On Being a Resolver
On Sundays we go to the Markets — Gelson’s for the produce, Whole Foods for the pantry, and Trader Joes for the fun, all within half a mile radius of each other (and home). Evidently, food is one thing that has always shown up in abundance. Even when our home was taken by the recession in 2008, we always found a way to congregate around a mountain of chicken schnitzels and Liora’s famous challah on Friday nights.
Though food has always been a part of the conversation, the past year building the culinary program at Summit has presented food in ways I didn’t even know were possible — on heated concrete gardens, inspired by outer space, made entirely of waste, and even served on one single 600-person dinner table along the beach in Mexico. Every couple of weeks, I arrive home to samples of plant-based liquid nitrogen popsicles, cricket chips, and tonics.
It now seems like a career in food was a subtle attempt at hacking the education system. I didn’t have to decide between science, history, business, economics, politics, and poetry, especially without compromising time with friends and family — food is all of the above. Though ironically, in all of its abundance, I never learned so much as I did in its scarcity.
Sunday at the market is a bit different in Havana, Cuba. On our second day planning the food program for a Summit-like event, we met Enrique, owner and operator of Cuba’s most important restaurant, La Guardia, at the mercado on 19 and B. With only 4 isles of the same handful of fruits and vegetables, you can’t help but wonder where the country’s “best market” keeps all their eggs. Well if you look closely enough, a man who appears to be selling underripe papaya will discretely flash you a single egg he keeps in his closed palm. A customer in disguise then whispers “Huevos? Quieres huevos?” in your ear as if he were selling drugs or fake designer bags on Canal Street.
Resources in Cuba are so scarce that basic household products like butter, milk, and eggs are sold on the black market. Since the average 20 dollars a month as a professional doesn’t cut it, some people make a living camping out of mercados, waiting for the few, unpredictable shipments of eggs to arrive so they can purchase and resell them at double, triple, or even four times the price. In our world, you’d equate that to the shopper selling Chanel purses off her arms at Saks Fifth Avenue on Black Friday. One of those purses could have made thousands of Cuban sandwiches, if only there was somewhere to buy bread.
Even with the black market hook-up, no amount of money can truly buy access. Enrique built his fortune after the building he lived in appeared in Fresa y Chocolate, the only Cuban film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Rightfully so, Enrique saw the tourists stopping by to take photos as a good opportunity to open what Cuban’s call a paladar — though most restaurants in Cuba are owned by the government, paladares, which were only legalized in 1993, are small privatized restaurants operating out of Cuban homes.
La Guarida, like all paladares, serves what some call “survival fare,” or traditional cuban dishes made from the few revolution-era ingredients still rationed by the government, like rice, beans, sweet potatoes, and plantains. Even after having hosted countless political gatherings, concerts, Chanel fashion shows, and even Beyonce, Enrique still purchases the majority of his ingredients off the black market and makes quick trips back and forth to Miami to pick up spices, even for small dinners like ours.
It’s hard to believe that Cuban food insecurity isn’t even as bad as it used to be. The limited access to food was officially designated as a crisis when the collapse of the Society Union left the country without a supply of it’s most fundamental resources — there were not only no seeds, but also no fertilizers, electricity for water pumps or fuel for tractors. Imports were cut by 80% and the average calorie intake per capita dropped by a third. But amidst the hunger and desperation brought on by what was designated as the Special Period, Cuban chefs like Nitza Villapol empowered Cubans to approach their frustration with innovation and grit, a trait commonly referred to as the “resolver mentality.”
The word resolver, meaning “we’ll figure it out,” is the “Cuban ethos of tenacity in the face of adversity.” Resolver is how Orlando overcame the lack of internet access by learning English from Eminem tracks downloaded through government-sponsored, paid wifi in local parks. Resolver is how Leinier cruises down the Malecon in a Chevroyota, outsmarting 1950's ban on car imports by reviving his Chevrolet body with Toyota organs. Resolver is how Chef Reinier served his tray passed hors d’oeuvre out of lime peels and sea shells when the store ran out of small plates. Resolver may lead to personal achievements, but in practice, it’s always communal.
It’s no wonder that the Cuban spirit felt so much like home. The feverish urgency and uncertainty involved in planning festivals like Summit brings up the same paradox that Cuban’s operate from on their day-to-day lives. Of course, producing festivals is a deliberate and privileged decision rather than an inescapable reality, but the volatile nature of the job makes us bold, creative, resourceful, quick on our feet, and loyal team players in a similar way I found most Cubans to be. We operate under restrictions to time, budget, availability, access, technology, weather, but there is absolutely nothing as euphoric as experiencing all limitations explode into infinity the way they do at Summit and did in Cuba.
Infinity is watching thousands of guests dining in a restaurant we popped up in a DTLA parking lot even after our catering partner had fallen through 3 months prior. It’s introducing ice cubes as a prop in Jessica Encell’s Magic of Human Connection Workshop when we couldn’t get the tent’s air conditioning to work in Tulum’s 90 degree weather. Infinity is hand-feeding leftovers to the team in the kitchen at Powder Mountain because there are no more seats at the table, and gathering our favorite women chefs on stage to talk about grabbing hold of the mic.
Creativity is born out of constraint and limitations are precisely what make us limitless, which is easy to say as someone who get’s to come home to Gelson’s, Whole Foods, and Trader Joes. But there’s no doubt that even through all of the struggle and scarcity, the Cuban people have accessed a source of abundance that we will never get to experience in quite the same way. We have so many bars but it isn’t as easy to dance. Our soil is rich but our streets have never been as alive.
So wake up, get your feet on the ground, make the call, work fast, but don’t forget to sip slow, because none of it really matters until the split second when you live to see the things you did with your team that you swore you couldn’t do alone.