Maricel Presilla
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Maricel Presilla

Jim Poris / September 2009

Food Arts presents the September 2009 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Maricel Presilla, the academic/chef/restaurateur/author who has been in the vanguard of the movement spreading the distinctive merits of Latin American cooking in the United States. Just her prolific, multitrack food career alone—born of memories of exuberant family gatherings in Cuba and a relentless quest for knowledge—would blanch the tattoos off of today's blog-agog kitchen artistes. That for most of its duration it was coupled to professorships in medieval history at New York University and Rutgers is remarkable. To paraphrase the Supreme Court's newest associate justice, Presilla is one very wise and busy Latina.

"I have many hats I like to wear, an interest and a passion for many things," says the 24/7 Presilla, who with her physician husband, Alex, saves down time for her two dogs and three "rambunctious" parrots, including two squawking macaws that speak Spanish and English.

Her two restaurants—Zafra (2000), a Pan-Latin cafeteria in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Cucharamama (2004), a South American eatery also in Hoboken that leans on Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela--will be joined later this year by Ultramarinos, a Latino/Spanish grocery and take-out shop fashioned after the stores in Spain that sold products from its colonies. What's more, new research compelled her to rewrite her seminal 2001 book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, for publication this autumn. In the works is an exhaustive, last-word survey of Latin American cooking, which will be her fifth book on Hispanic food traditions. For good measure, her column "Cocina," once a weekly fixture, now runs monthly in the Miami Herald.

Presilla embodies the hallowed immigrant story, with a food twist. Her family, betrayed for a decade by the revolution's false hopes, left Santiago de Cuba for Miami in 1970 (Alex, then her boyfriend, swam to the American military outpost at Guantánamo Bay). She studied in Spain, got a degree from Florida International, moved to New York City with Alex, where she studied medieval history at NYU (Ph.D. 1989), and discovered her inner food self. Presilla notes a series of mentors for inspiring her along the way--the medievalist Norman Cantor; the late chef Felipe Rojas Lombardi for bringing her into his kitchen at The Ballroom (1983); the owners of the Cuban restaurant Victor's Café, who ran with her suggestions to mix a Mojito, serve plantain chips as long strips, and cook skirt steak with chimichurri; Jorge Redmond of Chocolates El Rey C.A., the Venezuelan company she introduced to the United States in 1995 and led her to form Gran Cacao, her own Latin American food marketing company specializing in chocolate.

"The other night I was choosing photos for the new chocolate book and thinking how lucky I am," she reflects. "In every part of my life someone has been generous enough to give me a lift. For that, I'm so grateful." And, for her, the food world is grateful, too.