Chef Matthew Anderson spent four years of Coast Guard duty in the Caribbean, often docked at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He was the 70-foot ship’s cook when they made kitchen supply runs to Jamaica and other islands, but he never once got into civilian Cuba.
“If we left the base we’d be shot,” he said of his tour in the early 1990s. “And if anyone tried to come in, they’d get shot, too.”
Anderson, 45, is finding some irony in one of the projects of his new job as chef de cuisine at Zack Bruell’s Table 45 at the InterContinental Hotel in Midtown Cleveland. He’s developing the menu for a new global dining tour and contest at the property on the Cleveland Clinic campus.
Each month, one cocktail, one appetizer and one main dish will reach for inspiration to another, less-explored cuisine. Morocco, Israel, Portugal, Ethiopia, Peru, Taiwan and Yucatan are among the ports of call. First stop, though: Cuba.
For the rest of October, Table 45 will be pouring Cuba Libre, a drink of white rum, cola and a twist of lime named after the island’s break from Spanish rule in 1902.
Thin, long strips of plantain, both the starchy and sweet versions of the large bananas, will be the fried base for nachos. A grilled pork loin will top rice, beans and stewed tomatoes brightened with cilantro, cumin and lime.
When Anderson could not rely on his own Cuban experience for inspiration, he did research, collaborated with Bruell and sought out advice from a Cuban member of the hotel’s staff.
“I asked him, ‘What’s for dinner at your house? What food makes you feel good?’”
The global reach of the InterContinental, as well as his own staff, has led him to a cache of sources for on other countries.
Bruell, his boss, might have the final say on a dish, but Anderson says the relationship feels more like a collaboration.
“We speak the same language,” he said. “I think Zack’s flavors are clean and offer twists on the play of salty, sweet and sour. He looks at what I’ve done and we talk and I get what he’s saying. He gets where I’m going. It’s fun.”
Anderson’s arrival at Table 45, the hiring of European-trained Michael Swann as executive chef of all the restaurants in the Cleveland group, and the new International Cultural Celebration can be seen as an awakening of the original theme of world cuisine at the restaurant.
Anderson, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute, arrived in Cleveland from the Washington, D.C. area where he worked at several restaurants and even owned one. He and his wife Andrea, who grew up here, settled in Shaker Heights with their two daughters.
He started here at Sapore, the Italian-style, student-run restaurant in Chesterland, owned by cooking school founder Loretta Paganini.
“We did everything from scratch. If I could have squeezed olives for the olive oil, I would have done it,” he said.
Then he opened his own restaurant, Umami, an Asian fusion spot in Chagrin Falls, which continues under a new owner. Most recently, he ran Crop Kitchen in the University Circle area, which closed shortly after he left.
“I was working a lot of hours and they weren’t getting any less,” he said.
At Table 45, with a full staff, he’s able to focus less on the day-to-day operation, he said, and more on the bigger picture. The global reach of his parent company has got him thinking about a civilian trip to Cuba.
“I’d like to see it now, before you have the romance of the culture affected by outside influences,” he said of the slowly dissolving travel restrictions. “I just hope they can keep that feeling going.”
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