Cuba seeks to develop gastronomic tourism amid COVID-19 pandemic

Located at Havana's Playa district, La Cocina de Lilliam

HAVANA, Nov. 24  Located at Havana’s Playa district, La Cocina de Lilliam, named after its owner and cook Lilliam Dominguez, has become one of the most-visited outdoor restaurants for international tourists.

The story dates back to 1994 when a former dress designer, inspired by a Brazilian soap opera aired on Cuban TV, turned her house’s grounds into a garden where diners could enjoy the flavour of the local cuisine.

Dominguez, who lives with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandkids, told Xinhua that this private business has improved the living standards of her family.

“We usually receive many Chinese visitors,” she said. “I think they like this place because we serve fresh fish, delicious shrimps, lobster, and colourful salads.”

The menu includes roasted pork, crispy sweet potato chips, shredded beef and other iconic dishes of both local and international cuisine.

At La Cocina de Lilliam Restaurant, dining is more than just eating since customers can go on a tour around the 1937 mansion, where the successful entrepreneur has lived with her family since 1987.

Decorated with wooden furniture, black and white photos, posters, china and vintage lamps, the restaurant is among the first family-owned businesses permitted by local authorities to operate in the mid-1990s.

“Cooking is my passion. That is the secret of my success,” added Dominguez.

Ana Maria Otano, who has worked as an assistant chef at the restaurant over the past six years, said rigorous cleaning and disinfecting procedures are in place to minimize the risk of COVID-19 contagion.

“We disinfect all touchable surfaces and wash our hands and kitchen utensils frequently. It is a critical point,” said the 58-year-old while cooking a big pot of octopus.

During the COVID-19 hiatus, Cuban restaurants experienced a drop in business after being forced to close their doors, offer delivery service or turn to takeaway.

Now, with lockdown restrictions lifted and the country’s airports open to commercial international flights, restaurants are ready to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, abiding by social distancing guidelines.

Cuba’s gastronomic movement started in the 1990s and has gained momentum over the past few decades with the emergence of the private sector in the context of economic and social transformation.

Eateries and restaurants, along with the transport and hospitality sectors, comprise the vast majority of about 600,000 employees working for the non-state operated area on the island.

To date, Cubapaladar, a local online food magazine, has registered 2,153 elite restaurants across the country, 1,219 of which are in Havana.

Alicia Garcia, a senior food critic and contributor of the digital outlet, told Xinhua that the island has the potential to develop gastronomic tourism but local and regional cuisine must be largely promoted.

Meanwhile, Dayli Mazon, who holds a master’s degree in gastronomic journalism, said creating drive-through restaurants and maintaining home delivery services could be crucial to meeting the needs of tourists visiting the island as the novel coronavirus sticks around.