I booked lunch at Giovanna's Cafe my first day in San Juan, Puerto Rico, planning to meet with chef Giovanna Huyke. Called "the Julia Child of Puerto Rico," she reputedly has revolutionized Puerto Rican cuisine.
When fresh yucca chips with a fragrant garlic sauce called ajilimojili (a-he-lee-mo-he-lee) were served, I knew I was in for something special -- but not an interview with Giovanna Huyke, it turned out. No, the pioneer of the new Caribbean cuisine was in bed with a slipped disk and had sent her mother.
Her mother? Well, Alice Huyke has been a celebrated cooking teacher in Puerto Rico for more than 30 years. And Giovanna likes to say she was born on her mother's kitchen table, where xTC herbs, sauces and international flavors brought her into the world of food.
So, when I returned to the restaurant a second time and learned that Giovanna was "still in bed," I spoke at length with her mother. She filled me in on her daughter's background -- how she sold pastries to neighbors as a 10 year old, how she took cooking classes and traveled abroad as a teen-ager to experience other cuisines. Later, Giovanna cooked at San Juan's Caribe Hilton with international chefs. She opened Amadeus in Old San Juan, then Don Juan in the El San Juan Hotel.
By the late 1980s Giovanna was famous for reviving such traditional, Spanish-inspired Puerto Rican dishes as arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), gazpacho with avocado and codfish, mofongo (mashed plantains with bacon) and asopao (meaty soup). Before long she was on television daily, demonstrating her "nouvelle criollo" cooking.
Last year she opened Giovanna's Cafe, where she serves classic dishes with a personal twist, especially in the sauces. As an evangelist for the traditional Puerto Rican kitchen, Giovanna scours the island for native foods, and she cooks with local ingredients purchased every morning at the Plaza del Mercado.
So where did I finally catch up with Giovanna? At a food conference in Hawaii. This is what she had to say: "I admire classic cooking but I admire more what my ancestors gave me. When you cook, your kitchen should smell like your mother's kitchen."
Her ajilimojili had been haunting my taste buds and, not surprisingly, it turned out to be a version of her mother's garlic sauce. "In every part of the island it will mean something different," Giovanna told me. "You can add hot peppers and tomatoes. You can use lemon juice in place of vinegar. You can use more or less garlic."
Giovanna also suggests mashing avocado with the sauce for a dip, or adding it to mayonnaise for salad dressing. I find the
ajilimojili as delicious with french fried potatoes as with yucca chips.
"It's also great to serve with pork because it counters the greasiness," the chef said. "And it's a wonderful marinade for meats, chicken and fish. My customers like it so much that I'm planning on bottling it." She should.
GIOVANNA'S AJILIMOJILI SAUCE
1/2 onion, quartered
5 cloves garlic, or to taste
1/2 sweet Italian pepper or green bell pepper, seeded and sliced
1/4 red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
1 bunch coriander with stems, chopped
3-4 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon fresh oregano (omit if not available)
salt to taste
1 bay leaf, optional
At least a 1/2 hour before serving, combine all ingredients in a food processor and process until creamy. Store in refrigerator. Makes about 1 cup.