Op-Ed: Feeding Puerto Rico in the Wake of the StormMario Pagán
January 23, 2018
We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and everyone in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.
Our latest piece comes from JBF Chefs Boot Camp alum Mario Pagán. Pagán is the chef and owner of Mario Pagán Restaurant and SAGE Steak Loft in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Below, he provides an inside look at the devastation and destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria last fall, and shares how the recovery has led him to reevaluate what sustainability means in a world with more storms on the horizon.
When Hurricane Maria hit, my restaurants and their crews were the only things on my mind for eight terrorizing hours. I heard the sounds of the destruction happening right outside my window as the storm barreled through, intent on destroying the land that has given me so much. The next morning, desperate, and with the tail of the storm still passing, I went outside to assess the damage. The streets seemed unfamiliar and far from the city I knew: people looked numb, and downed power lines, fallen trees, and debris were everywhere. It was as if nature had purposefully created an obstacle course. We had no power or running water. Both of my restaurants had flooded with at least three feet of water, and there was no option but to use elbow grease to bail us out. Most structures within two miles of the coast on the northern side of the island are equipped with bilge pumps, but those pumps were useless without electricity.
Two days after the storm, it became evident to me that I had a responsibility to get things moving. It was critical to get my employees back to work and let them know that they would not be forced to leave the island to look for jobs. Some of them had lost everything, and I needed to give them hope for some reconstruction of their lives. With almost all of Puerto Rico’s 1,900 communication towers destroyed, and all of the island’s banks closed for security reasons, every person and every surviving business became cash-only overnight. More importantly, people needed a place to have a warm and affordable meal, so I converted my high-end restaurant into a fonda—a local casual diner. It was like starting all over again: I went back to my Puerto Rican roots, serving up everyday comfort food, from stewed goat to crackling pork rind white rice with pumpkin pink beans to a simple guava flan. Without working phone lines, we handed out menus on the street and ushered people inside. The power of word-of-mouth became real to me for the first time.
One of my biggest challenges was—and still is—getting fresh produce. Maria, with its sustained winds of 160mph and gusts of up to 180mph, had flattened the landscape, destroying almost all the crops on the island. We had to act fast, requesting provisions from other countries of staples like plantains, yuca, bananas, milk, chickens, coffee, and more.
In light of our geographic location and the likelihood of more natural disasters in the future, I believe that we have to embrace both our local growers and those on our neighboring islands, now more than ever. Before the storm, Puerto Rico was on an accelerated path towards being 50 percent sustainable, compared to only 15 percent a decade ago. But the island’s next harvest will likely be ready right at the start of 2018’s hurricane season, which means we must rethink our sustainability model. We need to plan on making bunkered shelters to store harvested crops in case of an emergency, and we have to alter our harvest cycles to prepare for potential disruption in September and October. Logistical support by the Department of Agriculture will be crucial as we redefine what “sustainability” means for Puerto Rico in the future.
The recovery is a slow, but steady process. About 2,000 restaurants out of 4,500 have reopened, although, tragically, 1,500 will probably never come back. Almost 300,000 people are reported to have left the island, though I don’t fully believe that number, since I still sit in the same horrible traffic every day!
There are some positive pieces to this story, however: my good friend (and Puerto Rico’s adoptive son) José Andrés has fed more than 3 million souls with his army of chefs, and they are still going strong. Our local growers are now more in touch with chefs, enabling us to better tailor our produce needs. Chefs and entrepreneurs are taking advantage of new opportunities as tourism returns to the island. Five cruise liners are docking weekly in Old San Juan, and new travel deals have resulted in almost all of the North Shore hotels being filled to capacity.
This is not our first rodeo, and we are a very resilient island. As the winds blow, as the walls fall, as we learn to adapt our farming and our businesses, some things will never change: you can destroy our trees and our buildings, but you cannot take away our heritage.
See you soon in Puerto Rico!
Mario Pagán is the chef and owner of Mario Pagán Restaurant and SAGE Steak Loft in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and executive chef at Dorado Beach Resort & Gold Club in Dorado, Puerto Rico. Follow him on Twitter.