— Roberto, how did you come to be in Russia?
— The first time, I came to what was still the USSR when I was eighteen. To St. Petersburg, which was called Leningrad back then. I entered the Academy of Civil Aviation (now the Saint Petersburg State University of Civil Aviation – Ed.). I studied there from 1984 till 1989, and as soon as I graduated, I went back to Cuba. But in 1991, I was sent to serve in Angola – Cuba was then assisting the pro-Soviet government there in a war against the RSA. I served there for a year and a half flying in Soviet An-26s and An-50s: I was on board as flight engineer.
In 1995, I decided to come back to Russia, and I married a Russian girl and settled down here permanently. The 90s were a very difficult period in the country’s history: finding work doing what I had been trained in was something I never managed to do. But my friends somehow introduced me to a famous Mexican chef. He was working in a restaurant serving Latin American cuisine on Kuznetsky Most. I went up to him and asked: “Will you teach me?” The desire in me to become a chef was overwhelming, and I do have some kind of head on my shoulders. For two weeks, I simply turned up at the kitchen whilst he got the measure of me. I managed to pick up some of my first professional skills, at which point he said: “You’ll do!”. That was the moment my life as a chef began.
— It turns out, then, that you are a chef without any specialized training. Or did you still have to learn the trade from somewhere?
— I think that there is a chef inside all of us, and at some point, this gift can reveal itself. Given the desire, as the Russians say. And it was there in me. So, once I had accumulated some kind of initial experience, I was already able to go and work in other well-known restaurants in Moscow. But, it goes without saying, I needed professional knowledge too. So, they sent me for training in Spain. There I learned the key characteristics of the cuisine of that country. I got to work in a very well-known steak house: El Gaucho. From where I was dispatched to go and train in the US, in Texas. There I learned all about the production processes for making steaks – from the pasture where the bulls graze, to the counter where the meat is sold.
Another trip to the States was to do with New York – I was opening a Mexican restaurant there. That was also a very interesting experience…
— You have seen a lot of the world, yet you still returned to Russia. Why is that?
— Many of my friends and colleagues live in different countries around the world, and I have had offers to go and work in other countries. But, as they say in the Russian military: “We don’t leave our own behind”. Which is why I stayed in Russia. I have children here, friends. I think that I will live here for the rest of my life.
— How many children do you have?
— Two girls. One is completely grown up now – she is twenty-seven, and the younger one is fourteen.
— Where do you go to spend time with your youngest?
— We wander around the parks, the squares, the boulevards; go around the big stores. We really like Victory Park. There is an open-air Museum of Military Equipment there, a lovely fountain, and you can roller-blade and ride a bike there.
— And do you manage to get over to your homeland at all? Is anything changing in Cuba?
— Yes, of course. I fly to Cuba every year. I mean, I have relatives still there: dad, mum, my brother. That there are dramatic changes afoot on the Island of Freedom, is something I am unable to say. Ordinary folk are not yet feeling them. Changes are still only occurring in the upper political echelons and haven’t yet made their way down to lower levels. But, for example, people already have the right to start their own small businesses. Restaurants, especially. I have had lunch in some of them, had dinner. And I noticed that the quality of the food and service is going up. Unfortunately, there are still few places in Cuba where you can buy good quality produce and ingredients. There aren’t any markets as such, and you have to buy everything from the state. So, restaurateurs and chefs have to look for alternative sources to vary the menus in their establishments.
— Looking at your professional career, it is clear that you were present at the birth of the Russian restaurant scene as it is today. What, in your view, has changed over those years?
— At first, reigning over the nascent private restaurant trade here was, I think you can say, a wild character. But over the years everything in Russia has become civilized and better organized. The chefs and workers in the first private restaurants were in effect powerless: now, though, they can demand that their employers fulfil their contractual obligations, and the standard of management itself has improved a lot. The quality of their dishes and the produce available has risen significantly. There are large companies involved, working in the HoReCa sector, with all the necessary hygiene certificates. Even in the crisis we are able to maintain the requisite standards. Those very cheeses under embargo have been replaced by other ones. They are a little different in the way they taste, but they are equal in terms of quality. It is the same with the meat! If before the meat bought in was exclusively imported, then, with the sanctions, restaurants have switched to that produced in Russia. We, for example, work with producers in Voronezh. It is my opinion that the taste of the meat they offer has excellent qualities. It is not, of course, the same as American or Australian, but it is a very commendable product.
Service in Russia over these years has developed, better trained chefs than before are coming to work in the kitchens.
— And who are the kind of people you take on in your kitchen?
— I only take on those with a Russian passport who know about preparing food and have already worked at well-known places. The probationary period is around about a month. At first they don’t prepare anything to be presented to the guests: they stand next to more experienced colleagues who watch over what they are doing.
— Have you taken on any Cubans?
— If a fellow compatriot were to turn up, then why not? But he would have to have the right professional attributes. At the restaurant “The Latin Quarter”, for example, there was a specialist working with me from Peru.
— What do you delight your guests with at Pub Lo Picasso?
— I came to the restaurant at the start of the year. The menu was already established but I made a few changes to it. I changed the way the meat is prepared, and added a few new dishes: classic gazpacho with crab-meat, prawns in a garlic sauce, and empanadas – puff pastries stuffed with meat. They sell very well, as do the lamb dishes.
— And what do Russian customers like most of all? What do they tend to order?
— Most popular amongst Muscovites are the meat dishes and the paella. What sells very well is the simmered octopus a la Catalan.
— How is your Moscow life arranged? Do you get behind a wheel? Are you not irritated by the sadly infamous Moscow traffic jams?
— I am a car-lover of long-standing. I first got behind a wheel in Moscow over twenty year ago. As far as I can remember, there has always been congestion in the Russian capital, but, of late, what is more worrying is not that so much as that it has become harder to find a parking space. I have to combine different ways of getting around the city, changing to the metro or a taxi.
— As you see it, what are the main changes that have taken place in Moscow over those years?
— Man is a conservative being who always gets used to the one thing: whether that be good or bad is irrelevant. And when something in life changes, out of apathy we say that things were better before because we had got used to living like that. But time passes, and the changes that have taken place already seem part of everyday life, as if they were always there.
Over those years, all lot in Moscow has changed for the better. A huge number of new transport links have appeared, the major roads have been widened, separate lanes for public transport have been created, as has a paid parking system, which has substantially eased the burden on the central part of the city. Moscow is becoming a very modern city!
— Do you keep up contacts with the Cuban diaspora?
— I am not one of those people you will see with my compatriots every week. But in Moscow, on Taganka Square, there is a little Cuban café called “Aruba” where Cubans have been gathering now for many years. If I am passing, I definitely try to look in. It is always possible that I will bump into someone I know there.
Not long ago, I was driving down Leninsky Avenue, and I see an old comrade of mine behind the wheel of the car next to me: a Cuban who I hadn’t seen for years. I shout: “What on earth brings you here?” And it turns out he had come here on business. Moscow, despite its huge scale, is still small!
I know of a group of Cubans who play baseball here: it’s our national game. I have wanted to meet them for a while. Also, once or twice a year, our embassy puts on a party for the Cubans living here. But I don’t really get the opportunity to meet them – the lion’s share of my time is taken up by work, and I like to devote what’s left of it to my children.
— What advice would you like to give to those coming to Russia to work or set up their own business here?
— The first thing to start with: learn Russian. The second is: do everything you can to make sure that all your papers – both personal and the ones to do with your job placement – are in order. Oh, and the third: find a reliable friend or partner who knows the basics of doing business in this country.
— Do you know of any business success-stories amongst your compatriots?
— Yes. There is a very well-known restaurant in Moscow called Old Havana which belongs to Cuban businessmen and restaurateurs, and which opened back in the 90s. Cubans are starting their own small businesses here now, too. For example, anything to do with Cuban cigars which are very popular in Russia. Incidentally, my family in Cuba were also involved in the cigar business. They used to grow tobacco themselves and sell it. My brother left the business not that long ago when he gave up smoking.
— What, in your profession, do you value most of all?
— Good ingredients and the talented hands of a chef. But for me, even more important is what is going on inside: what kind of mood the chef is in when cooking for his guests. I very rarely scold my chefs in the kitchen; in fact, I won’t have them arguing amongst themselves. However way you slice it, there should be a happy atmosphere in the kitchen for starters!