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“Being a vegetarian is a lifestyle.” Interviewing Chef Tito Núñez Gudás
By Giovanni Fernández Valdés
Tito Núñez Gudás, the chef and director general of the vegetarian restaurant El Romero, is convinced that the only way to have healthy human beings is for them to have diets based chiefly on fruit and vegetables.
This way of thinking led him to open the restaurant at the La Terrazas Community in Artemisa in 2013 and from there to interest the greatest number of people in the notion of becoming vegetarians and learning about the nourishment provided by plants, as well as their medicinal properties.
We wanted to find out about El Romero’s plans and so we chatted with Núñez Gudás just before he started cooking for the day.
How did the idea for creating the restaurant come up?
It is the result of an earlier project that we started in 1991 in Havana’s Botanical Gardens. It was a difficult time to get foods. Nevertheless the garden had quite a few trees and plants growing there that produced fruit. The idea of cooking vegetarian dishes had not yet come up.
As we were beginning this idea, I found out about what was being done in Las Terrazas Community. A number of professors and student there visited us and we talked; that’s where the idea to open a vegetarian restaurant here was born.
Between 1996 and 2003 we made various tries on how an ecological restaurant in the area should be. First we were under a roof, but on a hill and we decided to try it out. We had no idea of how many vegetarians there were in Cuba, how many persons would come to eat this kind of food and the reality of everything wasn’t very encouraging. People would kind of panic when you talked about eating greens and carrots, but we were sure that starting ecological tourism in Las Terrazas would help us.
After going through a designing stage, we started to lay out the kitchen, the bathrooms and the warehouse. On the first of September in 2013 the ecological restaurant called El Romero opened, beside the gardens where we grow the food. Since 1996 we had been planting a lot of seedlings there that we had brought from the Botanical Gardens.
We are into organic agriculture, without the use of insecticides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Our garden uses techniques to conserve the soil. We cover the earth with rice straw which acts as fertilizer and stops the weeds from taking over. We don’t have to do any weeding in the garden and so the work is very comfortable and we get good results. In fact, with what the garden produces each day, we have enough for the restaurant in terms of all the different plants that identify our way of cooking.
So, the garden is an essential part for how the restaurant works…
In fact our work begins with looking after the earth and all the seedlings. We are developing “wild” agriculture with plants that are able to reproduce themselves. We don’t have to cut them because we use the leaves too, such as in the case of nopal and lettuce. In this way our supplies are very stable. We want to communicate the idea of sustainability, of the local use of resources and that food can be produced without undertaking any extensive importations.
We know that on your menu you have a very special dish, special from an emotional point of view…
Yes, that’s right: the dish is called Brouwer. It was a recipe given to us by the Cuban musician Maestro Leo Brouwer: garlic pasta. The day he visited us, he asked for that dish and we had the honor of seeing him prepare it himself. I thought that it would be a good thing for the pasta dish to stay on the menu, prepared with pepperoncini, olive oil and garlic.
How does your restaurant relate to the community?
El Romero works with the Community’s school, via several training courses. The groups come every Wednesday and from this set up we have three large-scale activities during the year. On the 10th of December we celebrate Mother Earth Day. A party starts in the morning, children plant fruit trees and the group splits up so that one part goes to the garden and another part goes to the kitchen.
In the garden we gather together everything we’ll need for the day, and the people in the kitchen start preparing lunch early in the morning. When the dishes are ready, we invite the people from the garden to come in and eat. On that day we honor those who work the soil.
In the afternoon we have a cooking contest; every family beings its dishes and we share everything. At mid-semester, the students cook for all the elderly people in town and at the end of the course we close with a party to pay tribute to the best teachers in the course and to the students who got the best marks.
We are doing a multimedia project that will provide people with recipes and with the history and concept of our restaurant. We are also involved in computerizing the information that I’ve been collecting over the years, with tips on what you should eat for the nutrients in foods, how complete your diet should be every day in these nutritional properties, and so on.
Eating a balanced diet or just by eating natural products?
I think that the world these days has reached a salvation point in terms of food. People tend to lean towards vegetarianism. The best land is being used to produce and feed a terribly huge mass of animals.
I don’t mean that we should be eliminating species, just getting rid of growing them artificially. All these animals need a huge amount of food, but where does it come from? From the earth. Nowadays raising livestock destroys nature and if we continue along this path we won’t get too far ahead.
I believe that converting to a profitable and sustainable diet is important, so that we don’t have to recycle so much food to produce so few nutrients. That is the model provided by livestock farming. On the other hand, with vegetables you need very little area to produce food for a greater number of people and in a way you are helping your health: being a vegetarian is a lifestyle.
I am convinced that people will change their outlook when faced with the problems of climate change and desertification of the soil: it is a social imperative.