Sunday 24 December 2017

Why Cuca?

8 years ago, we arrived in Bali with two suitcases and a big dream. Literally! We had one year to finalize a concept, find a location, build a restaurant, hire and train a team, open our doors and start serving customers. It was a daunting task. So, just like when you go to the grocery store you write a list to make sure you do not forget anything, we wrote a massive “to do” list: from designing an entire kitchen to the color of the napkins, everything was important and nothing could be forgotten.

One of the items on the list was “What on earth are we going to name the restaurant?” and it never seemed to get done. A name is a restaurant’s identity and is hugely important. It must be memorable, meaningful and unique to stand out from the sea of food options. At the same time, if it is too weird no one will ever spell it or get it right. I remember back in the day, the best restaurant in Vancouver, my city, was called “West”. It was a French-inspired concept with amazingly creative and tasty food, but they decided to spell it like in France “Ouest”. The result was an empty dining room and a city left wondering where the hell the restaurant was. You couldn’t find it in the phonebook or online and even if you walked right in front, you would miss it because of the spelling. They eventually changed its name and I learned a very important lesson.

With an opening date nearing closer and all the website, branding and marketing pending, we really needed to decide on a name. Then one day, Virginia received an email from her mother and I noticed the greeting “Hola Cuca…”. “What does Cuca mean?” I asked. She said it meant nothing, “It’s just the name my mom has called me since I was little and she only uses it when she is happy and I have been good”. “Voila!” I said to her, “that’s what we will call the restaurant: Cuca”. Something that means everything to us just as you mean everything to your mom. Spelt C-U-C-A and pronounced /Kooka/.

Monday 27 November 2017

The Disneyland of Gastronomy

The world is full of delicious places and their magical traditional food somehow loses a bit of its luster when exported to other countries. Mexican food is a great example, it really tends to suck outside of Mexico. Our understanding of Mexico until recently revolved around burritos the size of a small baby, chilies that will burn your face off, nachos dumped with cheap cheese and, of course, the dangers of tequila. Little did I know that, apart from tequila, none of these are actually Mexican. So, always in search of finding ways to make Cuca’s food tastier, it was time to discover the real Mexico and see for ourselves what many describe as the “Disneyland of gastronomy”.

21 days and 84 meals later, this is what we know. Mexico is separated into 31 states of deliciousness, each one transforming the modest ingredients from their land into spectacular unique local specialties. Natural good things put together in precise amounts with care and attention. Corn, chilies, cheese, beans, lime, tomato, tomatillo, onion and garlic are pretty much in every single dish but the results are, ironically, dramatically different. The food is earthy, hearty, rich and comforting, but it is the sauces that give Mexican food its personality and its complexity lies in roasting, burning and toasting the ingredients to perfume the food with layers of smoky charcoal.

What’s weird is wonderful ingredients like aggressive spiny cactus are transformed through fire into crunchy, slightly sour delicate sticks of green goodness; bugs that would seem disgusting and unthinkable to eat are fried and seasoned with chili and lime leaving Doritos scratching their heads; and chocolate so bitter children would run and hide from, becomes a key ingredient in the enchanting luxurious silky sauce known as Mole. The results are mouthfuls of intensity that dreams are made of.

To sum it up, dishes are cooked with a love that stems from an unmistakable devotion to tradition and a respect for the way things used to be made. The slow way is the good way and food that takes all day is just better. In a world where we have become obsessed with speed and efficiency, industrialization and pre-made preserved crap, Mexico fights a lonely battle to continue to embrace its culture through a celebration of painstaking preparations.

How to use all of this to make Cuca better? - you may wonder. Well… We will perfume our new dishes with the gently smoke of charcoal, we are crafting tortillas from organic brown rice to replicate the delicate ones from corn, we are now drying Bali’s chilis to gain complexity and aroma, we are crafting our own version of mole from local nuts, dried fruits, seeds, chilis and organic chocolate… We are basically dissecting those many mouthfuls that made us smile to make you, our guests, smile in return. Just be patient, we are becoming a little bit Mexican but the final product will take time. Just as we learned in Mexico, good things simply take time.

And here it is! The 5 minutes that capture unbelievably well the most amazing culinary adventure of our lives. We will be forever grateful to our friends from Food and Travel Mexico, who made Mexico unforgettable.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Allergies? We've got you covered.

In the olden days no one had allergies to food and if someone died of peanuts… well, then lesson learned, but today things are different. Celiac, lactose intolerant, vegetarian, pescatarian, diabetic, allergic to garlic… and the list goes on and on. The theory is simple: with highly processed foods, genetically modified meat, the use of antibiotics on animals and the lack of old school farming, our diet has dramatically changed. It is either a religious choice to avoid certain foods or the body’s way of rejecting them that has caused today a massive increase in food allergies.

We clearly see this growing trend in Cuca and the question is now how to handle it. Allergies in restaurants often fall under the category of guests being hard to please and get dealt the card of a simple salad. The question is: should the poor customers, who in most cases are already ashamed to inform their waiter, be punished further for their real inability to eat something? Do these unfortunate people with food restrictions deserve something delicious or are they just considered lucky enough to get anything at all?

The reality is that training an entire service and kitchen team to be knowledgeable about these dietary restrictions is a mammoth task. It is also true that preparing and organizing a kitchen so to eliminate any risk that a customer with an allergy consumes the very ingredients that will harm him/her, is an absolutely nightmare.  But it is also true that we are in hospitality and that the effort made to make people happy is kind of what it’s all about. With this in mind, we have spent the last few months in Cuca not only re-organizing our preparation areas and developing delicious alternatives to all possible allergies, but going as far as to create entire Chef Tasting Menus that rival any other dish we have ever served.

The reception could not have been better and our efforts are greatly paying back. There is nothing like serving an exceptional meal to those often punished with rabbit food.