Within walking distance from Capitolio and only a stones throw away from the famous yacht “Granma” that brought Fidel Castro and Che Gevara to Cuba is the paladar Ivan Chefs Justo.
Keeping with the colonial cosmopolitan feel of restored parts of Old Havana the restaurant is built into a residential building.
“When we began just over two years ago we were renting the location from the owner, since then we have bought the structure outright”. Chef Ivan recalls as he relates the beginnings of the business he shares with his business partner Chef Justo.
Already on the foodie shortlist of must-visit paladares in Havana, Ivan Chefs Justo has gained recent notoriety for cooking for various United States Senate delegations visiting the island, as well as the likes of Paris Hilton.
“I´m still in the kitchen every day”, Ivan tells me as we have coffee. His cooking apron is covering his lap and he is taking calls and attending to business as we chat.
“I have to be on the phone with suppliers every day, as you can tell this is just a residential house we have converted into a restaurant, I´ve got almost no storage space”.
Ivan says he likes it that way though. Fresh ingredients and a versatile menu are key to staying at the top of the food game in Cuba. Every room in the house has a chalkboard with that days offering.
The potato harvest started about 2 weeks ago, so there are several dishes of the much in demand tuber. However don´t look for mango reductions or avocados in your salad until later in spring, as they are not in season yet.
“By working with fresh local products I´ve had to build relationships with farmers”, with that Ivan begins telling me how competition is beginning to take a hold of the restaurant business in Havana.
“Look at these mushrooms,” and gestures to a tub full of delicate snow white fungus.
He goes on to explain how a farmer in Alamar, a community on the outskirts of Havana, began cultivating mushrooms specifically for the private restaurant market. “So now I have something almost no other paladar in Havana has, and my menu just become that much better”. Ivan is young, and the energy is evident. “We look from within for our ingredients and outside for new inspiration…it is my dream to open a grill for United States Choice cuts of beef”.
Magret duck breast, fresh ceviche, stewed lamb and stuffed potatoes were this weeks highlights when I stopped by. There are some items that are almost always on the menu though, such as the varied seafood offerings (the paella and grilled fish with creamed malanga get the best reviews).
The décor seems to be an earnest attempt to cover every square inch of wall space. The hat rack and umbrella stand are full of hats and umbrellas even though there is only one table of customers and it is sunny outside.
“This is Old Havana”, Ivan explains, “This place is full of people, stuff, noise and activity, we want Ivan Chefs Justo to be a reflection of it´s location”.
Ivan Chefs Justo is located at Aguacate No. 9 on the corner of Chacon across the street from the Granma Yacht in Havana Vieja. Open every day of the week from noon-midnight you can call to make a reservation at 7863-9697.
Photos and Text by Graham Sowa.