“I’m here because I love to cook.” To say that Chef Eddie Cotto is passionate about Puerto Rican food is an understatement. He’s on a mission, plate by plate not just to change, that’s too simple, but to revolutionize how Americans view his familial cuisine.
The Brooklyn born and raised former financier says, “I dream big, never small.”
Chef Cotto aspires to see Puerto Rican food as ubiquitous as Mexican and Cuban food is throughout the United States. According to him, Puerto Ricans have not tooted their horns loud enough and have fallen short marketing their cuisine to a crossover audience as Mexicans and Cubans have. “Have we really made a mark on the world, culinarily, to really claim our spot? That’s where I think we haven’t.” The result, according to Chef Cotto is that many Americans identify and categorize Latino cuisine as either Mexican or Cuban.
To support his theory, Chef Cotto recently welcomed a new diner to his Jersey City (NJ) restaurant, Me Casa. In an effort to ensure that her inaugural experience at Me Casa was flawless, he left nothing to chance – single handedly preparing her dish.
At the end of the exceedingly satisfying meal, the diner proclaimed, “I’m so glad we have a new Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood.”
Even though it may be an uphill climb making Puerto Rican cuisine as widespread and well sampled as Mexican and Cuban cuisine, Chef Cotto is definitely ready for the challenge. He laments that there are no national Puerto Rican eateries in the United States. “I want to be throughout the United States… in places like Mississippi and Kansas.” Step by step or state by state, he’s on his way to putting authentic Puerto Rican food on the US culinary map, beginning with his first Me Casa Restaurant minutes from New York City.
When you meet Chef Eddie Cotto, he is passionate, energetic and affable; occasionally reciting motivational phrases. He’s the kind of person you want to succeed. He’s living life, doing exactly what he loves.
With a background in finance, this numbers guy pays attention to the details, he sweats the small stuff. Sometimes, he and the cook staff will work to perfect a dish, adjusting the temperature just a few degrees in his quest for excellence. He’s not resting on his laurels, he continues to push himself.
Not only does Chef Cotto continuously motivate himself and his team but at this time of year, they physically push themselves to make thousands of pasteles for desiring customers. He says, “Pasteles are like Christmas songs, you don’t really play them until Christmas, like turkey at Thanksgiving.” These little bundles of masa (starch mixture), encased in plantain leaves and wrapped in very thin butcher paper, are symbols of the holiday season in Puerto Rico. Pasteles represent centuries of Puerto Rican tradition and history. Although their exact origin is debated, many food historians credit African slaves and domestics working on Puerto Rican sugar plantations for developing pasteles. Although preparing pasteles is famously labor intensive, it is hard to imagine the Puerto Rican holiday season without them.
Watching Chef Cotto prepare a pastel, you get the sense that he can fold, wrap and tie pasteles in his sleep. Actually, he has been making pasteles for nearly thirty years, since he was seven years old. Chef Cotto attributes everything he knows about Puerto Rican cuisine to one person, “I learned (everything) from my mom. I’ve taken her entire cookbook and my grandmother’s cookbook.” Chef Cotto recreates his family’s dishes at Me Casa. Under the tutelage of his mother, who ran a small catering business, he learned the technique and flavoring for making not just pasteles but also the Puerto Rican canon of cuisine from mofongo to morcilla.
“I’m blessed. I had good food in my life.” And now, Chef Cotto wants to share his savory, authentic Puerto Rican cuisine with the rest of America, state by state, one flavorful dish at a time.
From our partners at Los Afro-Latinos