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When Chef Xavier Pacheco returned to his native Puerto Rico from Barcelona, he knew opening a restaurant that served dishes with fresh, local ingredients, would be an uphill struggle. Puerto Rico, once home to a thriving agricultural sector, now imports 85 percent of its food. But the 37-year-old Pacheco is working to make that statistic history.
The result: Pacheco’s La Jaquita Baya restaurant, launched in 2011 in the trendy Miramar neighborhood of San Juan. The eatery, popular with tourists and Puerto Ricans alike, is a leader in the island’s burgeoning farm-to-table movement. Almost 80 percent of the ingredients Pacheco uses in his dishes are locally grown and raised. “We may not have the capacity to produce everything, but local ingredients are available,” Pacheco told AQ.
Pacheco’s passion for Puerto Rican cuisine started with the traditional rice and stew dishes his mother prepared when he was growing up in San Juan’s Cupey district. Gastronomy turned into a career path after he graduated from the Florida campus of Johnson and Wales University. Pacheco honed his culinary skills in restaurants from Miami to Barcelona, but it was his time with Spanish chef Ángel Palacios — renowned for designing dishes around local, in-season ingredients — that inspired Pacheco to rediscover Puerto Rican meats and produce.
While the high volume of food imports and supermarkets pushed Puerto Ricans toward prepackaged and fast food and away from the traditional plazas and markets, there has been a resurgence of small-scale agriculture. The challenge, according to Pacheco, has been educating and connecting small farmers to local restaurants. “We’re starting an educational dialogue between the farmers, chefs and producers, to better understand each other and our needs,” Pacheco said.
Now cofounder and president of the Puerto Rican Gastronomic Association, a collective of chefs who promote the use of local ingredients and Puerto Rico’s rich culinary heritage, Pacheco hopes to put the island’s cuisine on the world culinary map. “Our gastronomy is beautiful,” he said, comparing it to the best of French and Peruvian cuisine. His satisfied customers would be the first to agree.
García is production and social media editor for AQ.