There’s a bit of a chill in the air, and we’re already starting to long for warmer weather and sandy beaches. Though we can’t all escape the city, New York does provide a wealth of opportunities for the armchair escapist. We’re particularly excited for the upcoming Puerto Rico Meets NY dinner series which will bring Puerto Rican chefs into the city to cook up succulent lechon and give us an excuse to drink good rum.
Last week we profiled Xavier Pacheco, and this week we caught up with chef Kevin Roth, a Long Island native with an impressive New York resume (including Quilty’s and Coup), alongside his wife Idalia Garcia, a former front of house manager at some of Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants.
The following interview has been shortened and paraphrased for clarity.
Edible Brooklyn: Tell us about moving from New York City to Puerto Rico.
Kevin Roth: The whole story started when we lived in Brooklyn. We lived in Bushwick in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, but we met in Manhattan.
Idalia Garcia: My family is Puerto Rican but I was raised in the States. My mom lived in Connecticut and New York without speaking a lick of English. When Kevin and I met, I kind of absorbed him into my life.
KR: We were fortunate enough to live in an apartment that had a big courtyard, and we built a deck and planted a big garden with tomatoes and herbs. We had a banana tree for two years but we never saw a single fruit. For Idalia’s 30th birthday, we roasted a lechón (a suckling pig). It was my first crack at roasting a whole pig — I carried it home in a trash bag on the subway. But every year we would come to Puerto Rico on vacation and I slowly became intrigued. One one of those vacations, we saw an old gas station and started talking about opening a restaurant there. We looked at each other and were like, “We always talked about doing this when we retire. But it takes a lot of energy, and if we’re going to do it, it has to be now.”
IG: We were thinking about opening a place in Brooklyn at the time, and we had looked at a few places and started going to auctions, but we couldn’t find the right spot. We found the restaurant that would become La Estacion in January, and in early May we moved here and opened in early August. When we signed the lease, I was still managing Diner. I said to Andrew Tarlow, “I’m giving you three months to find a new manager.” He didn’t believe me!
EB: Tell us about some of the new ingredients you’ve started using since you moved to Puerto Rico.
KR: When we got here, we rented a house pretty much sight unseen. In that house, we discovered we had a lot of fruit trees. One time, when Idalia’s father was visiting us, he asked me to pull down a bunch of lime green fruits called grosellas. I tried one raw, and it was one of the most bitter horrible tasting things in the world. But I filled a garbage bag with them, and he went out and bought about eight pounds of sugar. He started boiling them, always changing the water. I realized he was candying them, roughly the same way you’d candy orange or lime peel. In about four hours, these lime green fruits turned this beautiful vibrant purple and had totally changed form.
After the first time I tried them, I realized they had tons of possibilities. Now, for example, when we do a roast duck, I use them in a syrup and I add ginger, jalapeño, coriander seed and chile de árbol.
On that same property we had soursop. We had a tree and the flavor of the juice was new to us — we turned it into a cocktail at the new restaurant.
EB: You call your style of barbecue “Nuyorican.” What does that mean?
IG: I’ve embraced this Nuyorican term now, though I didn’t in the past… I used to say I’m Puerto Rican. Now I really feel like I’m embracing the Nuyorican thing.
Nuyorican is a term that was coined by a Puerto Rican writer. It was a movement that brought together writers and musicians and different people to celebrate what made us still Puerto Rican while we were living in the States. I believe the term originated with the big influx of Puerto Ricans to the States after the Industrial Revolution. I think Nuyoricans are very knowledgeable about the history of Puerto Rico and about music and are working really hard to hold onto that ethnicity and to the history of Puerto Rico. Here in Puerto Rico, it’s a little different — you identify further because it’s very different being a Nuyorican than being a Puerto Rican.
I think it’s an interesting concept because there are more Puerto Ricans that live on the mainland in the US than are in Puerto Rico — there’s a huge community in New York.
KR: It’s a complex term. But for us, cooking in Puerto Rico, it means celebrating Puerto Rican ingredients with a bit of New York inflection. I’m a New Yorker at heart, but I fell in love with the ingredients of Puerto Rico. I call myself Nuyorican too now. For me, as a chef, the identity represents the connections I have with our farmers and fishermen here. We source about 80 percent of our produce from a farmer who came out of retirement to grow for the restaurant — I met him because his son drives a cab that often brings people to La Estación. Our fishermen let us know what’s coming in every day — that’s what it means.
This post was made possible by Puerto Rico Meets NY.