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No one would guess from looking at Giovanna Huyke that she's one of the most important figures in Puerto Rican cuisine. She's barely over five feet tall, 62 years old, and completely unassuming. When I ask her what it was like to be the first woman to work the line in a Puerto Rican restaurant kitchen, she runs her hand through her short red hair and leaves it going every which way. I can tell she's trying not to cry. She takes off her glasses and wipes them down. "They didn't think I was going to make it," she laughs, "but I made it."
Huyke did indeed make it. Often considered the Julia Child of Puerto Rican cuisine, with celebrated restaurants, TV shows that spanned over two decades, and handfuls of accolades, Huyke has achieved more than most chefs on the island. In fact, The New York's Daily News credited her with founding Nouvelle Puerto Rican when she was just 29 years old. Yet she still faces an uphill climb to get funding for new ventures.
Throughout her accomplished career, Giovanna’s tried multiple times to get a loan for a restaurant of her own. Even though she has incredible financial history and an eye-popping record of success, she’s been denied every time. One banker even went so far as to tell her that male restaurateurs needed the money more than female restaurateurs. When Giovanna asked why, they sputtered that men were the “providers”.
"It is what it is," she says, taking a deep breath.
When Huyke started her career 40 years ago as a lowly prep cook at the Caribe Hilton Hotel women were considered a distraction in the male-dominated kitchen. Good enough for prep work at best, but never on the line. That was a man's place until Gio came along. "At that time, kitchens were a very toxic environment."
"While most island restaurants focused on serving classic European dishes (as if to prove they belonged in the room), Huyke celebrated Puerto Rican cuisine."
In the ‘80s, it was perfectly fine for chefs to talk down to women. Coworkers could get away with grabbing women and calling them mami, slang for a girl they'd like to get pregnant. She watched helplessly as men took credit for recipes that women had developed. "It was hard," she sighs. "It was very hard."
She fought her way through the ranks, shaking off cutting remarks from fellow chefs intent on making her quit. Within a few years, she was helming her first spot, Amadeus, making her the first woman on the island to run both a restaurant and a kitchen. But it was her food that stood out. While most island restaurants focused on serving classic European dishes (as if to prove they belonged in the room), Huyke celebrated Puerto Rican cuisine.
"I just wanted people to notice that this island is unique; our food is unique. We shouldn't be put in this little bag with every other Latino. So I presented La Cocina Criolla, but elevated," she says.
Huyke is proud of her island's bounty and loves showing it off. As a young chef, she made bearnaise with tart lime juice and smoky rum. She whipped salt cod into a French brandade and placed it on top of crispy tostones, fried green plantains that are smashed, then fried again. She took morcilla—blood sausage made in the hills of Puerto Rico—and transformed it into a velvety pâté.
"People loved my little purses," she says, referring to the wonton wrappers she would shape to hold a garlicky pork scented with recao, a pungent herb that grows wild on the island. "It was new then," she laughs.
It's no surprise that Huyke was the first Puerto Rican to light a stove at the James Beard House in 1992. Yet, when the invitation was extended, no one in the island’s culinary scene seemed to care. "I knew how important it was, but I don't think anyone else did. Puerto Ricans didn't know about James Beard back then."
But Huyke did. She created a menu unlike anything that the Jame Beard House patrons had seen before. It included earthy Green Banana and West Indian Pumpkin Pasteles stuffed with a briny Seafood Sofrito. Hazelnut Meringues, so light they felt like they could defy gravity, were served with Coconut Cream Mousse and then drizzled with a marmalade made of perfumed rum and grosellas, a star-shaped gooseberry known for its tartness. She closed the dinner with a strong cup of Puerto Rican coffee and a sampling of the criollo candies you can find people selling at roadside stands. She brought Puerto Rico to one of the fanciest tables in the world with just one request:"Get to know us."
Forty years later, she still asks for Puerto Rican cuisine to be recognized at the highest levels. "Our food is exquisite."
Though Huyke’s innovative dishes put her on the culinary map, they weren’t what made her a household name. When she married and had kids, she left the grueling life of a chef and transformed herself into a food TV personality. The young mother turned an appearance on a local TV station into a career. She wrote and hosted La Cocina de Giovanna (Giovanna’s Kitchen), En Casa con Giovanna (At Giovanna’s House) and Giovanna Prime Time, all shows that aired five days a week. She spent nearly 20 years teaching Puerto Ricans how to cook, encouraging them to buy local ingredients and steer away from canned, processed foods. She pioneered the farm-to-table movement on an island that imports 85% of its food.
"I wanted to get a generation excited about food. I wanted people to know how special the gift of ingredients is." It worked. Many of Puerto Rico’s young chefs credit Huyke for sparking their love of all things culinary.
Let’s just take count. She was the first woman to run a restaurant in Puerto Rico and the first Boricua to cook at the James Beard House. She was lauded as founding Puerto Rican Nouvelle cuisine by the New York Daily News. She inspired multiple generations to break free of processed foods with almost 20 years of weekday TV shows. And she lit the spark responsible for some of Puerto Rico’s most innovative modern cuisine. Did I mention that while filming and raising a family, she also wrote and self-published 19 cookbooks? And that even though she is in her 60s and has to wear both a wrist and ankle brace, she still runs an award-winning kitchen at Boston’s La Fabrica Central?
So, where are the lifetime achievement awards? The book offers? The restaurant chains to helm?
"I'm a woman." she laughs. "Gender shouldn't matter, but we still have to fight for a place at the table. It's still harder in Puerto Rico as a woman. Banks are run by men, and they fund other men. They don't lend money to women. So we don't get the same opportunities as men do. We don't headline food festivals. We don't get the same amount of press. But we're going to change that."
Huyke smiles wide, and her voice raises with pride. "There are some badass women chefs in Puerto Rico right now, and they're cooking their hearts out! It's very emotional for me. There's finally a stage for these women to shine."
A stage that would not exist without Huyke. But she doesn't care about accolades; she cares about change. She wants women to get treated equally in the restaurant industry.
"Will it happen in my lifetime?" She looks off and takes a deep breath. "I sure hope so."