JARABACOA, Dominican Republic – When she decided to go back to her roots in the Dominican Republic and leave behind the kitchens in Madrid where she had won fame, Chef Maria Marte undertook a special kind of return trip, a culinary journey into the past to discover the indigenous roots of Dominican gastronomy.
“I’m focused on examining and researching everything to do with our gastronomy, our food products and also those of our ancestors,” Marte told EFE in an interview in her native village of Jarabacoa, a peaceful mountain town surrounded by fertile fields of vegetable crops that now provide the raw material for her very specialized laboratory.
THE TAINO ROOTS OF DOMINICAN GASTRONOMY
Her culinary journey to the past, specifically, provides the chef with the root of the guayiga palm, a basic ingredient in the diet of the indigenous Tainos, but which was generally forgotten after the Spanish colonization, though it left its mark on the gastronomy of this Caribbean nation.
The guayiga, Marte said, is a root with which the Tainos made “their bread,” the cassava, a crunchy cake still served on Dominican tables, but which today is made with yucca flour.
“As a cook, I first want to take an exhaustive spin around Dominican gastronomy,” the chef said, who plans to draw up a tasting menu of 16 dishes, “all of true Dominican origin, but all obviously transformed into gourmet delights.”
Marte aims to “reinvent” Dominican gastronomy and said the cuisine of her country is distinguished by its “special flavors,” which she attributes to the quality of the land.
“Our earth is very productive and what it grows in my country has a very special flavor. As people say here, this is a blessed land. And I think the taste of Dominican gastronomy identifies it and above all makes it special in comparison with that of other countries,” she said.
THE “WARRIOR” CHEF
Marte speaks proudly of the decision she took a year ago to leave the prestigious Club Allard restaurant in Madrid, where she started as a dishwasher and left as a chef with a number of awards in her backpack, to apply herself to other projects.
“I’m not sorry about anything. The other day I thought I had done more in one year than I had during my 16 years in Madrid. Changes are for the brave. In the end, I see myself as a warrior, a brave woman. These changes for me have meant nothing but growth – professionally, emotionally and above all in a personal way.”
Besides her culinary research, Marte heads a catering company dedicated to private events, with which she works chiefly in Santo Domingo and in the hotels of Punta Cana.
“The truth is we’re doing very well. The Dominican Republic’s gastronomy has progressed so much. People love the tasting menus more every day. And that was something new in the Republic,” she said.
The chef revealed her plans to open a restaurant, though she won’t yet give any details nor say where it will be located.
“A cook like me can’t stop thinking, can’t stop creating and can’t stop doing things; we just don’t stop,” she added.
PROJECTS OF SOLIDARITY
Marte, born of a poor family, said she remains involved in the solidarity projects she promotes in her native Jarabacoa.
“It’s one of the things that most affect me,” she said.
With the money she won with an award, the chef began to support a cooking school for poor girls in Jarabacoa and has already helped three of them move to Madrid to study.
“What I want is for them to emerge as real professionals from a school or from somewhere like the Club Allard so they come out of there with a degree – something I never had. And that’s no secret to anyone.”
The chef said she wants to keep helping young people who need it, and every other person “to whom I can lend a helping hand.”
“The Maria Marte Foundation will work to help those most in need,” she added. “It doesn’t have to be just women – there are lots of needy boys and if I can help with their training, may God give me the strength to keep helping.”