Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. However, when “home” is the beautiful island of Puerto Rico and you’ve built an impressive resume working around the world, you can in fact go home again. And that’s exactly what Juan Jose Cuevas did.
“I returned to Puerto Rico to be a part of Condado Vanderbilt,” he explains. “After being outside of Puerto Rico for 20 years, I was ready to use my experiences to service the island.”
The Puerto Rico native and executive chef at San Juan’s Condado Vanderbilt Hotel oversees the kitchens of the acclaimed 1919 Restaurant, Ola Oceanfront restaurant, the property’s new venture Tacos & Tequila, as well as banquet food and beverage.
In contrast to the formal and elegant 1919 Restaurant, Cuevas launched Tacos & Tequila in January 2016. A partnership with Patron Tequila, the new restaurant overlooks the hotel’s beach and features and open-air concept layout. Groups can use the space, along with the East Patio for private banquets, receptions and parties.
A Culinary Institute of America graduate, Cuevas began his career at three-star Michelin restaurant Arkelare in San Sebastian, Spain. After a few years in San Francisco, New York and back in Spain, Cuevas found himself as sous chef at Lespinasse in New York, where the restaurant received the highest accolade a food critic for The New York Times can award a New York restaurant: four stars.
His next move was joining noted Chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill New York City, where they both obtained international recognition thanks to Cuevas’ culinary skills and Barber’s commitment to the farm-to-table concept, which Cuevas took with him and applies to his menus at the Condado Vanderbilt.
In Puerto Rico, Cuevas combines what he knows and loves about the island and the skills he learned from his experiences abroad. His menus are rebuilt seasonally depending on what is available and he works closely with local farmers. He stresses the importance of working with purveyors on the island to incorporate the flavors of the Puerto Rico, past and present.
“Local produce has more nutrients and tastes better. Plus, using it helps the local economy,” Cuevas says. “Puerto Rican food equals local produce. Some of our dishes have the same flavors that I remember from my childhood, but we add more technique and refinement to it.”
The 319-room hotel, which opened in December 2014, is located oceanfront in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan and was originally built in 1919 by Frederick William Vanderbilt. With 30,000 square feet of meeting space, including the Patio Del Fauno Ballroom that can accommodate up to 600 guests, Chef Cuevas and his team see groups year-round.
Cuevas’ passion for using local ingredients in a sophisticated manner carries over to cooking for larger parties. When asked his favorite dishes to serve to groups, the chef replied, “I love serving fish. Raw, grilled, roasted—especially in salads.”
At the hotel, groups can participate in programs in and around the kitchen, based on their needs and interests. From a wine pairing dinner at 1919 Restaurant with Cuevas present to guided diners, and from pasty classes from in-house Pastry Chef Nasha Fondeur Diaz to mixology classes, all can be catered to groups of all sizes. Chef Cuevas sums it up: “At the Vanderbilt, everything is possible.”