Words by Rishi Bonneville, photos by Kevin Ornelas
Two weeks ago we launched our new food column Ground Provisions with the aim of spotlighting Caribbean food around the world. While the plan was (and still is) to spotlight restaurants and other eateries, sometimes it makes sense to look outside the box as well. Such was the case when we came across Camille Becerra and her series of Nuyorican-flavored pop-up dinners. Read Rishi Bonneville’s Q+A with Camille below, then scroll all the way down for the recipe for Babette’s Hot Pepper Sauce (Babette is Camille’s Caribbean cooking mama alter ego).
On a muggy Monday this past July, on a block a stones throw away from the anxieties of Wall Street, a mellow and eclectic group of people gathered in the lobby of the subdued Thompson Hotel. A bald black man in brown sandals and a white linen outfit with a plunging neckline, a thirty-something Asian female banker, and a group of shabby-chic middle-aged white guys were among the faces in the crowd. The draw for this disparate group was a pop-up dinner—part of a series called The Cookery—by Cubana-Nuyorican chef Camille Becerra, former Top Chef contestant and outspoken proponent of the farm-to-table model of good eating. The four-course meal, punctuated by remarkable items like olive-topped watermelon, gourmet cuchifritos and fresh striped bass–and enjoyed to an audio backdrop provided by Dark Angels –was a memorable excursion into creative eating by a master chef. LargeUp caught up with Camille Becerra shortly thereafter to discuss her roots and her unique food philosophy.
LargeUp: What were your favorite foods growing up?
Camille Becerra: My mother used to send me home to Puerto Rico every summer by myself, so I was immersed in Puerto Rican culture and food…
LU: In the city or the country?
CB: Both. Some of my family is in the city and some is in the country. In the country I have vivid memories of goats being slaughtered, on special occasions.
LU: Wow! What was that like?
CB: The first time, I was told to go in the house. But I, curious, waited for a few moments and then peeked outside. I was intrigued. The killing of a goat wasn’t something that happened every night. My family was dirt poor; real peasant living. Food is what you celebrate when you have nothing. When I was with my family in San Juan, I remember street food, stalls and festivals, items like cuchifritos.
LU: And back in New York?
CB: When I returned to New York, I remember making all sorts of dishes, like pasteles with my mom and aunts—assembly-line style.
LU: How did you come up with the concept of the China-Latina event? Was that also a throwback to your youth in NYC?
CB: That was a collaboration with my good friend and colleague Lee Anne Wong. It came from us wanting to do something together in combination… a passion project. But yes, in the 90s I remember going to the Chino-Latino restaurants in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side as places where one could eat a meal cheaply in New York. Basically a greasy spoon! It’s a sign of the times that such places aren’t here anymore, one of the many casualties of choices available to a certain financial bracket.
LU: Other than the China-Latina event, you’ve curated both The Hunger and The Cookery pop-up restaurant series. What attracted you to the pop-up restaurant model?
CB: Well I had a restaurant, Paloma, in Greenpoint. That was before that area became unaffordable. However, just as we were beginning to turn a corner, the second floor of our building had a major fire. It was devastating, as we were just about to finally open for lunch. We were underinsured. But we find a way to do what we do, and while I am open to the possibility of another restaurant, I love the people I currently work with and enjoy the intimate experience of throwing these small dinner parties. We’ve been lucky to have people willing to sponsor us and who support what we are doing.
LU: How did you come to be invited to be on the Top Chef program?
CB: It’s a crazy story actually. I knew Erickson Wilcox, the door guy at Marquee in Manhattan. One day, a group showed up and tried to use the fact that they were casting Top Chef to get in. He said “Really? I have the perfect person for you.” They had actually just finished casting, but they told him they would interview me the next day in their hotel. When I arrived, we hit it off immediately; we just started talking about food. A month later, I was in Miami. But since I had been so busy with my restaurant, I hadn’t been watching the show. I had no idea what to expect, and had to learn on the fly.
LU: Did you life change significantly after you were on the program?
CB: Not really. But as a chef it was a wonderful experience.
LU: What is it like being a woman chef in a male-centered profession? Have there been challenges?
CB: In the early 90s there definitely places where I worked that were hostile. I remember one person saying “you won’t last in here.” But now, in general, that’s not the case. Things have changed. However, there still aren’t enough examples of women-run high-end kitchens in NYC. I’m trying to change that.
LU: Why do you think that is?
CB: Well, firstly it’s a very physical job, which may dissuade some women. Secondly it’s very demanding in terms of time. Which means women who want to devote time to family will find it difficult.
LU: You’ve been a strong advocate for locally-grown food items and sustainability. How do you feel like Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Trinidad and Puerto Rico will fare in the future, given the contest on the one hand between available arable land and knowledge of farming, and imported food products and foreign dependence on the other?
CB: That’s a great question. The only island I’m very familiar with at this point is Puerto Rico. My father’s family is Cuban, but his father worked for Batista, so although he went to school with Castro, when his family left, he had to leave with them, and there was no going back.
CB: Yeah, it really is! But with regards to Puerto Rico, the Americanization of food culture has definitely resulted in a degradation of quality food items. The shopping centers have poor quality vegetables, for example. However people still have the knowledge of how to work the land, so I am hopefully that when the locally-grown food movement migrates to places like Puerto Rico, people will return to a sustainable model of food production. I suspect that other Caribbean countries are in a similar position.
LU: How do you see cooking as connected to other arts?
The arts have a strong tie in to the cookery dinners, be it music, art, design…each dinner is meant to center around a few local artists giving them a platform to expand their brand. I take on a role as mentor as well; bringing in young passionate cooks, teaching them about–not only food, but the business of food and restaurants.
LU: Are there other Latin, Caribbean and ethnic chefs that you think we should know about?
Some chefs that shine in the Latin and Latin-Asian culinary world include Lee Anne Wong, Michelle Bernstein, Sue Torres, David Chang, Roi Choi…
The Cookery’s next event, Picnic in the Park, is tonight, August 17th, @ 6:30pm in Chelsea. For more information, or for tickets, visit www.thecookerynyc.com
Recipe: Babette’s Hot Pepper Sauce
1/4 cup canola or olive oil
1/4 cup of sofrito
3 garlic cloves, smashed
2 tsp coriander
2 tsp cumin
6-12 scotch bonnet or habanero chilies (depending of heat intensity desired), minced
1 – 28 oz. can of crushed tomato
1 1/2 tbl brown sugar
2 pinches of salt
1 1/2 tbl vinegar
1/4 fresh ginger, peeled and minced fine
1. Gently warm the oil in a heavy bottom based pot. Add sofrito and garlic, allowing to cook through fully, browning ever so lightly.
2. Add the spices and chili, saute for 1 minute.
3. Add can of tomato, sugar and salt, bring to a boil, stirring well. Lower flame and simmer for 1/2 hour, stirring periodically so as not to burn the bottom.
4. Allow the sauce to cool, mix in the vinegar and fresh ginger adjust seasoning with salt.
5. Keep refrigerated when not in use.