Cuba Libre: Bringing authentic Cuban cuisine to Old City
At Cuba Libre, decorated chef Guillermo Pernot provides an unforgettable dining experience
“To cook is nothing but being an artist,” explains Guillermo Pernot, the chef-partner at Cuba Libre in Old City and winner of many accolades, including Esquire’s Chef of the Year and the James Beard award for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic Region.
For the past 12 years, Pernot has dedicated himself to bringing authentic Cuban flavors, styles and ingredients to his artful dishes at Cuba Libre.
“We want to send the message that Cuban food is not just rice and beans,” Pernot says. “It’s much more interesting than that.”
To that end, he has traveled the Cuban island meeting local chefs and visiting farms to learn how food is prepared every step of the way.
“There are so many vibrant flavors of cuisine in Cuba,” says Pernot. “Different regions have entirely different flavors and ingredients.”
Pernot’s goal is not to copy exactly what chefs are doing in Cuba, but to use similar ingredients and styles for the restaurant’s house dishes. For example, after seeing how chefs in Santiago de Cuba marinated fish with coconut milk, Pernot created his own curry coconut sauce for Cuba Libre’s fish dishes.
Originally from Argentina, Pernot’s foray into cooking started later in life. He moved to the U.S. initially for a degree in Psychology at Columbia University then worked in geometric design for a textile company in New York. It wasn’t until his thirties when he decided to move to Philadelphia and open his first restaurant, Vega Grill in Manayunk in the mid-70s.
“I had traveled to Philly and really liked the closeness. It had a small town feeling,” says Pernot.
At the time, the city had basically no Latin American restaurants of any kind and Pernot started to introduce Philadelphians to entirely new ingredients.
“People had no idea what a plantain was,” says Pernot. “We taught people about new products that are now considered normal.”
This introduction of Latino cuisine to the city culminated in the opening of Pernot’s restaurant ¡Pasión!, named 32nd best in the world by the New York Times. The restaurant focused on Nuevo Latino cuisine that showcased a variety of food from Argentinian specialties to new flavors from Miami.
Due to this overwhelming success, the owners of Cuba Libre, Lawrence Cohen and Barry Gutin, invited Pernot to design their menu and help them expand the business. Today, the restaurant has added locations in Atlantic City, Washington D.C and Orlando with plans to expand in North Jersey and potentially Puerto Rico.
“There are new developments all the time,” explains Pernot.
Cuba Libre also hosts Pop Up Paladar nights with chefs brought in from Cuba. These events consist of two to three dinners for which Cuban chefs create their own menu.
“It's a great opportunity for people to see how Cubans cook and for the Cuban chefs to see what is going on here,” says Pernot. “The chefs get to see ingredients that they have never seen before. They go insane when they see a rib eye steak.”
Pernot plans to release a cookbook this October entitled “Cuba Cooks” that includes chefs from the Pop Up Paladar series.
The restaurant boasts an extensive mojito and cocktail menu. The establishment also doubles as a nightclub on Friday and Saturday evenings when the tables are pulled back and the main dining room, decorated to evoke Old Havana, becomes a dance floor.
To check out Pernot’s latest dishes or learn more about Cuba Libre’s upcoming events check out their website at cubalibrerestaurant.com. The restaurant is open Monday - Friday Lunch 11:30-3 pm, Saturday-Sunday Brunch 10:30 - 2:30 pm Sunday – Wednesday from 4-10 pm and Thursday – Saturday from 4pm – 11pm