Bringing a taste of Cuba to Belsize Park

Tostones with ropa vieja Photo Credit @cocinacuca

Tostones (twice fried plantains) with ropa vieja Cuba's national dish of slow cooked shredded beef and vegetables - Credit: @cocinacuca

Luís Gonzalez-Castro's supper club Cuca pays homage to his Cuban heritage and is a love letter to his grandmother - who he fondly called Cuca - by cooking the recipes she passed on to him.

He has hosted successful supper clubs in Cinder, Belsize Park serving national dishes such as Ropa Vieja (slow cooked shredded beef with beans and rice), Tres Leches, (vanilla sponge cake soaked in milk), and his grandfather's favourite Tostones Decorados (twice fried plantain topped with king prawns with a coriander dip). He tells Rashmi Narayan about his food memories and dream of opening a permanent spot in London.

Luis Gonzalez-Castro

Luis Gonzalez-Castro - Credit: @cocinacuca

Q: What inspired you to start Cuca?

A: There was a time in my life when I was trying to figure out who I was, to reconnect with my family, who I’d essentially run away from 20 years ago, when I moved to the UK. Cooking my grandmother’s food - both at home and at my supper clubs - was my way of reconnecting with her, my mother and my identity. Growing up, I felt detached from my Cuban/Hispanic roots. I felt I didn't belong in some way. Cooking these traditional dishes opens up an entire stream of discovery and pride in my heritage.

Q: What are you memories of your grandmother? 

A: I remember staying over at my abuela’s house during summer holidays and waking up to the aroma of fresh Cuban coffee. She always made it strong for the adults and then used a homemade coffee strainer that my abuelo (grandfather) invented to make 'Cafe claro' (light coffee) for the children. She made it with such pride too. When I brew coffee now at home, it still takes me back to those days of summer with my siblings and cousins. She always wore Violetas as a perfume and these scents of violets and coffee I never want to forget. I wanted to bring that nostalgia and storytelling to the tone and feel of my supper clubs.

Chef Luis Luís Gonzalez-Castro with his mum and grandmother nicknamed Cuca who inspired his Belsize Park supper club

Chef Luis Luís Gonzalez-Castro with his mum and grandmother nicknamed Cuca who inspired his Belsize Park supper club - Credit: @cocinacuca

Q: What's the most common misconception about Cuban food?

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A: It always gets unfairly bundled into general 'South American' menus along with fajitas, arepas or jerk chicken without giving it the opportunity to stand alone. There is a misinterpretation that it's greasy and bland. People don’t see Cuban food as a cuisine - it's all fun, cheap cocktails with food as a secondary part. With its variety of flavours, techniques and care when cooking each dish, it deserves more attention in the UK food scene. It’s also a real labour of love: most Cuban dishes take time to cook, you layer in herbs and spices one at a time letting the smells guide you. It's about understanding the differences between the region's dishes and getting to the detail of its origins so it elevates its flavours. Cuban food isn't just about ingredients but a reflection of the Cuban people and their love for life. Food brings them joy and so they take time to enjoy making it. That is a huge and important ingredient in every dish!

Tres Leche Cuban milk cake

Tres Leches Cuban milk cake - Credit: @cocinacuca

Q: What's next for Cuca? 

A: We’d love to see Cuca as a quaint, welcoming restaurant. Seeing people coming in, enjoying authentic Cuban food would be a dream come true for me. A place where I can expand my abuela's recipes and create new ones. I can picture a cosy little place, full of regulars and new diners with an atmosphere inspired by Miami, Havana and my own childhood in Puerto Rico. I want to tell a story that explains the dishes' nuances and backgrounds, inviting people to experience my childhood along with me. For them to close their eyes and be taken away to somewhere tropical and full of joy. I’d also love for Cuca to be an emporium offering customers authentic ingredients and utensils to make their own Cuban food at home such as plantain smashers, coffee, guava paste, pots of gorgeous sauces, kits to make your own Tres Leches and small bottles of our famous cocktails to take home.  

Cuca plans to return to Belsize Park with dates announced on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/cocinacuca/?hl=en Supperclub tickets are £50pp and include a welcome cocktail, meals and coffee. To book: thecocinacuca@gmail.com. 

Cuban snack of deep fried plantain Mariquitas

Mariquitas, a Cuban snack of deep fried plantain - Credit: @cocinacuca