(PHOTO: Plantain canoes- fried sweet plantains filled with ground beef or baby mushrooms garnished with cilantro microgreens, all in a base of salsa criolla- is one of Jose Rivera’s specialities. Jose Rivera / Instagram)
(NOTE: This story was also published here)
Chef Jose Rivera is 3,000 miles away from his tormented home.
The distance doesn’t always weigh on him, but for the past two weeks, as he’s watched his beloved Puerto Rico be ravaged by two devastating hurricanes and heard his family struggle, he’s longed to reach out. “They’re still without power and without water. And others have been impacted even more terribly – no food, no place to sleep.”
So when he heard about LA Loves Puerto Rico, which brings together chefs and bartenders across the city to raise funds for the victims, he jumped at the opportunity. The one-week campaign will see nearly a hundred eateries across the city offering a special dish inspired by the islands and donating the proceeds to hurricane relief.
The initiative was started by several figures of LA’s hospitality industry, including marketer and restaurant consultant Andrea Sun. Some of the city’s most popular kitchens, such as AOC Wine Bar and Restaurant, Border Grill, Osteria Mozza, Petit Trois, Terroni, Love & Salt and Lucques are taking part in the campaign, offering dishes ranging from lechoneria and tostone to coquito donuts and fish sandwiches.
The proceeds will go directly to a fund called Unidos por Puerto Rico, or United for Puerto Rico, started by the first lady of the US territory, Beatriz Rosselló, to help relief efforts.
Even celebrities have joined in on the initiative. Jesse Tyler Ferguson of ‘Modern Family’ fame declared his support in a tweet that says, “I ❤ the LA culinary community for doing this.” Singer Pia Toscano, author Nikki DuBose and actor Scott Nevins also pitched in.
It’s a different way to help people contribute to the cause – through their stomachs, says Rivera. “Instead of people having to go to a website and donate, they can enjoy a good meal and also connect to our culture by getting to taste Puerto Rican cuisine. It’s a more personal way to give, and we really need the help, we appreciate it,” he says.
Rivera’s Puerto Rican food stand, The Ricans Food, known for its pop-up events and serving customers at Smorgasburg LA every Sunday, is offering a host of eatables and drinks from his homeland as part of the campaign. Most of them are made of plantain, which he says is a basic ingredient in most Puerto Rican dishes. His offerings include plantain canoes or canoitas, a dish made of fried sweet plantain filled with ground beef, cheese, cilantro and salsa and mojito lemonades, infused with cinnamon and mint.
“Usually when you eat something or drink something, it’s a sensory experience and it imprints itself on your memory. So when you go to a restaurant that’s making one of these dishes, if you try it, you’ll remember it. You’ll remember Puerto Rico,” co-organizer Andrea Sun says.
Sun says she remembers visiting Puerto Rico about five years ago and falling in love with the warmth of the people and the beauty of the landscape. She found herself feeling frustrated over the plight of Puerto Ricans after the storms.
“I felt like there were many disasters happening, that Puerto Rico was getting lost in the shuffle. It had been several days since the hurricane hit and people were still struggling. It was just really devastating and I almost felt helpless, unable to go there, unable to help. I thought, instead of talking about it and keep feeling frustrated about it, I could channel this into action.”
Which is how LA Loves PR came to be. “The whole idea was to make it really really simple for people,” she says.
“Of course, you should donate first and foremost. But we’re all so busy – if you’re not able to, you’re probably going to dine out at least once a week, and you might as well go to one of these participating restaurants or bars or bakeries and contribute.”
Sun says she’s been amazed by the success of the initiative and how what she calls the “community” of people in the hospitality industry came together for Puerto Rico.
“We talked to a handful of people and then it snowballed from there. It’s been only a week and a half since we started and we already have almost a hundred participating restaurants, bars, bakeries all across town.”
And already, other cities such as Connecticut and New York have come up with their own versions of the campaign to contribute to the fund.
Mary Sue Milliken, chef and owner of the famous Border Grill Downtown LA, says she and co-chef / owner Susan Feniger decided to participate in the campaign because they wanted to give back somehow,
“We wanted our friends in Puerto Rico to know they have not been forgotten.”
Her restaurant is offering two items as specials for LA Loves PR: a shrimp appetizer made up of – you guessed it, plantain – and a mojito that contains Puerto Rican rum, both of which, she says, have been a hit,
“We’ve had customers coming and asking for the specials.”
According to chef Rob Ruelas of Pez Cantina, another participant in the campaign, the success of the initiative is due to its grasp of a very basic human instinct.
“People don’t always know how to pitch in. If they don’t know somebody, or exactly who to go to, they may find giving overwhelming. This campaign is a great way to make it accessible to ordinary people.”
Ruelas’ specialty at the restaurant is Mexican food, but for LA Loves PR, he created a dish he tasted and learned about on the streets of Puerto Rico when he worked there for a few years. It’s called ‘mofongo’ and it’s a staple of the people there.
Ruelas’ ‘mofongo’ is made up of fried mashed green plantains and mixed with garlic, oil and some kind of meat.
And it might be one step in the journey to rebuilding Puerto Rico.