“He loves talking to people about his food,” another MFR volunteer told me as I arrived to Saturday’s brunch event at Restaurante Elektra. “He has a story for every different type of arepa.”
Chef José Valentín was standing behind the buffet table on Elektra’s shady terrace, serving a wide variety of his favorite dishes: a fruit salad in guava juice, a loaf of bread rolled with ham and olives, sweets of all shapes and sizes. For the fifth day of Madrid’s Refugee Food Festival, guests had the opportunity to interact with Valentín as he assembled each dish right before their eyes. It seemed that with each plate he handed to a guest, he also had a short story to tell about it. The more I listened to these stories, the more I understood the significance of each one to the chef.
Asado negro, for example, is a blackened steak served in a dark wine sauce. According to Valentín, the dish was originally created by accident. As the story goes, when slavery still existed in the Western hemisphere, there was a wealthy family in Caracas who had an enslaved woman working in their kitchen. One day, while preparing a large dinner, she burned the meat for the main course. She knew she couldn’t serve it but was too terrified to tell the family about the mistake. Instead, she got to work salvaging the meat and invented an entirely new dish, which all the diners loved.
He also told the story of tequeños, a finger-shaped sweet filled with chocolate or cheese and marmalade, named after the mountain town called Los Teques where they originated. A baker had the idea of repurposing the extra strips of dough left over from making empanadas, rather than letting them go to waste. The baker wrapped the strips around any available ingredients in the shop, usually sweets, and then baked them in the oven before sending them into the city to be sold. Before long, the tequeños became more popular than the empanadas!
Finally, Valentín told me the story of his arepas. He described an era in Venezuelan history when a dictator implemented harsh policies to grow the country’s economy and accelerate development. He did so by forcing Venezuelans to work 12 hours or more each day. They were able to do so, Valentín said, because of all the energy they got from eating arepas. Arepas exploded in popularity throughout the country during this time.
Eventually, a family of brothers reimagined the dish, which had been seen mostly as a working-class food, turning it into an artform. They created “la reina pepiada,” which roughly translates to “the proper queen,” using all the most expensive ingredients like chicken and avocado. In contrast, they also developed the sloppy “la peluda,” combining shredded meat with cheese.
By sharing these stories, Valentín offered not only great food but also the context in which they were created and used in his home country. These stories highlight the inventiveness and character of Venezuelans. They honor the history of the country and provide a small sample of its culture and lifestyle, which diners could then taste for themselves.
“I want to make the guests to feel like they’re in Venezuela,” Valentín said. He did so by taking us there with his words, by surrounding us with imagery and connecting each bite of food with a historical moment or silly anecdote. The result was a meal that was equally delicious as it was informative and intriguing, served by a chef who was able to convey the essence of his country’s cuisine not only through his diligent work in the kitchen but also through his spirited storytelling.
Written by Danielle Jacques
Translated by Rocío Argueta
Photography by Jane Mitchell