"The only option in the summer is to work with what little there is, like eggplant. There are no carrots," said Laura Fernandez Cordoba, a partner at Le Chansonnier. "The options are very limited."
Raul Castro has moved to expand private and cooperative agriculture, lease out fallow state land and facilitate direct sales to state- and private-run eateries. The government has also promoted "green belts" around major cities to help reduce the distance food must travel in a country where delays and inefficiency sometimes cause food to rot before it reaches consumers.
Even so, meat is often frozen, thawed and refrozen while still in the supply chain.
Other, cultural factors would seem to make the Chez Panisse model a tough sell.
Restaurants here typically overcook vegetables until they are mushy, even for salads. Many Cubans who are able to cobble together hard currency opt for processed foods in supermarkets like canned vegetables, dried mashed potatoes or jarred spaghetti sauce. And a common household cost-cutting practice is to reuse cooking grease again and again, until each meal is infused with the same underlying taste and odor.
It all adds up to cement Cuba's reputation as a gourmet's nightmare.
"A lot of the food that I've seen (here) seems like it's very cooked ... we lose sort of the freshness of it," Waag said. "We lose sort of all the energy."
The Chez chefs threw a spontaneous end-of-trip party Monday and, in a departure from catering to Havana's elite, cooked for residents of a working-class block.
Working from a front-porch stand borrowed for the night, they handed out barbecued cumin-, turmeric- and lime-marinated chicken drumsticks and yogurt-batter onion rings for free to the neighbors.
It was a far cry from what's usually on offer at the stand: oil-soaked dough-fritter cholesterol bombs that can be snapped up for pennies apiece.
"We are trying to make the idea of nutrition a little more flexible," said Batlle, the chef at Divino, "so people understand it a little more."
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