A Renaissance of Cuban Flavor

Monica Parpal |
Food And Dining

Using creative combinations of spices, traditional Cuban influences, and the classical skills he gained from working in formal kitchens, Rodriguez is credited as the father of Nuevo Latino cuisine. 

Douglas Rodriguez is a man who needs no introduction. In fact, he has gone by many names: the Godfather of Nuevo-Latin cuisine; the King of Ceviche; and most importantly, the James Beard Award-winner. This Cuban-American chef has been building a name for himself in the Miami area for decades, and is now making a splash with his magnum opus, De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean.

First, though, let's take a step back and consider the man, Douglas Rodriguez (or “D-Rod,” for short). Rodriguez was born in Miami after his parents emigrated to America from Cuba. His mother began teaching him to cook shortly after he learned how to walk, and by age nine he was preparing meals for his whole family. This talent soon became a passion. “At Christmas, when other boys asked for toys, I asked for cookbooks,” Rodriguez laughs. “This was especially unusual at that time, because it was rare for Latino males to be cooking at all.”

The passion took root, and Rodriguez continued cooking—mainly Cuban cuisine—until he got his first job at Miami's The Four Ambassadors Hotel at age 14. “I would work at any restaurant that would hire me. And at each one, I was the only Cuban in the kitchen.” Rodriguez did his share of dishwashing, but he also learned the trade inside and out, working different stations in the kitchen to improve his skills.

All of that work culminated in the opening of his first restaurant in 1989, Coral Gables' Young Urban Cuban Americans, or YUCA restaurant. Widely known as south Florida's original upscale Cuban restaurant, this is where Rodriguez found his true calling. Using creative combinations of spices, traditional Cuban influences, and the classical skills he gained from working in formal kitchens, Rodriguez was soon credited as the father of Nuevo Latino cuisine. Rodriguez describes it humbly: “Back then, I called it 'tortilla-free Latin' cuisine. Back then, everyone thought Latin food meant Tex-Mex.”

In the late 1990s, Rodriguez took his reputation and turned his sights toward New York, becoming co-owner and executive chef of the NYC phenom, Patria, where his Nuevo Latino cuisine flourished. After successful reviews from The New Yorker and others, he opened two other restaurants, and, in 1996, received the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year Award. He eventually decided to return to the warm breezes and welcoming arms of his family in Miami, where he opened Pan-Latin restaurant OLA in 2004. “I came back to be near my family,” Rodriguez says.

But after returning to his childhood home, he felt his Cuban culinary roots tugging at the sleeve of his chef jacket. What followed was the opening of De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean in 2010, Rodriguez's latest restaurant endeavor.

The restaurant itself has quite a pedigree. The AAA, Four Diamond restaurant is located in the equally acclaimed Four Diamond Hilton Bentley Hotel, offering diners a poolside, beachfront view right on Ocean Drive—a stunning escape tucked away from the throngs of tourists. Smooth wooden fixtures accented by jungle-green palm fronds surround spacious tables, while deep red piping on the comfy seats match dim, chile-red light fixtures on the ceiling. The setting is both exotic and relaxed—a colorful getaway that blends the feel of Cuba and Miami.

Gazing upon the menu at De Rodriguez Cuba on Ocean, a world of fresh, Latin cuisine opens up. Rodriguez's Nuevo Latin approach keeps traditional Cuban food at its core—the same flavors that are locked in the hearts of minds of Miami's Cuban population since before the Cuban Revolution. But he makes those dishes—the Ropa Vieja, the Vaca Frita, the Cuban Sandwich—his own, elevating them with invigorated finesse. The result? Dishes driven by nostalgia, reinvented to dazzle our taste buds.

Among his star signature items, the ceviches—in particular, the Tuna Watermelon ceviche—shine brightt: the traditional 12-hour marinade is spiced up with ingredients like kumquat, yuzu, Thai basil, and tarragon, which enhances the bright watermelon and fresh tuna for a sensational palate-pleaser. 

For another reconstructed tradition, try the Cuban Sandwich Cubes: a gooey, melty version of the classic ham and cheese made with flakey pastry dough, roasted pork, smoked ham, and a savory mustard sauce.

One of Rodriguez's proudest creations is the Rabo En Lata, his take on Cuban comfort food, Rabo Encendido. This version of traditional Cuban oxtail stew—which is usually made with canned tomato sauce and packaged spices—is elevated by the use of fresh herbs, Rodriguez's own spice mixture, and housemade veal stock to braise the meticulously deboned oxtail. “This is by far my most sophisticated dish on the menu,” Rodriguez says. And yet, the irony is in the presentation. Rodriguez uses an industrial canning machine to seal each serving of Rabo En Lata in a custom-labeled tin can, which servers open tableside with great flourish. It's served over a roasted cauliflower purée—a savory substitution for the traditional white rice.

Really, De Rodriguez Cuba is the perfect expression of this great chef's culinary journey. From his Cuban upbringing in Miami, to the renaissance of Cuban cuisine as we know it, Rodriguez has always kept two primary passions in his life: family, and food. “I haven't lost my passion for cooking—not at all,” he says. “When I'm spending time with my family and even when I'm traveling, I'm looking for new ideas. When I get back to the restaurant, I can't wait to get into the kitchen.” It's this fiery energy that translates to his food, giving new life to the culinary tradition that started it all.