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A Slow Recovery for Puerto Rico Restaurants

Still struggling with Hurricane Maria's aftermath, the island's hospitality professionals are helping their communities get back on their feet
Photo by: Arturo Campos
Cocina Abierta has opened its doors to the local community with a special menu and pricing.

Emma Balter
Posted: October 11, 2017

On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, leaving behind a trail of destruction that the island is still coming to terms with. The death toll had risen to 43 as of Wednesday afternoon, according to officials, and electricity has been restored to just 16 percent of the island, hindering recovery efforts. We checked in with Puerto Rico's Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners to see how they're faring.

"Surviving the hurricane, which was pretty scary, was the easy part," said Peter Schintler, chef and owner of Marmalade. "Now the real work and sacrifice begins." He reports that seven people on his staff have lost their homes to the storm, but all are safe. He has made the restaurant available for any of his team members who need shelter, food and drink.

However, the restaurant has not been able to reopen for business. The venue suffered some water damage and all produce was lost, including some in storage bags that molded and mildewed. With the help of their partners at Fine Wine Imports and Aficionado's Wine & Spirits, Schintler was able to store 150 cases of wine in protected warehouses with generators. Marmalade restaurant is still without power.

The Ruth's Chris Steak House location in Carolina was able to open just two days after the hurricane hit, although they are still experiencing meat-supply challenges. General manager Moises Rivera said the staff is safe but is dealing with shortages in water, electricity and network communication in their homes. The restaurant has been cooking and supporting their employees in need. The other Ruth's Chris location in San Juan will not reopen for another couple weeks because of some structural damages to the restaurant. Rivera said the franchise owners were working to set up a fund for employees at both locations.

1919 Restaurant, and the Vanderbilt Hotel it is housed in, also suffered some damage: broken windows and flooding, a destroyed private dining room, as well as some rooms and public areas of the hotel. The venue operated on generators for two weeks. "Bit by bit different sectors of the island are recovering their regular power, so there is a sense of hope," said sommelier Alfredo Figueroa. The restaurant and hotel got power back and turned their generators off on Oct. 2, and the restaurant was able to reopen on Oct. 5 after new windows were installed and other repairs were made. They are currently donating 30 percent of restaurant sales to hurricane relief.

Touro and four other restaurants in the Cinco Sentidos Group are still closed, but at Cocina Abierta, the team has been powering through since day two after the hurricane. "We took all the stock that was in good condition from our coolers and freezers from other restaurants and brought everything to Cocina Abierta," said sommelier Arturo Campos.

Since then, the restaurant has been offering a limited menu with "emergency pricing," including dishes at $5 and $10, changing every day depending on what the kitchen can get in. On Oct. 10, for the first time, the restaurant was able to offer a couple more substantial dishes, for $15. Even though they did not suffer any structural damage, they are still operating on a generator, as power in the area has not been restored. "We are slowly putting more employees to work but it's a challenge with all the other [restaurants] closed," Campos said.

Schintler has ordered a generator for Marmalade and hopes to receive it soon, estimating the restaurant will be back open in three weeks. In the meantime, he has been hard at work in his neighborhood. While he's not good with a chainsaw (a useful skill during natural-disaster relief), he says he's taken up his knife instead, "cooking for the apartment building residents three to four times a week during the crisis."

Chef José Andrés has also been lending a helping hand, immediately flying to Puerto Rico after the hurricane to help with relief efforts. He has since coordinated with World Central Kitchen, local chefs and volunteers, to feed the community out of restaurants, mobile kitchens, food trucks and sporting arenas. Andrés' team estimates they have prepared more than 300,000 meals so far, many going to hospitals and elderly homes. His Dorado Beach restaurant, Mi Casa by José Andrés, remains closed.

Among the chaos and devastation, residents are trying as much as possible to regain a sense of normalcy, and for some, wine is a big part of that. "I must say, we have drank some amazing wine in the last few weeks, as we no longer view any bottle to be off-limits," says Schintler. Campos, at Cocina Abierta, describes selling a really nice bottle of wine to a couple last Sunday. "I had a chance to do all the sommelier protocol. I certainly missed all that," he says. "Good wine still runs through the veins."

Schintler sees a tough road ahead, but believes the island will be ready for visitors by Thanksgiving. He hopes tourism will pick up and bring some more relief to Puerto Rico. "We need the people to share and tell our stories over a good bottle of wine."

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