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Nuevo Latino: Not Your Grandma's Cooking

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Combine food, travels and passion, and you get creations by Guillermo Pernot, a self-taught chef and winner of two prestigious James Beard awards.

The Argentina native's Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar has branches in Philadelphia; Atlantic City; Orlando, Fla.; and Washington, D.C.

As a child, Pernot spent lots of time cooking with his family, and after he moved to the United States, he took a job at a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania, where his work first attracted the attention of food writers.

"So I said, 'Whoa, I can make money with this. I can do this for a living,' " he tells Michel Martin, the host of Tell Me More. He later headed the kitchen of Gloria Estefan's Latin restaurant Allioli, in South Beach, Fla.

Pernot has become a master of Nuevo Latino cuisine, which he describes as food from Latino communities everywhere — Miami to Argentina, and anything and everything in between. There are wide-ranging ingredients and flavors, as a result of influences from the Spanish, Africans, Chinese, French and Americans. Dishes feature seafood, pork, chicken and basic Latin vegetables such as malanga, yucca and coconut. Cooking techniques are clean and precise, Pernot says.

He specializes in Cuban cuisine, but some Cubans have criticized his food. "They say, 'But that's not ... what my grandmother used to do!' Well, your grandmother is not here. And the food that you're eating right now, that you know as Cuban cuisine, is 60 years old. So there is new food coming out. And I proved that through my trips through Havana," Pernot says.

His most recent trip to Havana was in late April. He and his wife, Lucia — the great-great-granddaughter of Cuba's third president — led more than a dozen Americans, whom they met in their travels, to historic landmarks and to taste the new flavors of the island country.

"They were very, very skeptical about what they were going to find, and then they find that Cuban food has an array of flavors and colors and presentations that they never expected. They love it. We ate. We definitely went into a coma – food coma. Absolutely. For four days, we ate and ate and ate and drank, and had a great time," he says.

Pernot adds that traveling for his work has gotten easier since Cuba began opening up.

When asked what he most wants people to know about the cuisine he's spent so much time developing, he says that it's "honest," with natural and traditional ingredients from Cuba and sometimes the rest of the Caribbean. There is a huge array of flavors and the possibility of new, undiscovered ingredients, he says.

"Our food is what would have been if Fidel [Castro] wasn't in power right now. Actually, Cuba would have been culinarily liberated," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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