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How Hoboken Chef Maricel Presilla Recovered After Hurricane Sandy

On October 29, 2012, a superstorm named Sandy swept across the Atlantic seaboard, flooding homes and businesses. One of the hardest hit cities was Hoboken, New Jersey, where James Beard Award-winning chef Maricel Presilla owns two restaurants and a little shop that were all flooded in the storm. What follows is the story of Presilla's year of recovery.

Maricel Presilla had done what she could to avert disaster, leaving Weehawken a little earlier than necessary on the night of May 3, 2013. But, of course, traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel has a way of stymying the best-laid plans, and so there she sat in a standstill for what felt like an hour. Presilla began to sweat. She already felt like a girl from the boondocks heading into Manhattan for the night in her evening wear, and now she was going to be late for the James Beard Awards.

Presilla was nominated that evening for her 900-page cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. Writing the book had taken decades of travel and research, and she knew that it was a strong contender. But she feared the worst. Not only was she competing against well-respected books such as Naomi Duguid's Burma, but that was also just kind of the year she was having.

Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast six months earlier, flooding Presilla's two restaurants and her Latin grocery in Hoboken. When Presilla waded through the flood waters to check on the damage to her properties, she found photographs from the Peruvian Andes floating up from the basement of the shop, a vintage chest made of hide that had become mangled and smelly — and boxes of the newly released cookbook soaking wet on the floor of her office. As Presilla says, book publishing is very much a "promote or perish" industry. And she thought her book was going to die.


Zafra, Hoboken, NJ. [Photo: R. Lopez]

40 Years in the Making

Gran Cocina Latina has been in the making for about 40 years now. In the early 1970s, the Cuban-born Presilla was a doctoral student at New York University working on a dissertation about 13th-century Spain. During a trip to a medieval Spanish monastery near Burgos, however, she realized she had gotten a bit off topic. Rather than taking notes about the dead who were buried in the church, Presilla found herself interrogating the monks about an interesting liquor that she had found. Her curiosity about food was a compulsion that would flare up again on trips to Mexico and across Latin America, resulting in notebooks full of recipes and stories.

Presilla came to realize that these notebooks were her life's work.

These notebooks began as record-keepers for Presilla's own use. But as Presilla's interest in food grew — and particularly as she became close with and worked alongside chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi of Manhattan tapas restaurant the Ballroom — Presilla came to realize that these notebooks were her life's work. And so it was more than a decade ago that Presilla teamed up with renowned cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli to write Gran Cocina Latina, an exhaustive exploration of Latin American cuisines and their common denominators.

Guarnaschelli, then an editor at New York publishing house Scribner, was already looking for a book on Latin American cuisine. It just made sense given the rise of the Hispanic population. She happened to meet Presilla through shared mutual acquaintances while Presilla was shooting a pilot for a television program, and so it was that the two women agreed to work together. When Guarnaschelli left Scribner in 2000 to join W.W. Norton as a vice president and senior editor, she brought Presilla and Gran Cocina Latina with her.

Presilla knew she couldn't just write an armchair book. She couldn't write about Latin American food without first becoming intimately familiar with it. And so she kept traveling, racking up visits to more than 20 countries from Mexico to Argentina in the years that followed. As Presilla writes in the acknowledgements of her book, Gran Cocina Latina became the story of her own life and transformation into a cook and restaurateur in America, "the one country where all Latin cuisines have come to merge."

The book was even a blueprint for Zafra, the restaurant that Presilla opened in 2000 with business partner Clara Chaumont, as well as their second restaurant Cucharamama in 2004. Six years after that, the duo opened a Latin market named Ultramarinos, too. Presilla continued her research into Latin American cuisine and culture. Through it all, she picked up an expertise in chocolate and even wrote a few shorter books. Over the years, her restaurants became both stand-by haunts for Hoboken residents and must-visits for travelers. In 2012, Presilla was the first female Latin chef to collect a James Beard Foundation Award for best chef.


Water-logged copies of Gran Cocina Latina at Ultramarinos. [Photo: R. Lopez]

"Hoboken Was Like a Ghost Town"

Disaster struck Zafra, Cucharamama, and Ultramarinos on October 29, 2012. Hurricane Sandy swept through the region and flooded homes and businesses throughout Hoboken. Cars floated through the streets, which were later blocked off for days and weeks by emergency personnel, and the PATH train providing a crucial link to New York City was shuttered for months. "Hoboken was like a ghost town for awhile," Presilla says.

All three of her businesses were in the flood zone.

All three of her businesses were in the flood zone. In an interview last November, Presilla talked about making her way through police barricades only to discover water that rose up to her waist outside of Cucharamama. (Presilla explains that she only managed to get near her businesses the day after the storm because she told the police she needed to rescue a cat from the restaurant. "For my cat he let me in, but my business is unimportant," she says.)

Inside the restaurants, Presilla discovered thousands of dollars worth of food completely wiped out from the loss of electricity. At Cucharamama, Presilla's set of antique leather Peruvian chairs were spared any serious damage, but the rest of the seating was destroyed. The drywall, too, would need to be replaced.

Inside Ultramarinos, prized chocolates smelled like gasoline, and those old photographs of the Peruvian Andes had floated up to main floor from the basement storage space. Computer equipment and file cabinets that sat on the floor of Presilla's office were flooded. Along with them were two boxes filled with copies of the newly-released Gran Cocina Latina, drenched into a dozen 900-page bricks.

Some employees kept watch at Cucharamama late at night and early in the morning in fear of looting.

Presilla and her team took to cleaning right away. Her staff walked to this Hoboken neighborhood each day — public transportation was lacking, after all — and they cleaned well into the night. Some employees kept watch at Cucharamama late at night and early in the morning in fear of looting. Despite not having any financial backers, Presilla was fortunate to be able to pay her staffers for their efforts. Spared the worst of the damage, Zafra re-opened within days. But Cucharamama and Ultramarinos took a little more time. They needed new sheetrock and replacements for critical equipment such as Cucharamama's walk-in.

Neighbors passing by Cucharamama's windows peered in with obvious dismay while renovations kept the restaurant shuttered. When Cucharamama reopened a few weeks later, these same neighbors stopped in just to thank Presilla for bringing back some normalcy to the crippled city. "For a lot of people in Hoboken, we are an institution," Presilla says. But she still can't quite believe all of the work it took to reopen three businesses at once. "If we had thought about the situation carefully, we would have gone running in the opposite direction," she says.


Hurricane Sandy damaged most of Cucharamama's chairs, which to this day are only replaced with an interim solution (right). Presilla's Peruvian leather chairs, however, made it through unscathed (left). [Photos: R. Lopez]

A Life's Work at Risk

It took the city of Hoboken quite a bit longer to reopen. Lines for gasoline reportedly reached a mile long, and it took weeks to rid the city of the diesel fumes that had leaked from flooded automobiles. Even after the smell had passed, though, Presilla would get out of bed at night and spray perfume in her face just to erase the memory of it. "In my mind, I felt like I was completely covered in bacteria," she says.

Phantom fumes were not all that lingered in the months after Hurricane Sandy.

Phantom fumes were not the only reminders of Hurricane Sandy that lingered in the months that followed. Months after the storm, a refrigerated display case at Ultramarinos that Presilla thought had been salvaged stopped working. Unable to afford an immediate replacement, she used it as extra shelving space in the meantime. In June, Presilla discovered an advanced case of rust on the undercarriage of the car that she had driven to check in on her restaurants after the storm. It landed in the repair shop for a month. And then there was Gran Cocina Latina.

If the only havoc Sandy wreaked on Gran Cocina Latina had been the soaked copies on the floor of Presilla's office, that probably would have been fine. But in the weeks that followed, Presilla began to fear that Sandy's effects would have much more serious implications. Preoccupied with getting her businesses back online, Presilla canceled various presentations and book signings that she had earlier considered to be essential to promoting Gran Cocina Latina. She had literally waited decades for the book's release and now it seemed like the last in a list of priorities. "It was never the way I imagined it," she said.


The entryway to Ultramarinos underwent renovations when more damage was discovered more than six months after Sandy (left). Around the same time, Presilla was finally able to replace a broken refrigerated display case. [Photo: R. Lopez]

Making matters worse, there was tough competition for the 2013 cookbook awards circuit. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi had a huge hit with their book Jerusalem. Naomi Duguid had practically moved to Burma to research her book Burma: Rivers of Flavor. And Presilla had written what many describe as the most comprehensive work on Latin American cuisine to date. Presilla knew her book was good. After all, she says, "Nobody spends a lifetime writing a book." But she also knew the strength of her competitors and how little comparatively she'd been able to do to promote her own. She feared that hers would be done for.

And, at first, it seemed those fears were well-founded. In April 2013, the International Association of Culinary Professionals held its annual awards ceremony. While Gran Cocina Latina won in the general cookbook category, Burma won for culinary travel, and Jerusalem won its international category. But it was Jerusalem that took the top prize, cookbook of the year.

No one seemed willing to predict Gran Cocina Latina a winner.

When the James Beard Awards rolled around, Presilla figured it would be the same. Just like the year before when Esquire writer John Mariani laughed at idea of Presilla winning the Best Chef: Mid Atlantic prize (she did), no one seemed willing to predict Gran Cocina Latina a winner. Presilla's editor Guarnaschelli tells the story of a literary agent who approached her at the James Beard Awards to exchange predictions for cookbook of the year. Guarnaschelli didn't want to make one. Of course she wanted Presilla to win, but didn't want to assume anything. "You hope you win and you don't like to count on it too much," she says. The oblivious agent, however, rattled off the three books she thought were contenders for the title. Not one of these three books was Gran Cocina Latina.

In fact, Presilla recalls that only Eater National deputy editor Paula Forbes named Gran Cocina Latina to win her category. It was a dark horse pick that Forbes explains she made in part because it was so rare to see a cookbook go so in-depth. "It was refreshing to see someone dedicate themselves to a subject to this extent," she says. But Presilla wasn't so sure if anyone else would agree when May 3, 2013 rolled around.


Cucharamama, Hoboken, NJ. [Photo: R. Lopez]

At the Winner's Table

Sweating in that traffic outside of the Lincoln Tunnel, Presilla had what she describes as a true moment of clarity. Somehow persuading the drivers around her to make way, Presilla pulled a u-turn and headed straight for Port Imperial. She parked illegally and sprinted toward a departing ferry in her high heels, making it inside just as the doors were closing. Once in Manhattan, she convinced her taxi driver to book it and improbably arrived at the James Beard Foundation Book, Broadcast & Journalism Awards at 6:45 p.m. — just at the end of the pre-ceremony cocktail hour.

"It was either that I'm winning or that this is a joke on me." — Presilla

When Presilla arrived, all she wanted to do was fade into the background. It had been a trip from hell. But then she was ushered to Table 23 in the center of the hall, with Guarnaschelli seated to her left and James Beard Foundation president Susan Ungaro seated to her right. "I thought it was excruciatingly painful," Presilla says. "It was either that I'm winning or that this is a joke on me."

Ultramarinos, Hoboken, NJ. [Photo: R. Lopez]

But Gran Cocina Latina lost to Jerusalem in the international cookbooks category. During intermission, Presilla's friends on the cookbook awards committee offered her their apologies. Presilla felt awful. She just wanted to escape. But then she remembered there was still one more award to go: Cookbook of the Year. As Guarnaschelli recalls, "It was like a meteor struck her and she said, 'Maria, I think something very good is going to happen to us tonight.'" She hastily wrote an acceptance speech on her iPhone right there at the table. Just in case.

And, indeed, Gran Cocina Latina won the evening's marquee prize. "She deserved to win," Guarnaschelli says. "It's a terribly immodest thing for the editor to say, but considering the amount of time and effort and blood and sweat that went into this book... Even though it's daunting to look at, it's a book you can cook from." JBF president Ungaro agrees. In an emailed statement, she calls Gran Cocina Latina "the Bible of Latin food," adding, "[Presilla's] historical chefs perspective on the multiple ways Latin flavors and ingredients have influenced how America eats was an immediate hit."


Zafra, Hoboken, NJ. [Photo: R. Lopez]

"Hoboken is Back"

Now that awards season has passed, Presilla and Guarnaschelli have turned their attention back to book sales. After all, Guarnaschelli says, "Awards don't necessarily sell books." Presilla is hiring a publicist who knows how to reach the Latin market. She's making up the various talks and signings she had to cancel post-Sandy. And her promotional schedule has ramped up throughout the year. It's now in full swing, stacked with conferences such as the Culinary Institute of America's Latin Flavors conference held in San Antonio earlier this month.

Over the course of the last year, Presilla says, her book has become its own entity. At a recent signing, a woman handed Presilla an already-worn copy of the book, full of notes, marked pages, and the woman's own recipes. "When you see that, you realize this book belongs to her now," Presilla says. Despite having worked on it for 40 years of her life, Presilla no longer feels like the owner of Gran Cocina Latina.

"It isn't a nice message that I leave." —Chaumont on tracking down tardy insurance payments.

Meanwhile, Presilla is still working on getting Zafra, Cucharamama, and Ultramarinos back to normal. Insurance payments are still lagging for everyone whose property lay in Sandy's path. Presilla and her business partner Chaumont were paid for the relatively light damage at Zafra within about six months of Hurricane Sandy, but now it has been nearly a full year without insurance payment for either Ultramarinos or Cucharamama. Chaumont calls to check on the status of those payments every week. As she says, "It isn't a nice message that I leave."

But Presilla says that the damage to her Hoboken business "sounds really menial" compared to her friends and neighbors who lost their homes. She and Chaumont have spent the past year repairing things as steadily as finances will allow. They just recently replaced that refrigerated display case at Ultramarinos, a top priority. But then they discovered damage to the wooden floor beneath a radiator in the front of the store, calling for a remodel of the entrance. Of course, Presilla thinks the shop's entrance now looks better than ever, but admits they still haven't replaced the floor tiles. She's also still saving up to replace the dining room chairs in Cucharamama. Chairs are a luxury.

Business was good again this past Summer at Zafra, Cucharamama, and Ultramarinos.

Now, it's hurricane season again on the Atlantic seaboard. Local officials and residents have spent the past year looking at how to prevent any future superstorms, but Hoboken remains flood-prone. Some of the city's hardest hit restaurants have closed.

But a lot more of Hoboken's restaurants have reopened since the storm. And business was good again this past Summer at Zafra, Cucharamama, and Ultramarinos. Though Presilla may never feel totally at ease again during hurricane season — she watches carefully now whenever there is inclement weather — she declares nonetheless: "Hoboken is back."

Maricel Presilla. [Photo: R. Lopez]

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