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Hoboken Chef Maricel Presilla on Life After Hurricane Sandy: 'Hopeful and Determined, But Pissed'

The James Beard Award-winning Hoboken chef Maricel Presilla is one of the many restaurateurs in New Jersey working to rebuild after her two restaurants and one artisanal food store were all flooded by Hurricane Sandy. One restaurant, Zafra, has since reopened, but the work continues to rescue her acclaimed Cucharamama.

As a followup to yesterday's story about the hurricane's impact on Hoboken, Presilla shares her story of the past week: wading in water up to her waist, frantically cleaning all three spaces, the joy of reopening Zafra, the economic blow of Cucharamama's closed doors and the feeling that the cosmos is out to get you. Here now, Maricel Presilla in her own words:

And all of a sudden I saw water up to my window

zafra-far-out-flooding-450.jpgWhat happened was that Hoboken was flooded by river water, which is something that we didn't expect. We always have problems with floods when it rains, but we never saw the river water getting in. At least not to our area at all and not as high as it did. I was home, I live in Weehawken, and it was not really damaged and it wasn't raining that much. I didn't have power so I couldn't see what was really happening in Hoboken. People were caught really unawares that this was actually happening to them. When they looked out the window they saw a wave of water coming in from the river.

So I found out the real situation when I tried to get to Hoboken the next day and I couldn't, essentially. I was detained at every entry. Finally I had to take a back road that I know. And all of a sudden I saw water up to my window. It was really scary to see all that water rushing at me. That was like the alarm. I was expecting to go into Hoboken and find the usual flooded areas but nothing major. When I started getting close to our street that I saw the police cars, that I saw the ambulances, that I said, "We're in deep trouble here."

Thank God I was wearing waterproof boots, so I started wading and thinking that, I couldn't really see the depth of the water until the water started getting into my boots. And as I was getting closer to the restaurants, it was really getting higher and higher. I just realized that it was almost futile because I couldn't even open the doors of the places. Water was getting to my thigh and by the time I was getting close to Cucharamama, it was basically to my waist.

So that was the worst part because you always have a feeling that if you have access to your things that you can save things, that you can make it less painful. But it was obvious to me that I couldn't even open the doors.

Flooding at Zafra. [Photo: Facebook]

For me the broom and the mop, it's like therapy

hoboken-clearing-walkin-450.jpgWe started [cleaning up] first with our store, Ultramarinos, which is on Third Street, right next to Zafra, and we started with Zafra. It's just the moment of the opening of the door when you see the mud. It's kind of an eerie thing. It doesn't register yet because the water's not there anymore how damaging everything is. It sinks in and gets into the fryer. It gets into everything. If you have anything on the floor, it gets destroyed.

And so the clean-up, for us, it's very therapeutic. For me the broom and the mop, it's like therapy. You feel like you're doing something. Because you're so powerless, you cannot do anything. There's no light. And you don't know the extent of the damage because there's no light. You assume, obviously, your stoves are down because of the water. You slowly begin to realize the extent of the damage. To take stock about the things that happened and to throw out stuff.

And then comes the moment of the refrigerators, when you realize there's nothing to do, you have to get rid of everything. There's nothing you can save because there's no light. You know it's not going to get better soon. It's not even the meats and stuff like that, it's so funny. It's the finished product. When you throw tamales, you throw empanadas. Time-consuming things that somebody has spent hours doing? That bothered me more than the huge pieces of meat.

Throwing out food from the walk-in. [Photo: Facebook]

You have to really become frantic with movement and purpose

water-pumping-by-day-450.jpgAnd then when we went to Cucharamama, it really broke my heart. It's a really pretty restaurant. To see that beautiful floor, a Cuban tile floor that we designed, discover it in dirt and the smell of gasoline. There was gasoline everywhere in Hoboken because cars were floating and stuff was coming out. You become frantic cleaning everything, getting all the stuff out. You're trying to save as much as you can.

You begin to take stock and you know you have to replace your water heaters are all damaged, that your walk-in refrigerator you realize the compressor was in the basement. You realize you have to buy new chairs because the upholstery is all damaged. You go through the process and you mourn, but at the same time you realize that won't help a thing. You have to really become frantic with movement and purpose because that's the only way you're going to help.

We were very lucky because we had our employees who descended on Hoboken because they know, you know, everybody needs to work so everybody was there. So it was like a big crew that we had.

Everybody has been cleaning. If you come near me, I give you a broom and say, "Start sweeping."

Pumping the water out. [Photo: Facebook]

It's like starting afresh.

hoboken-cleaning-gas-450.jpgYou have to hose everything down. You have to dry everything thoroughly. You have to use Clorox. You have to disinfect. And everything has to be disinfected, everything. You have to do the walls, the surface, everything, and then you have to wait until things dry. Like the chairs, we had to get them dry before we oiled them and cleaned them and you have to reconstitute the wood.

A flood is a flood. It's dirty water damaging everything and you need to really be super fast. You have to have ventilation, open everything up, and ventilate with fans. And then you have to take stock of whether or not you have to rip up the dry wall. In the case of Cucharamama we had to. So we ripped to the level where the water was high and then we took all that sheetrock and applied ventilators to get it very dry before we could actually put the sheetrock back.

It's a whole dance you have to do and it almost takes you to the first day you opened when you were doing all these things. You were cleaning, you were putting sheetrock on the walls. It gets you back to that. And then it's just like everything. Your menus will get wet, you have to reprint them. It's like starting afresh.

A crew hosing down gasoline spots from the street. [Photo: Facebook]

That was a restoration of our faith, that things could get better for us.

And then Zafra, the day that we reopened, it was almost like the first day of business because we had a very small menu. It made me feel good we were able to cook something different and special that day. And to see people coming in so grateful because a lot of people had not had electricity for the longest time in Hoboken. People coming in for a warm meal. I said, "We have to get candles." I really wanted something romantic and pretty for people to sit down and forget for awhile that they are in the midst of a catastrophic situation. It just made me feel, the smells of food and the sound of laughter in the restaurant was like a restoration of my own spirit. But also knowing that there were a lot of other things that needed to be done.

[We opened] two or three days ago. We got power back there. Once you have power, you can start using the fans and you can start cleaning more effectively. That was a restoration of our faith, that things could get better for us.

We've reached the point where we need to open for survival.

Cucharamama inches toward recovery. [Photos: Facebook]

You have to understand that when you have restaurants close, the loss of income for lack of customers is number one. Then you're still writing checks because you still have to pay your employees. And then you still have to recover all that food you threw out. You have to restock your refrigerator. And you have to start buying water heaters, we had to fix our phones, the cash register was damaged. You start adding up. The worst thing was the compressor of the walk-in refrigerator at our store. That is a gigantic amount of money.

You begin to see also the consequences that a lot of people are not in Hoboken, that there is no PATH train. So you lose your clientele. We get clientele from New York and we get customers from other towns in New Jersey. They're not coming to Hoboken because Hoboken in the news is the hardest-hit area in this neck of the woods. All these things pile up and you wonder about your sanity and you wonder what's going to happen to your businesses because it doesn't look good.

I haven't seen any money yet from the insurance. Haven't seen a cent. So we're running on our reserves and then we still have to pay all these things. So it's not we can sit on our reserves and say, OK, we're closed and then we open and everything is OK. No, you have to pay for every service. [It has cost] thousands. We haven't even figured it out yet. But in the thousands and insurance will not cover what we have lost. It will be something, but insurance will not cover the real extent of this loss. As I say, we are considering ourselves lucky because at least we opened one business.

The question is when can you open the restaurant? You cannot rush things. Things have to get dry. There's a whole process. [At] Cucharamama, we dry the walls and we started putting the sheetrock yesterday. So we will be painting. It's sheetrock of course, you have to put plaster. While we're cleaning, while we're replacing water heaters and replacing other stuff and cleaning and cleaning and cleaning, it seems like a nonstop situation.

So our hope is for this weekend for Cucharamama. We have to. We absolutely have to. Otherwise, there's no way I can do any more. We've reached the point where we need to open for survival. And the money. So that's my situation. The whole psychological and commercial aspects of it all intertwine. think it's some kind of cosmic thing coming at you. It's not

snow-falls-on-garbage-in-hoboken-450.jpgNow we are listening to all the stories, almost ready to blame Sandy as having a vendetta against me particularly because it destroyed my hometown in Cuba. It so happens that particular stupidly named hurricane called Sandy — who names a hurricane Sandy? They should start using Frankenstein and Igor and horrible names to name these monsters. But anyway, Sandy destroyed my hometown and destroyed my grandmother's roof. A colonial town that's already in horrible shape, it destroyed it. And so it came and then flooded my business, so I have a personal thing for Sandy.

It's even a little bit more personal because I just came out with a book, huge book, La Cocina Latina, that I'm supposed to be promoting. I had book signings in San Francisco I had to cancel. Today I'm doing a presentation and I'm doing it for half the public that would have been there normally on a day like this. Yesterday I was at the Leonard Lopate show talking about potatoes. My mind was in cleaning, not potatoes. It's like a nonstop chain of stuff that pours on you.

When you start listening to stories of people who are really close to you, you begin to count your blessings. You know you're in deep shit anyway. It's like everything has been conspiring against everybody in Hoboken, against us. As we were in Zafra, we were listening to all these people tell us their horror stories. Doesn't make it any easier, but at least it gives you a perspective this hurricane was not meant for you. You might have a personal thing against it and you think it's some kind of cosmic thing coming at you. It's not.

We are in a vulnerable area. There was a little tremor yesterday in New Jersey. Two point something in the Richter scale (laughs). I say, "What is this with New Jersey?"

A snow storm hits Hoboken a week after Hurricane Sandy. [Photo: Facebook]

Every day you discover something you have lost

zafra-close-up-flooding-450.jpgAnd the cleaning, oh God, it never ends. For example, we had cleaned the store and we took stuff out of the basement and all that movement of dirty stuff from the basement, again, the whole thing needs to be cleaned. And then we have all this cooking stuff, all these things that need to be cleaned, thoroughly sterilized, put back into their places. You're presented with minute challenges. So we look at a box of papers that we need, receipt stuff, that is like a cake. You have to spread all that stuff out. Something small and precious. I remember two little rabbits that we used for our Easter decoration, wood and beautiful. And they, well, they look ancient so I said well at least they will look like antiques.

Every day you discover something you have lost or something that has been damaged. The worst is obviously that muck and that dirt. And the water mark. That water mark that you see on your walls, it's a killer. Because when you don't see it, you forget. But when you see how high the water was in your place, then you begin to visualize things. You begin to see the stuff floating. You begin to see it in your head how it was.

You have to examine everything that happens to you


Pumping water out of one of the restaurants. [Photo: Facebook]

I had a sense of stupidity that you didn't plan, that you didn't think things through. I didn't put sand bags. I had an event at the store on Sunday, the day before, and that distracted me. Usually, I come from Cuba, so I overkill in preparation. There were a lot of things that I would have done if I had not been distracted. Or even not having electricity, not being able to know the news, not being there like some of my neighbors were there.

You have to examine everything that happens to you because you need to have it as a life lesson. I learned all kinds of things. You need to have like four pairs of waterproof boots if you are in Hoboken. You need to put sand. You have to really be resourceful. If you have any kind of a backup area that has a generator for refrigerators, you need to use it. You have to have phone numbers of contractors that will not charge you an arm and a leg for cleaning up. And not in one place. You have to have at least four names of people who do, for example, the pumping of the water out. Generators. Gasoline. Now we have a list.

I see things differently, I will never go home quietly when there is a hurricane on the way. I will do everything. I will do overkill. I don't care how much money I spent in ways to protect as much as you can. And then you have to pray.

Hopeful and determined, but pissed. Super pissed.

So this is the story. We will return. Of course we will. We will need a vacation afterwards. I don't know if we'll be able to take one (laughs). Because what happens is you have to work three times as hard. You can't do anything else. So this is where we are. Hopeful and determined, but pissed. Super pissed.

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