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Latin America Report

A Popular Culinary Couple Leave Miami – And Create A 'Peace Zone' In Venezuela

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Courtesy Leal
Former Miami restaurateurs Edgar Leal (right) and wife Mariana Montero (left, in chef's hat) teach their culinary secrets for charity at their Caracas restaurant, Leal.

These days, Venezuela’s street soundtrack isn’t salsa or joropo. It’s a loop of anti-government chants and blasts of teargas cannisters.

It’s clashes between police and protesters calling for the removal of socialist President NicolásMaduro – as the Western Hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation suffers deeper social, political and especially economic collapse.

But amid the angry unrest and crippling food shortages there are a few sanctuaries where Venezuela’s future looks a little less miserable – even a little less torn apart.

One of them is a Caracas restaurant – with strong Miami ties – called Leal.

RELATED: Venezuela Is A Caribbean North Korea - But The Revolution Won't Exit Soon

Leal’s award-winning gourmet chef, Edgar Leal, and his desserts virtuoso wife, Mariana Montero, have made their restaurant politically neutral turf. It’s a rare place where left, right and center can meet over Caribbean grouper or a glass of Spanish Albariño and discuss how to stop Venezuela’s terrible tailspin.

“We’ve had tables side by side with people who are enemies, but they’ll shake each other’s hands,” Edgar told me by phone from the restaurant. “I mean, here it’s like a peace zone.”

We've had tables side by side with people who are enemies, but here they'll shake each other's hands...And I'll think, This is the way we have to work this out. -Edgar Leal

That matters because political experts say negotiation is the only way Venezuela can resolve issues like holding a presidential recall referendum this year. And, in fact, reports say government and opposition representatives met with mediators last week in the Dominican Republic.

But as important as that bridge-building is, so is the fundraising: Edgar’s affluent customers pay him good money for charity cooking classes, and the proceeds help the rising number of Caracas’ homeless and hungry.

“I think that if we want to stay here,” says Edgar, who grew up between Venezuela and the U.S., “we have to help out.”

As admirable as that is, a lot of South Florida diners wish Edgar and Mariana were back here. They remember the days when the couple ran one of Miami’s most popular restaurants: Cacao.

The Great Recession forced Cacao to close in 2010. But locals like Steve Stein, a Latin American history professor at the University of Miami, still miss it. A lot.

“When you go online to establish a new account and they ask questions like, What was your mother’s maiden name?,” says Stein, “I still put Cacao as my favorite restaurant.”

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Courtesy Edgar Leal

Cacao was nestled on Giralda Avenue in Coral Gables. Edgar and Mariana started with dishes your abuela made. Corn meal cachapas. Seafood ceviche. Anticucho meats. And cacao – dark chocolate desserts.

Then they transformed them into culinary art. Remember the quail in a rose-petal sauce that made everyone want to have sex in the Mexican novel “Like Water for Chocolate”? Edgar figured out how to make it – and stuffed it with chorizo.

“It was a unique fusion of different Latin cuisines,” Stein recalls. “Each one was a special surprise because often the ingredients stood out as parts of a composition. And I haven’t been able to match it anywhere.”

But it wasn’t just the food. It was the sense of community Edgar and Mariana built around the food – the time they spent with their customers. And the diversity of that clientele made you feel Miami really was the nexus of the Americas.

“If Miami is the capital of Latin America, Cacao was its clubhouse,” says Cathleen Farrell, a Cacao regular who’s now communications director at the National Immigration Forum in Washington.

If Miami is the capital of Latin America, Cacao was its clubhouse. You would see people from everywhere, and feeling at home there. -Cathleen Farrell

“You really would see a representation of people from everywhere, and people feeling at home there.”

Stein also remembers Edgar cooking fundraising dinners at Cacao for victims of disasters like Peru’s 2007 earthquake. Since returning to Venezuela a few years ago, Edgar and Mariana have brought that fusion of gastronomy and philanthropy to the disaster there.

Still, it’s not easy finding the most basic foods in Venezuela today – let alone what their recipes call for.

“It’s tough,” Edgar admits. “But you just have to go out and find it. Or I change the menu. Like, if I don’t find chicken I’ll do rooster.”

A lot of employees are counting on his success – as are Venezuelans who benefit from his cooking classes and other charities.

“I could go back to the States,” Edgar says, “but I fell in love with what I’m doing with people here. And I think if people think that way, that will help the country.”

PHONE EXCHANGE

Like his restaurant customers, Edgar’s cooking-class students include socialists and opposition members. He was encouraged recently when he saw a socialist cabinet minister and a top opposition politician cross his restaurant floor at Leal to talk and exchange phone contacts.

“And I thought, ‘That’s the way we have to try to work this out,’” says Edgar.

Leal regulars like Caracas attorney Alfredo de Jesús say they’ve witnessed similar moments.

“This is a place of reconciliation,” says De Jesús, who has no party affiliation.

As for those reports of talks in the Dominican Republic?

Maybe next time they can just stay home and meet at Leal.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.