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© Ron David Butler

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The Kitchen Renegade

At El Departamento de la Comida, one of Puerto Rico’s most visible recovery organizations, chef Verónica Quiles runs the show

It’s morning in San Salvador, a rural community in Caguas, Puerto Rico, just 45 minutes outside of San Juan. The coqui have quieted their nightly chorus, and the roosters clock in for morning shift, sending a staggered series of crows across the distant hillsides. Wind rustles the serrated leaves of the breadfruit trees, and a pleasant breeze blows through the concrete house that rests on El Departamento de la Comida’s new farm property. Verónica “Vero” Quiles is already up and moving, her natural state. She sweeps the concrete floors, empties the trash cans, and replaces the outhouse bucket. Following her are a trusted cabal of companions — dogs Caye and Chayote, a black and white kitten Baby J, and Pikika the chicken. Every so often, she disciplines Chayote, the recalcitrant child of the group.

Quiles is the quiet chef behind El Departamento de la Comida, the agroecological collective created in 2010 by Tara Rodríguez Besosa. Since its inception, El Departamento has been a living, breathing entity in the movement toward Puerto Rican food sovereignty, shapeshifting over the years — from CSA to food hub to beloved restaurant to, post-Hurricane Maria, a fund dedicated to volunteer brigades and pop-ups — to meet the needs of Puerto Rican producers in real time. Over the years, the community has connected to El Departamento’s mission most viscerally through its innovative plant-based fare, served at El Depa’s restaurant locations and subsequent pop-ups. Since 2016 the food has been at the hand of Quiles, though there is little mention of her to be found.

© Ron David Butler

If you’ve come across the multitudes of press for El Departamento de la Comida, you have likely encountered the lithe image of Rodríguez Besosa, whose likeness has become synonymous with the organization. A leader in Puerto Rico’s food sovereignty movement, Rodríguez Besosa became a nationally known personality after Hurricane Maria devastated the archipelago in September 2017; it was Rodríguez Besosa who swiftly organized the Puerto Rican Resilience Fund to assist farmers in the aftermath, garnering the media’s wide attention. Rodríguez Besosa organized to help Puerto Rican growers via la GuaGua Solidaria, a van that promised to travel across Puerto Rico helping farmers recover, repair, and restore their properties. Thus began El Departamento as volunteer brigade. As of January 2019, El Departamento de la Comida entered its next iteration as a nonprofit organization focused on regenerative and resilient agroecology projects across Puerto Rico.

Thanks to Hurricane Maria’s damage and the recovery efforts of its two main figures, El Departamento de la Comida’s restaurant space has been shuttered since Maria hit. Like many Puerto Ricans in the wake of the storm, displacement defines the experience, and Quiles is a chef without a home.

“You hungry?” Quiles asks, unwrapping seitan embustido, her signature vegan sausage, leftover from a cooking gig the night before. Her hands are petite and tattooed; a portrait of Lolita Lebrón, famed Puerto Rican nationalist, is etched on her left forearm. Quiles has found work in sporadic ways — feeding volunteer brigades, the infrequent catering gig, jumping in at friends’ establishments, and engineering the occasional pop-up, mostly to raise funds for El Depa’s benefit.

For Quiles, feeding people is an act as natural as breathing; a compulsion that has propelled her through some of the finest kitchens in New York City, including Calle Ocho during Alex Garcia’s reign, Cafe Boulud with Andrew Carmellini, and Gramercy Tavern with Tom Colicchio. She spent a year in New Orleans at Commander’s Palace under the late Jamie Shannon, where she learned the art of turtle soup and techniques that she’d eventually take back home, from scratch-made Worcestershire to a perfect roux. The fine dining gauntlet was Quiles’ culinary school; the hustle of New York City and New Orleans as formative as years of pressure are on a lump of coal pre-diamond. But Quiles, a lifelong vegetarian (she never acquired a taste for meat), missed a connection to the land and its natural abundance.

In 2003, she landed in New Hampshire at Susty’s Cafe, a vegan restaurant where she connected directly to local farms and time-honored traditions like bread making. She learned how to make her famous seitan and realized a long-time dream of hers: to work in a vegetarian establishment. Her time at Susty’s was pivotal, a precursor to the non-traditional role she would assume at El Departamento.

When Quiles returned to Puerto Rico in 2004, she caught the attention of Alfredo Ayala, the father of modern Puerto Rican cuisine, who became her chef-mentor. Ayala’s famed restaurant Ali-Oli was born in a garage, and lauded by wealthy politicians, celebrities, and fellow chefs including Eric Ripert. In the prologue to the 2004 book, Puerto Rico: Grand Cuisine of the Caribbean, written by José Luis Díaz de Villegas, Ripert writes of the culinary revolution pioneered by Ayala: These “extremely creative and talented chefs draw inspiration from Puerto Rico’s bounty, and they are reinventing their own cuisine… to create an intelligent fusion between their own heritage and Eastern or Western influence... Their cooking is a tribute not only to their own culture, ingredients, farmers and growers, but also to Mother Earth.”

Quiles, who possesses deft culinary training and a deep knowledge of Puerto Rico’s foodscape, embodies this exact sentiment. Yet, after two decades in the restaurant industry, she found her footing away from the glamour and hustle of fine dining. El Departamento was scrappy and grassroots, its first restaurant space was constructed in a former garage. Rodríguez Besosa and Quiles would drive from farm to farm to pick up food, no matter the size of the haul, and the kitchen was makeshift, run by individuals with no formal culinary experience. However, its vision to honor native ingredients, cook ethically, and support Puerto Rican producers was a fit for Quiles’s own subversive culinary ideals.

“People think you have to be in a big restaurant, but I prefer to be here with my freedom,” says Quiles. Currently, the farm property runs on minimal solar power and water is supplied through rainwater catchment. Watching her move about the camp-like kitchen, where milk crates double as shelves, and wash tubs replace actual sinks with running water, restaurant life feels light years away.

The first time I met Verónica Quiles, it was inside the dimly lit Santurce tiki bar, Jungle Bird, one year after Hurricane Maria. I was with two chef friends who were to participate in an upcoming pop-up for El Departamento de la Comida with Quiles and Paxx Caraballo Moll, one of El Depa’s first chefs, currently of the popular Jungle BaoBao. Quiles arrived late to the meeting. She wore combat boots and spoke in low, almost indecipherable tones, void of any urgency, save a small chef’s notebook to jot a few notes. Demure, but punk rock.

The day of the pop-up, the visiting chefs prepped in El Departamento’s commissary kitchen with Quiles. In a cut-off Misfits shirt and a durable apron in workman’s khaki, her glasses pushed atop a bob of girlish ringlets, Quiles prepared a spicy guava sorbet and sweet plantain gnocchi, wearing the looming countdown to service like a loose garment.

When we broke for lunch, Quiles opened up about the hurricane over a Heineken and a plate of arroz con gandules.

El Departamento de la Comida’s farm property in San Salvador — and its outdoor kitchen.
© Ron David Butler
© Ron David Butler

“I stayed 14 hours with that monster,” she says, recounting the harrowing night she spent with Hurricane Maria. She had evacuated her home on the water and fled to Rodríguez Besosa’s fifth-floor apartment with two dogs, a cat, and her pet chicken. It would be three days before the water levels went down enough for her to assess the damage done to the restaurant. Even then, her small car couldn’t pass through the flooded streets. Instead Quiles rode a bike through the washed out apocalyptic landscape, only to find most of the restaurant’s equipment, including two freezers, belly-up in the flood waters. Over the next few days, alone, Quiles did her best to salvage what she could from the restaurant, all the while navigating the harsh realities of such an event, like squatters and looters.

Since then, she’s quietly weathered the displacement, humbly feeding people without a second thought. She’s fashioned makeshift kitchens on brigade in places where power and water were scarce or nonexistent, creating nourishing vegetarian meals out of thin air. For most pop-up collaborations, Quiles sources the ingredients, manages logistics, and often executes the lion’s share of the mise en place before the guest chefs arrive. During our last visit, she was busy collecting, prepping, and packing fresh ingredients for a pop-up in New Orleans during Resistance Served. Nowadays, she packs coolers and boxes into the backseat of her beat-up car, lugging them from location to location without complaint.

“I’ve been cooking like this since Maria,” says Quiles. “It’s been very difficult.”

If Rodríguez Besosa is the sail that guides El Departamento de la Comida, Quiles is the keel, the culinary backbone that transmits El Departamento’s message of self-determination and sustainability to the community at-large via the plate.

“Vero brings a lot of intimacy to the kitchen,” says Rodríguez Besosa. “One of the major things about eating Vero’s food is that it’s a very personal experience.”

As a child, Quiles gravitated toward the natural world. She found kinship with guava trees, and even started a small enterprise selling foraged fruit. In the mountains of Caguas, she still gasps with delight when she sees ripe pitanga (Surinam cherry) on a tree, and she is wont to pull over if she spots chayote growing wild on twisted vines. On the farm, Quiles works primarily with native ingredients, items that she forages from the lush hillsides, plucks from the burgeoning garden space, a CSA share, or gathers from her rural neighbors.

Quiles prepares lunch on the farm: yucca and calabaza empanadas with eggplant.
© Ron David Butler
© Ron David Butler

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Quiles prepares lunch for a small group, including myself. She cuts a banana leaf from a tree just steps away from the kitchen, removes the broad leaf from its rib and cuts uniform rectangles to encase empanada filling — a mix of yucca and calabaza with locally made Ayurdobo spice (a portmanteu of “Ayurvedic” and “adobo”) from Finca Pajuil. She lightly passes each square of banana leaf over the grill flame. The leaf surrenders to the heat, becoming more pliant. She’ll spoon the prepared filling into the banana leaf and fold it into a perfect parcel before cooking it. To accompany the empanadas, she serves meaty chunks of eggplant and a tomato sauce fortified with aji dulce peppers, plus a simple salad of lettuce and foraged greens with raw onions and baby tomatoes, dressed with oil, vinegar, and sea salt. It’s not fancy, like the gorgeous composed plates I’ve seen her do at pop-ups, but it’s exacting and colorful, infused with care.

But even here on the farm, in a space that more closely suits who she is today, Quiles remains a chef in benevolent purgatory, awaiting the time when she has a proper kitchen again. With the purchase of El Departamento’s farm property, she’s one step closer.

Kieran Murray, co-director of El Departamento, says 2019 plans for the nonprofit have been distilled into four interconnected areas — Agency, Resource Library, Farm, and Kitchen. As a service agency, El Departamento aims to support three farm projects that will include a community-run garden, an agroforestry project, and a permaculture farm. The resource library, the first of its kind to aggregate farm tools and equipment for area farms, is in motion, thanks in part to a recent Plow to Plate grant issued by World Central Kitchen.

On the farm, and subsequently in the kitchen, the movement to becoming fully operational is markedly slower. Infrastructure needs and renewable resources are being duly assessed, and the requisite need to tend the soil and build the land will take time. Once in place, the farm will focus on seed production for Puerto Rican farmers and ingredients for value-added products, a part of the kitchen component, of which Quiles will play an important role. Rodríguez Besosa envisions communal housing for farm guests, and later, apartments for her and Quiles.

Quiles’ dream lives just at the bottom of the property.

From the dining table where lunch is served, I can see all the way down the long, steep driveway to the small river that crosses at the farm’s entrance. Three flags hang in announcement of its inhabitants — a rainbow pride flag, the tri-colored Puerto Rican flag, and its black and white counterpart indicative of the struggle for sovereignty. On a small patch of ground on the river’s bank, is the space where Quiles sees her small kitchen concept, El Gallino. Named as a cheeky reference to her queer identity and to the animal most beloved to her, El Gallino will be an intimate off-grid space, serving 10 to 12 people at a time, where Quiles can cook her brand of honest food straight from the surrounding land.

As El Departamento shifts its organizational priorities and establishes roots on the new farm, Quiles formulates her long-term vision, driven by a dedication to Puerto Rican agriculture, her soul compulsion to cook, and the desire, like all of us, to have a place to call home.

For now she cooks like always, albeit without much recognition. That suits Quiles just fine. The nourishment she gets from cooking comes not from accolades or flashy praise, but from the act itself.

Keia Mastrianni is a food and agriculture writer based in western North Carolina.
Ron David Butler is a photographer and filmmaker based in Toronto, Canada.
Fact-checker: Dawn Mobley
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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