable in what they’re doing and their expertise is an asset to the owner. I walked every inch of the restaurant and it was not only immaculate, but it was inviting and the food was amazing.
Ariel offers more than just a tour, he offers an experience tailored to your expectations. He is engaging, witty, brilliant, and a supporter of Cuban culture. He wants you to see Cuba as inviting, mesmerizing, and a place to call home. This experience was the definitive moment that made me say, “I’ll be back.”