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Sea to Table: Following Delicacies of the Sea from Fishermen to Fork

The first hint of light reveals sparkling blue water and pink sky off the shore of Esperanza. Boats bob gently in the soft swells as fishermen in dinghies head to their boats, chattering back and forth. Having rested since early the night before, the fishermen are ready for the work ahead and optimistic about its rewards. The day looks promising. On shore, the chefs of Vieques sleep. They have worked far into the previous evening and won’t rise for a few more hours. When they do they’ll meet with their watermen counterparts, eager to see the catch that will help create their menus. They too, will be optimistic.  The effort of one group begets the effort of the other. And we all win.

Yaburebo Zenòa or Yuabu, a tall man in his thirties, joins a fiftyish Rafael Ayala or Raffie, a fisherman since childhood. We await our captain, Louis Ventura, better known as Chelao, to pick us up from the pier. Chelao learned the trade as a young boy from his father and grandfather. A shrewd businessman, Chelao’s multiple careers include fisherman, pilot and seafood distributor. He now owns Esperanza’s Colmado Lydia and grocery store Lorimar where fresh and frozen fish is sold. Chelao pulls his thirty-two foot Challenger, a New England style lobster boat, alongside the pier and the three men quickly load bait and the day’s provisions. We are headed southwest, and the first order of business is to place three cans of Chef Boyardee spaghetti in the engine compartment to be hot and ready by lunchtime. Chelao will be checking Yuabu’s forty lobster traps today and only a couple of his own. Yuabu, a fisherman and paramedic, has an electrical problem with his boat. Chelao has offered to help out. The fishermen on Vieques have a friendly competition but are an extremely tight community, always ready to lend a hand when needed. They all clearly understand the rigors and dangers of their livelihood.

A half mile off the southern shore Chelao’s boat slows at Yuabu’s buoy 1, about fifteen meters off starboard. No GPS, no electronics, just Piloting Navigation. Picking two or three landmarks on shore, triangulating and estimating position, the watermen have an impressive mental map of where each trap line is set. Each fisherman has his own buoys – different sizes, shapes or colors. Traps are placed in a line, maybe thirty to one hundred meters apart. Lines of four to ten traps are common with the first trap’s buoy marked with a splash of green; the last, red. Raffie gaffs the first buoy and Yuabu places it over the winch arm. Chelao grabs the line, places it on the winch and the trap rises from the ocean. The traps are heavy, a three man job even with a winch. The first pot has about ten fish.; a yellowtail snapper, Poctin Fish, a few Red Parrott, some Chapín. As soon as the first trap is empty, the second is on the way up. Raffie separates the fish into different buckets while Yuabu and Chelao lift the next trap. Their work together is an exercise in symmetry.

The crew of the Challenger works steadily and in less than ten minutes Yuabu’s first few traps are emptied, fish placed in proper containers, bait refreshed and the boat comes about to send the traps back down. With each line the process repeats itself. Chelao marks the number of traps lifted at the helm and we are steadily moving west. The traps become fuller with each set and the fish bigger; some huge red snapper, grouper, yellowtails and at trap 19, our first Nurse Shark. By trap 24 we have five Nurse Sharks which we release. Now we are picking up a few lobsters. The mood on the boat is jovial and the banter steady. We move to the next buoy line and every trap has eight to twelve lobsters. The lobsters are measured quickly with the undersized thrown back immediately. As the last trap is raised there is concern in the men’s voices. The trap isn’t brought on board but balanced on the gunwhale. A thick, five-foot-long Moray Eel is thrashing about in the trap. Chelao turns the boat into the now four-foot seas to control roll, then carefully opens the trap door they’ve positioned over the water. As the eel slides back to his lair, Chelao turns and says, “No problem in the water, big problem on the boat.”  The last line of Yuabu’s traps provide a few more lobsters and two beautiful red snappers, and it’s time for lunch. The engine hatch is opened, the spaghetti retrieved, and a well deserved break ensues with pasta swinging on the end of forks to add emphasis to the conversation and laughter.

The gourmet pasta lunch over and, before heading home, we’re off to check two of Chelao’s traps. He likes to put his traps in deeper water so we head about a mile offshore. Once again, spot-on navigation brings the boat alongside his first trap. Chelao eats fish every day and likes them fresh, so when the first trap comes up loaded with big chapín, yellowtail, a capitan fish and a few large Sama (Mutton Snapper), he is satisfied. Back at the pier the trio unloads their catch and cleans the boat. Yuabo is thrilled, his catch much better than anticipated. He turns to Chelao and offers thanks. Chelao smiles and gives Yuabu a nod. Yuabu and Raffie are off to the restaurants to sell their catch. Chelao is on his way home to see his wife, Carmen, check on his store and maybe take a stroll to visit his sons Ricky, Omar and Edsel who run his grocery store around the corner. He’ll be checking his traps again at first light tomorrow.

On the north shore of Vieques, in the port of Isabella Segunda, Georgie Gabino meets his uncle, Cristobal Medina, at the dock. Cristobal readies the boat while Georgie slips into his wet suit and checks his equipment. Their destination is a reef a few miles out; their catch, lobster. Georgie is a hunter who loves the chase. He prefers to dive for his quarry, a method taught to him by his father. They make their way out of the harbor toward deep water past the statue of the Virgin del Carmen, the local guardian of fishermen. The seas are light, the sun now revealing the deep blue of the water as the main island and Culebra come into focus.

About four miles out from Isabel Georgie and Cristobal approach their GPS coordinates. Cristobal slows the boat and Georgie grabs his mesh lobster bag line, attaching one end to him and the other to a surface marker buoy. The depth is eighty feet. Georgie knows he has twenty-five minutes on bottom before he must start his assent. Visibility is good and Georgie begins his stalk. His only fishing apparatus is a pair of gloves and a three foot stainless steel lasso or noose. Two minutes into the dive Georgie is above an underwater reef, adjusting his BC vest and floating over a likely lobster hole. He spots a nice three pounder, makes the grab, extracts him from the hole and places him in the mesh bag. A twenty foot swim along the reef and…another one, about a pound and a half. Georgie is moving fast. The reef is loaded but he knows to keep his heart rate down to conserve air. On the surface Cristobal is watching the buoy and the air bubbles knowing he has to keep the boat above Georgie. It’s a ballet where the dancers can’t see or touch each other so precision is essential. No missteps allowed. Georgie is fifteen minutes into his dive and on the way up. His bag full, he will unload his catch and wait, his surface interval shorter than expected. The second dive is as productive as the first.

Georgie is taking his time; last dive, no need to hurry. He spends twenty-five more minutes at seventy feet and his bag is full so he heads to the surface. A smooth ride back to the dock and Cristobal and Georgie know their work is almost done. But the day on the water is not over for Georgie. He will soon clock in for his eight hour shift as ferry captain, his full-time job for the last 12 years. He had a good morning, two full tubs of lobster. At the Pescaderia, the fish market at the north side pier, fishermen are gathered at the dock checking each other’s catches, laughing and reminiscing about their day. Their bond is strong. They may fish alone but they share the ocean and her perils. They are all family on the water.

Georgie will sell most of his catch to the Pescaderia which will sell them to restaurants and tourists. But some of his catch will go to his wife, Irainy, who will be waiting with a big lobster pot on the boil. She prepares the savory lobster and arepas (fried flatbread) to sell at their kiosk, ”Delicias del Mar”, located across from the ferry dock next to the bridge. From the water to the pot to your arepa…it doesn’t get any fresher than that.

The sun is already hot as chefs on both sides of the island roll their tired legs and sore backs out of bed, a cup of coffee rousing their creative minds to the first challenge of the day. The Menu. Meats and poultry are clearer in their thoughts, but seafood?  What will the watermen bring them today?  They are particular about their fish and want them fresh.

As the lobster fisherman are leaving the dock, Chef Bayrex Silva arrives. He’s here for lobster. His favorite dish to prepare is mofongo but this morning one of his local growers has brought over just-picked greens. The result, arugula salad with grilled lobster in a choice of garlic wine sauce or Criolla sauce, and tostones. Magnificent!  He takes two dozen lobsters and heads back across the island to get ready for the busy night ahead. Bayrex is the executive chef at “Carambola”, the restaurant at the Blue Horizon Boutique Resort. This is his first executive chef position, a goal of his since childhood. Born on the main island, Bayrex and his family have lived on Vieques nearly his whole life. Schooled in the culinary arts at the International School of Tourism and Hospitality in Carolina he headed off to the states to garner experience in different cooking styles and techniques. After a stint as a pastry chef and sous chef he became homesick. Returning toVieques, he went to work at the Blue, happy to be home again. You won’t find Bayrex resting on his accomplishments. On his days off he spends his time in restaurants either here or on the big island, talking to and learning from other chefs. He is committed to improving his skills.

David Donovan, executive chef at Tradewinds Restaurant in Esperanza, smiles as Chelao, just off his boat, presents him with large Sama. Tonight’s menu will include a sesame seared fillet of Sama topped with ginger scallion butter over stir fried vegetables and yellow rice. David has been in the industry for thirty-three years and at Tradewinds for the last sixteen. Born in Lockport, New York he was introduced to fine dining on a field trip to Toronto with his highschool French class. His interest in the tasting and preparation of food accelerated during his four-year stint in the Navy cruising the Mediterranean. After culinary school at Niagara Community College he headed to Boston, then Cape Cod where he accumulated a wealth of experience cooking seafood. A cold autumn day froze his hands to the handlebars of his bike. That was the moment in 1991 that changed the course of his life. He has been an integral part of the Vieques community ever since.

These are just two examples of the many talented chefs and cooks that staff the fantastic restaurants of Vieques. Whether a chef at a major resort hotel, food truck on the side of the road, or fine dining restaurant, they share a symbiotic relationship with the watermen of Vieques. Every day, face to face interaction takes place between them, doing business together in the language of seafood. And what starts with two groups of professionals merging their talents and passions results in heavenly results for the rest of us. Think about it the next time you’re dining. Hey, think about it the next time you’re sitting on a beautiful beach. Dinner is out there. Chances are that delectable fish you’re enjoying was swimming a few hours earlier in the incredible water view you are admiring. The guy eating in the corner of the restaurant may have caught your dorado. The woman at the next table might be the Chef who prepares your lobster next week. Your conch fritters are on their way from the ocean floor as you sleep. Seafood mofongo?  Any minute now.

On a small island like Vieques nothing is very far away, including your food. A few miles out and a hundred feet down. From the catchers to the cookers, from the sea to the boat to the kitchen to your table. Small distances with huge results. Buen Provecho!

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