Eat the Book: Maricel Presilla

InterviewJames WillimetzComment

Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say. But, making my way out of the Shakespeare bookstore, I glance at the food section and there it is, beckoning, and I know right then and there that I won’t be able to walk out the door without buying it. Yes, the cover is intriguing—a still-life photograph full of tropical fruits I should recognize, but don’t. However, the hook, line and sinker is the name, Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. I have a nice belly to prove my attraction to the name. I pick this hefty 900-page book up and flip right to the index and look up—what else?—pisco, something I know a little about. I like what I find—seems authentic and informative. Flipping through the pages more, I find recipes, cultural anecdotes and several historical essays exploring the culinary delights south of the border. I NEED this book, but at $45 it’s pricey. How can I justify buying it to my wife? Aha! It’ll be “her” Christmas present. It’s worked before. I carry it to the cashier.

Late at night, I sneak into it a while to get sleepy but it gives me insomnia. Too exciting. Can’t put it down. I email Chris, “I think I’ve found a perfect candidate to be your next Ultimate Latin Lover.” Maricel Presilla, the book’s author, is a Cuban American chef and, also the “co-owner of Zafra and Cucharamama, two pan-Latin restaurants in Hoboken. She was named Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region by the James Beard Foundation. She holds a doctorate in medieval history from New York University.” Chris likes the idea and makes the contact and a week after Christmas, after getting our travel shots and passports, he and I set out on our expedition under the Hudson River to meet her at Cucharamama in that terra incognita, Nueva Jersey.

Ah, love that wood burning brick oven. Smells heavenly. Well, Let’s go. How do you go from getting a doctor’s degree in medieval Spanish history to . . . 

Cooking? Well, I’ve always liked to cook for many people. I come from a large family. My aunts were excellent cooks. So was my father. I was always helping out, I loved it. And then while I working on my degree at NYU in the 1980’s, one of the deans asked me to cook for a huge weeklong event celebrating the new Catalan Language Center at the school. It was amazing. At the event I met Montse Guillén, a fabulous Catalan cook and got into catering with her briefly. We even did a medieval dinner at the house of one the Whitney’s. Through her I also became friends with Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, a Peruvian chef of the Ballroom restaurant in Chelsea. Felipe had been an assistant to cookbook author and teacher James Beard. One time I was visiting Felipe in the kitchen and he said, “Well, if you’re going to be here more than fifteen minutes, you’re going to have to cook.” He handed me an apron and I made a desert, a flan. It sold and I started working there part time. He trained me. I worked at all the stations. And then he found out I could write and I started writing recipes for him. I helped him with his book: the Art of South American Cooking. It was a tremendous experience for me. I met a lot of key people at the Ballroom. I really started to like this world of the kitchen. Things started to happen. I became involved in the world of cooking from the top up. I got work as a restaurant consultant, wrote columns on cooking and got a spot on a radio show.

[Presilla calls one of the waiters over: "We should get some appetizers." She orders some and keeps them coming: beef empanadas, chimichurri sauce; crunchy Peruvian-style calamari, with rocoto and tamarillo sauce; tatacua shrimp, panca pepper sauce.]

Did you ever get to use your PhD?

I had a double life. I was cooking and working on my dissertation. When I finished it, I went to teach at Rutgers University. I got a fellowship in history and poetics (laughs). They gave me a super load because they had fired one of the professors. I ended up teaching all the core courses. I had hundreds of students. It was wonderful but a lot of work. I decided I liked the world of food even more. It was a more generous world. I realized I could do everything. I could be independent, I could write and teach, I could even do history through food. I started writing for magazines. I wrote a few books. Finally, I got a contract to write this big book. So every time I had a vacation, I would travel  . . . to Mexico, to Guatemala, everywhere. As a historian, I applied whatever I knew about research to the task at hand.

[More appetizers: piquillo peppers filled with Caribbean pumpkin and Manchego cheese; crusty olive country bread with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese; duck braised Peruvian-style with chicha de jora and mirasol pepper.]

How were your gastronomic trips?

I know how to cook, but I had to teach myself the foods of Latin America because being Cuban doesn’t prepare you to cook Peruvian or Mexican. I always say this book could only have been done in this country. If I had been in Peru, I wouldn’t have been able to get the chiles from Mexico. If I had been in Mexico I wouldn’t have been able to get Andean hot peppers. We can only find all the ingredients from all the Latin countries here in the States. This is the country that allows you to do pan-Latin cooking. Most of the ingredients I use in my book I got locally, so close to my home.

[More appetizers: crunchy plantain “sparks” with cilantro sauce; roast leg of pork in aji Amarillo adobo; chilean beef and chicken potpie with a fresh corn crust, spice pebre sauce.]

These appetizers are great. This restaurant is your book, no?

Well, I’ve tried out most of the recipes here. I always say to come here is to eat the book.

Your book is the latest of your many achievements. You’ve got your restaurants, your store, your other books. You’ve even cooked at the White House for Obama during Spanish Heritage month. What’s next? Any plans to open a restaurant in Manhattan?

Not really. Too stressful. Too much traffic. I’m happy here.

Well, I guess if she can run all over Latin America to collect the material for this book, I guess I can cross the river to Hoboken more often. It’s a ten-minute ride from Penn Station and Imperio Presilla is ten-minute walk from the station. I’ve already been back twice with my family. And when I can’t go there, I can eat the book. My wife just wants to know when she’ll get a chance to look at “her” Christmas present.