A little while back I finally had a chance to meet and chat with the man behind the highly regarded, Old Havana Sandwich Shop. Cuban native and Durham resident, Roberto Copa Matos, invited me behind the counter to a side room. He had half a dozen pork loins (sourced locally from Green Button Farms) laid out and was preparing them for the curing process. I watched Roberto under a tan fedora, in a light blue collared shirt and white apron as he placed a small ceramic bowl onto a scale and meticulously weighed out salt for each piece of meat. There was an intensity in his face that made me wonder if he would be a difficult person to talk to. Sometimes when I meet someone for the first time to talk about their culinary business, I worry that I am intruding. Here they are trying to operate a busy kitchen, and along I come with my camera asking a battery of questions.
It did not take long for me to realize, that like most of the people who’s kitchens I have invited myself into, Roberto was excited to talk about cooking, his personal journey from Cuba to the USA, family, and how he met the dominant passions in his life, first his wife Elizabeth and Old Havana Sandwich Shop in the old tobacco capital of Durham, North Carolina.
LESSONS LEARNED IN THE OLD HAVANA MARKET.
Roberto firmly rubbed the the final grains of course salt into the last loin then placed them all uncovered in the refrigerator. Washing his hands he explained how operating a restaurant has been an ongoing learning experience, “from the beginning we were working with the whole animal but throwing away many things that we could use.” Not a trained chef or having prior restaurant experience, Roberto and his wife Elizabeth (who works part-time and at OHSS, handles marketing and some of the menu ideas) have learned on the fly and constantly adapted by listening to customers and taking cues from their balance sheet. It was shortly after the 3:00pm weekday closing time and the last few customers just made their way out the door. Roberto invited me to take a seat as he placed his trademark fedora on the table. He went on to explain about Old Havana’s early days, ” A lot of times we were showing a very low profit margin and sometimes negative. We started paying attention to the numbers and saw that we were paying a lot of money on deli. Roberto recalled that when they first opened, ham was $3.50/lb and now is $5.50/lb. Searching for ways to lower cost while maintaining or raising quality, they realized they could cure their own ham. Recalling a trip to Europe he and Elizabeth took, Roberto stated, “two years ago when we went to Galicia in Northern Spain where my family is coming from before Cuba, one of the things we had was ham of loin, but they don’t call it ham, they call it Lomo” feeding off those memories they gave Lomo a shot and customers love it.
Before immigrating to the United States, Roberto was working at the Old Havana Market in Cuba selling paintings for local artist until he developed the confidence to start painting and selling his own works. Experimenting with water colors he declares that his early creations were “not really good ones” but talks fondly about one of the most successful artist in the market that took Roberto under his wing. In addition to guidance and encouragement, his friend imparted wisdom about painting that would be the cornerstone of operating Old Havana Sandwich shop many years later 920 miles north in the land of opportunity. Roberto repeated his words ” you don’t have to worry about what you sell and what you don’t, that is not important. Your main goal is to paint, to paint right, the best you can, try to improve and never compromise the quality of your materials and it will pay off.” After trying a few things on the menu, it is apparent Roberto took those words to heart.
In the Old Havana Market Roberto would also meet a 19 year old Haitian college student named Elizabeth Turnbull who was in Cuba for a conference. Roberto smiles like a school boy when he admits after two days of courtship he was ready to marry her. Elizabeth returned to the States to continue her studies and a long distance relationship ensued.
When Roberto stepped foot on US soil in 2002, all he had was $40 and the clothes on his back. Spending a couple months in various cities, he settled in a place most Cubans find themselves at home, Miami. Although Roberto’s move to the states closed the gap between them, the couple was still carrying out a long distance relationship. Wanting to be together, Elizabeth moved to Miami. A year after her move, Roberto asked Elizabeth to be his wife but posed a simple question, ” if we marry, would you be able to live with me under a palm, eating rice and beans because that’s all I can ever assure you. I do not know if I will be able to provide anything else but in America, from what I can see, there is always going to be a bridge or shelter that we can be under and there is a lot of rice and beans.” I joked that now he could promise her a good sandwich as well, but Roberto insisted staying with his original guarantee, rice, beans and shelter.
With Old Havana Sandwich Shop, Roberto is carrying on a tradition that started when the first humans gathered up their belongings and traveled to another land. Any time we are away from home, by choice or by force, we want to feel some comforts of a place in our memeory. The easiest way of inducing thoughts from a positive time or place is through food. Inside the walls of Old Havana Sandwich Shop, Roberto has created a space that invokes home in name, atmosphere and taste. The art on the walls, the music filling the room, and aromas creeping from behind the counter transports you to a place that for decades, Americans have not legally been able to travel to. In making the food Roberto enjoyed as a kid in Cuba, he not only goes back but he brings the people of Durham to Old Havana with him.
1/4 cup of paprika infused lard. If lard does not have paprika, add to it 2 Tbs of paprika
1 onion thinly sliced
1/4 medium size cabbage thinly sliced
8 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 Tbs cumin
1/4 lbs of chorizo cut into small pieces
1/4 lbs ham or any cured pork cut into small pieces
2 cups of pork stock
1 cup of old left over white wine
6 cups of cooked white butter beans. To cook beans: Soak beans in water for al least two hours and cook them overnight at low temperature in a crockpot.
Cook on medium heat:
Add onions and sauté until transparent
Add cabbage and sauté until it is very soft
Add garlic and sauté about 30 seconds without letting it burn
Add cumin, chorizo, and ham and saute for 1-2 minutes. Add small amounts from pork stock to prevent over cooking
Cook on high heat
Add pork stock and wine and let it simmer for a 4-5 minutes
Add white butter beans and bring to a boil.
Cook until it reaches a creamy consistency