In spite of the controversy, Puerto Rico’s brightest culinary superstar never forgets where he came from.
Last December, a giant mural of the Puerto Rican flag by Boricua artist Héctor Collazo was ordered to be removed from the façade of Miami’s La Placita restaurant. The decision was made by the board that oversees the historic MiMo District—which stands for Miami Modern—where the corner building sits, citing the failure to request a permit. That single act sparked a massive amount of love and pride for la islita that mobilized a community.
Spearheaded by owner-chef José Mendín and co-proprietor Julian Gil, members of the community literally rallied ‘round the flag to preserve the mural. And after more than a year of hard-fought court battles, both sides reached a compromise proposed by Commissioner Joe Carollo and approved by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez: as long as another neighboring restaurant keeps its murals, the red, white and blue striped bandera that wraps around the corner will remain.
“Seeing all the people come down to support the fight made me incredibly proud and filled my heart with joy,” says the 41-year-old, who won the StarChefs Rising Star Restaurateur Award in 2016 and is a five-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef, Southeast. “Growing up in Puerto Rico gave me the mentality that I need to work hard and be great at whatever it is that I end up doing in life.”
Perhaps people showed up to support La Placita because the timing demanded it. The restaurant was opened right after Hurricane Maria hit the island and those in the diaspora were desperate to help and relieve some of the pain of su gente, in any way possible.
Mendín—who is also the founder of Rivertail & Piefather (Fort Lauderdale), Moloko (Paris) and six Pubbelly restaurants that spread over Florida, Mexico City and the Dominican Republic—was at college on a volleyball scholarship when the need to prepare his own meals stirred his memories of home and his love of food.
“My great-grandmother taught me that cooking is about packing a lot of flavor into the food,” says the married father of two boys, 11 and 3. “So I like to cook with bold flavors, just like Puerto Ricans like to eat.” Mendín, who travels the world on his culinary adventures, calls Miami Shores, Florida, home. Yet his beloved Borinquen is forever in his heart and in everything he creates.
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