On the “Parts Unknown” episode, Bourdain and chef Xavier Pacheco share a lunch of roast pork at a lechonera, where they talk about the economic situation and its effect on restaurants. They also discuss Pacheco’s dedication to Puerto Rican food versus processed, American fast food and his commitment to working with local farmers. Following the hurricane, Pacheco explains how he’s had to adapt his restaurant, the difficulties in doing so, and the efforts of fellow chefs to keep people fed in this time of need.
Before Hurricane Maria, chef Xavier Pacheco’s La Jaquita Baya dished up innovative farm-to-table cuisine crafted with local produce. This is rare in Puerto Rico, where about 90 percent of the food consumed is imported to the island.
After the hurricane devastated the island, Pacheco turned his fine-dining restaurant into a fonda (tavern). He cooks outside on grills and has lowered the prices so significantly that he’s barely turning a profit; plates now run from $8 to $14, whereas prehurricane a plate might run to $30. It’s what he has to do in order to sell the food before it spoils, keep his employees working, and support the economy.
Five weeks after the storm he is back to cooking inside the restaurant, using a power generator sparingly due to the high price of diesel. Everything is harder now. It’s difficult to reach employees due to a lack of telecommunication. Due to traffic it now takes three hours instead of 20 minutes to reach suppliers. And whereas he used to serve 80-100 customers a day, he now serves 15-30. Still, the biggest change for the restaurant is that most of the goods come from outside Puerto Rico, although Pacheco still buys locally from the few people who have products. The restaurant was 80 percent locally sourced before Hurricane Maria. Now that figure is closer to 5 percent. “It’s gonna take a while—nine months, a year—to get back to normal,” he says.
Pacheco had developed relationships with local fishermen and farmers to bring his farm-to-table dream to fruition. He found people who raised goats, rabbits, and hens and created links between growers, restaurateurs, butchers, and bakers. But Hurricane Maria completely destroyed Puerto Rico’s agricultural region, where most of the island’s farmers, ranchers, suppliers, and distributors work and live. Many people lost everything. The hurricane also decimated the already fragile infrastructure of the island, leaving parts of it completely isolated for days.
Even though the hurricane has been a huge economic hit, Pacheco believes this is an opportunity for Puerto Rico to start from scratch: clean up, get the soil ready to be plowed, and plant seeds. But it’s going to take a long time—even though federal, local, and private organizations are trying to get Puerto Rico on its feet. A month after the tragedy, all of the resources invested have not been enough to bring back even basic services to most parts of the country. Large parts of Puerto Rico continue to experience a lack of power, inaccessible roads, and a shortage of materials, including seeds.
Money is tight for everyone, and the service industry is suffering. People are not going out to eat and drink as often as before the hurricane and are spending less money when they do go out. “It’s going to be a challenge,” Pacheco says, “but we are going to get out of this.”
Pacheco has been volunteering time and money to help keep people fed. He is quick to point out that a lot of organizations like chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, Fundación el Plato Caliente, and other community initiatives are doing similar things. “Food is like love,” says Pacheco. “People need good food. We do a lot of rice, some meat, lots of carbs and pasta.” Handing over a warm plate of good, nutritious food and spending time with the people he is feeding fulfill Pacheco and keep him going.
As long as Jaquita Baya is operating at lower prices and higher expenses, has no access to fair-priced local products, and depends on mostly imported goods, the foreseeable future looks difficult. “I used to buy a case of water for $17, but now people are playing with the prices and it’s $22 or $28. Some people are exploiting the situation,” Pacheco says. However, with everything bad comes something good, and the crisis has drawn attention to Puerto Rico’s economic situation—both pre- and post-hurricane. It’s very important to Pacheco that it stays that way.
“For me, I have my health, I know how to cook,” Pacheco says with equanimity. The desperate situation has created a sense of camaraderie, since all are suffering from the same lack of resources, and Pacheco has no choice but to be hopeful about the rebuilding of Puerto Rico. “We work hard, we have ups and downs, let’s make it happen! Ecuajei!”