Puerto Rico’s star chef returns to first love – restaurants

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A report by Scott Kearnan for the Boston Herald.

You’ll find her making chicharrones, not coq au vin. But the so-dubbed “Julia Child of Puerto Rico” is now cooking up something special in the same city that late icon long called home.

Head to Cambridge and you’ll get a glimpse of Giovanna Huyke, a celebrated Puerto Rican chef and television personality who earned that comparative nickname over many years in the biz. In this era of celebrity chefs, some young cooks toil tirelessly while fueled by dreams of attaining food TV fame — but for Huyke, life is even more exciting now that she has stepped away from the cameras and back into the kitchen.

“I love what I did on TV. But being in restaurants is really all I ever wanted to do,” said Huyke, positively beaming in the dining room of La Fabrica Central, a Spanish-Caribbean restaurant in Cambridge’s Central Square that opened at the end of February. For nearly 25 years, Huyke was a household name in Puerto Rico thanks to television shows like the long-running “Cocina con Giovanna.” But a few years ago, after divorcing her husband-producer, Huyke decided she wanted to get back to her roots behind the line. That, she says, is where she feels most at home.

“I love everything about restaurants,” said Huyke. “I love hearing the sound of silverware being set. I love the look of an empty dining room, full of possibilities. I still get excited when a new ingredient arrives.”

She also gets the rush — and the motivating nerves — of being back to the environment where her passions first flourished. Though Huyke has been a television star, published half a dozen cookbooks and even had her own cookware line, more traditional restaurant work had been on the back burner until relatively recently. The daughter of a cooking instructor, Huyke first started working in restaurants while studying theater at Tulane University — a major that eventually served her TV career. On the strictly culinary side, she cut her teeth under New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme, an icon of modern Cajun and Creole cuisine, and worked at the Big Easy’s legendary Lee Barnes Cooking School.

Returning to Puerto Rico, Huyke earned notice for pushing the island’s classic cuisine in more modern directions via restaurants like Amadeus. But she said her focus shifted to food TV in large part because it was more amenable to motherhood. Huyke has two children, including a 26-year-old son who is now a chef in Puerto Rico.

In 2011, she returned to an executive chef role at Mio restaurant in Washington, D.C. It felt daunting at the time, said Huyke. But, though Mio has closed, Huyke earned strong reviews during her time there.

She’s intent on doing the same at La Fabrica Central. The restaurant is the fourth owned by husband-wife team Hector and Nivia Piña. Their mini-empire launched in 1994 with Merengue in Roxbury, where Hector Piña prepares plates reflecting his Dominican roots. The pair also owns two South End restaurants: Vejigantes, specializing in Puerto Rican cookery, and the Cuban outfit Doña Habana, which opened in September.

La Fabrica Central, opened with a third partner, Dennis Benzan (former Cambridge vice mayor and the first Latino elected to the city council), culls inspiration from all three cuisines — plus foods from other Spanish Caribbean islands. The name, which means “factory,” nods to the industriousness of immigrant communities, said Hector Piña, who filled the space with his original photographs of a working Dominican sugar cane plantation. The classy-casual dining room hosts live music many evenings, and there’s patio seating and a rear nightclub room used for parties and special events.

On the menu, Huyke continues to put contemporary spins on classic dishes. Rather than traditional mofongo, a Puerto Rican dish of mashed fried plantains, she makes it with yucca and adds lobster meat cooked in rum sauce. Fried whole snapper is treated with a tomato-coconut sauce, served with sweet potato puree and papaya-avocado mojo. Braised short ribs receive a red wine reduction and guava sauce, paired with garlic hominy prepared like risotto. There are some simpler staples, like octopus escabeche salad, and Huyke even serves feasts of whole roasted pigs — complete with fixings like sweet plantains — for large groups.

Huyke’s passion is palpable. So is the self-avowed perfectionist’s desire to hit a home run each night.

“I’m conscious of the pressure every single day,” said Huyke when asked how her existing reputation in Latin-American communities impacts her work. Though she’s purposefully adopted a low profile in these early months at La Fabrica, the better to get operations running smoothly, already fans are stopping in for food and photo ops. Huyke is always happy to oblige.

“It’s part of the job,” said Huyke of greeting excited diners weaned on her television shows. She’s doing just fine without cameras, but the appreciative attention still brings a smile to her face. “If you can’t see people enjoying your food, what good is it?”

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