Local chef finds success and celebrity after fleeing Cuba

by DAVID SERVATIUS

Adalberto Diaz makes his weekly cooking class a hands-on experience for students. Photo by David Servatius.

Adalberto Diaz makes his weekly cooking class a hands-on experience for students. Photo by David Servatius.

It is seafood and pasta night. The menu includes smoked spinach fettuccini with shrimp, fresh tuna seviche and crab cakes on fennel angel nests. The room is full of upscale, white, middle-aged men and women, some seated, some up and moving around. The atmosphere is unruly, the air full of laughter, shouting and clapping.

At first glance the kitchen area looks like a bizarre three-ring circus with shooting flames, flashing blades and a grinning, wise-cracking Cuban in the middle of it all, barking directions. Like a ringmaster, he is stirring with one hand, pointing with the other, telling the crowd how to chop onions correctly and instructing a woman at his side to drop her battered scallops into the fryer one at a time.

It is not a circus, though. It is just a typical night at the popular weekly cooking class taught by local chef and television personality Adalberto Diaz. Every Wednesday in the center showroom of the Roth Concept Center in Salt Lake City, Diaz creates a unique menu and a beautifully presented, delicious meal for 24 emerges from this organized chaos. But before everyone finally sits down and eats, there are two hours of fun.

“This is not a cooking show,” Diaz tells the audience at the outset. “I’m not cooking for you. You are cooking with me. Now who wants to help me with skewers?”

One class member yells, “I do. I do.”

“Not you,” Diaz snaps. “You are the pan washer.”

The crowd erupts into laughter and applause.

“I don’t know how he does it,” kitchen assistant Chelsea Smoltz says. “Every night I’m sure that we won’t get done in time to eat, or that someone will lose a finger or burn their face. But it always works out better than I’m expecting. The people just love him.”

Diaz, 35, has come from a different place and a different life than what he knows now. He says it is hard to believe that just seven short years ago he was sitting alone in a Texas detention center, terrified, between two worlds and unsure what would become of him.

Born in Havana in 1972, Diaz grew up with three brothers, two aunts, a grandmother and a great-grandmother in what he calls “the family house,” a modest but spacious two-story structure built by his grandfather in 1948.

“There were at least 10 people living there all the time,” Diaz says. “I always cooked with my grandmother. I never got any credit, I was just a helper for her, but I loved doing it and I learned a lot.”

When he was 9 years old, he used a pressure cooker — most Cuban families were too poor to afford traditional ovens — to make a lemon sponge cake. A neighbor tasted it, loved it and wanted one. He says he made another, charged his neighbor three pesetas, or about 15 cents, and realized he had a way to earn extra money for the family.

In Castro’s Cuba, however, the capital to purchase supplies for a private business was hard to come by. Diaz says he set up a system in which he would repair leather shoes in exchange for rum, which he would, in turn, trade for eggs, flour and other essentials.

Later, after high school and his required two years of service in the Cuban military, Diaz enrolled in the culinary school at the Hotel Sevilla in central Havana, where he also worked as a tourist entertainer. From the hotel, he ran a private, forbidden, baking business on the side, sometimes working all night to keep up with the ever-growing demand for his pastries, cakes and breads.

He says he became friends with three Salt Lake City nightclub promoters who made frequent trips to host parties on the island in violation of U.S. law. For years, Diaz helped them prepare the food for their parties.

In 2000, he was noticed by the Cuban government.

“I found out I had been what we called ‘tagged,’” Diaz says. “Not for my business, though. It was because I had had too much direct contact with the Americans. I couldn’t work at the hotel anymore unless I spied on my friends for the government. I’m not that kind of person so I lost my job.”

That May, he says his best friend Rafael Labrada convinced him it was time for both of them to leave the country for good. Diaz was unemployed, probably now unemployable, and as officials snooped into his life there was suddenly the very real possibility of jail.

“I found out that a big project linking all of the government computers was almost done,” his friend Labrada says. “That would make it impossible for a marked person like Adalberto to ever leave the country, for any reason. If he was going he had to do it within a week or so.”

The two went into hiding in Havana while the necessary documents were secured, going out only early in the morning or late at night. On May 24, Diaz told his family he was going on a camping trip and began a journey out of Cuba to a new life with his three American friends in Salt Lake City who had urged him to come.

“I was afraid to stay in Cuba, I had a big fear of jail, but I also wanted to leave,” Diaz says. “It wasn’t just fear. I knew that if I didn’t leave I would not improve as a chef, or as a person. The hardest thing was leaving my mother, not knowing when I would see her again.”

Using phony work visas, Diaz and Labrada took a short flight to Mexico City. Under the U.S. “Wet Feet, Dry Feet” policy, implemented in 1995, Cubans caught at sea trying to enter the country are turned back, but those apprehended on American soil are allowed to apply for asylum. Because of this policy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says Mexico has become the most popular route into the country for Cuban refugees.

In Mexico City the two were picked up by a “mule,” an American man they paid $3,000 to smuggle them to the border town of Reynosa. When they arrived in Reynosa, Diaz says they were instructed by their mule to cross the bridge over the Rio Bravo River into Hidalgo, Texas, on foot, and to tell the guards on the other side they were Cuban and seeking political asylum.

When the two refused to return to the Mexican side of the border to wait for their paperwork, they were taken by federal agents to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service processing center at Port Isabel, on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Labrada would be released in a matter of days, but Diaz would stay for what he says were the worst three weeks of his life.

“There were cells, with bars,” he says. “It was a jail. There were six or seven curved buildings with big walls and lots of fences, and everything was ugly gray, everything, except for the uniforms. They were bright blue, for the good guys, like me, and bright orange for the criminals.”

Labrada says he and Diaz were separated as soon as they arrived. “They didn’t like anyone having friendships inside the place,” he says. “But we would see each other sometimes, at meals or in the bathrooms.”

Diaz says the bathrooms were probably the worst part of the entire ordeal. “There was no privacy,” he says. “If someone happened to have diarrhea you could hear it all over, and, even worse, smell it. Cubans are private people. I was so stressed that my hair turned white with dandruff.”

After what he says seemed like an eternity, his paperwork was processed and Diaz was free and in America. He and Labrada reunited in Miami and, after a long bus ride, arrived in Utah in the wee hours of the morning on the Fourth of July.

“I was stinky and tired, but the first thing I did was go to the Fourth of July parade in Provo, to celebrate being in America,” Diaz says. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a parade? This is how they celebrate?’ It was lame! There was no music, no dancing. I was expecting Brazilian Carnival and it was a bunch of white people walking.”

When the parade was over, however, the reality of life as a new immigrant in America set in. For almost a year Diaz worked as a laborer, painting and installing Sheetrock for a construction company. He says it was hard physical work. Then, in 2001, two of his friends opened a restaurant called Orbit in downtown Salt Lake City. They heard Diaz had been well-known in Cuba for his pastries and hired him as the restaurant’s pastry chef.

A year later he was running his own show as head chef at a trendy new restaurant and deli called Juhl Haus where, just like with his neighbor and his lemon cake all those years ago, a stranger was so impressed with something he cooked that it changed the direction of his life.

Marie Ritchie, the showroom manager at the Roth Concept Center, where most of the cooking programs on local television networks are taped, hired Juhl Haus to cater a party. One of the menu items Diaz prepared for the event was a spicy tomato soup.

“It was the best tomato soup I had ever tasted in my life,” Ritchie says. “I had wanted to start cooking classes in the big center showroom where we do television, so Adalberto and I talked about it that night. Within days we were working together and within two or three weeks we offered our first class.”

Ritchie says the weekly classes quickly started filling up and she noticed it was Diaz himself that people were coming for as much as it was his food or his recipes.

“He is like an artist, and he is a natural entertainer,” she says.

Ritchie knew that local television station KUTV needed someone for a cooking segment on its mid-day news program, and, on a hunch, recommended Diaz to the producers. The station hired him in 2003 and he was a hit with viewers.

Today, in addition to teaching his weekly classes, Diaz hosts a cooking segment every Tuesday on local television station Fox 13 and is the head chef for Granatos Restaurants, overseeing a staff of 13 people in four Salt Lake Valley locations.

As this week’s class ends and his assistants clean up the dishes, a crowd of students lingers to chat with Diaz. Some are thanking him, some cracking jokes and others asking questions.

“That was the most fun I’ve had in a very long time,” Tooele resident Karen Doolittle says. “He is very amusing, and the meal was incredible. I feel like I just had Thanksgiving dinner.”

A lot has changed for Diaz in a very short time, less than eight years, but he says he’s only just begun. He plans to publish a cookbook in the near future and would like to open an authentic Cuban restaurant in Salt Lake City at some point.

“I’ve packed 70 years of life into 35 years,” he says. “I am going to relax for at least a little while and enjoy this life I have. Celebrity is not important to me. Seeing someone’s face light up because of something you said to them or gave them to eat is what is important to me.”