Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Cuba: A Tropical (and Educational!) Food Adventure

This time last year I was blogging about the week I'd spent on an epic food adventure with Paul Finkelstein and his Culinary Arts Class above the Arctic Circle in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Accompanying Fink and his students as they hunted caribou on the frozen tundra with the village elders was definitely a highlight of last year (and even of my life!).

But... BRRRRRRR!!! 

Perhaps it was in acknowledgement of the cold, long nights spent sleeping on the floor of Kiilinik High School last year that Paul invited not just me - but my whole family! - to accompany the Stratford Northwestern Secondary Culinary Arts students (aka the Screaming Avocado Cafe gang), as well as students in Paul's fellow Chef-Turned-Teacher wife Amanda's class at Mitchell District High School (aka the Twisted Carrot Cafe crew), on this year's food adventure to Cuba!

Also joining Paul, Amanda, and Northwestern Culinary Arts teacher Dean "Mr. E" Elief as mentors on this trip were Brendon "Caveman" Lyoness (a former student of Fink's at the Screaming Avocado Cafe, today he's a veggie grower and Slow Food Sunday Market vendor known as Caveman Crops), Shawn Hartwell of Simple Fish Company (Stratford's source for sustainable fresh seafood and fish and chips), and our Cuban ex-pat leader Jimmy (he's been living in Stratford for years but returns home to Cuba quite regularly).

The first day saw everyone getting acclimatized to this unique tropical environment. Sometimes it felt like we'd all stepped into a time machine to the past, especially when traveling in one of the country's emblematic classic car taxis. 

Staples in Stratford sent along a huge suitcase full of school supplies for the students on the trip to give out to children in Cuba (the supply of just about everything in Cuba, even pencils and paper, is strictly limited due to a trade embargo imposed by the U.S.). On the first day we all visited two schools where our kids hooked the adorably uniformed Cuban students up with all sorts of markers, pens, colouring books, and pencil cases.

Everyone had such a good time all our students were invited to come back in smaller groups over the course of the week to help the Cuban kids out in their classrooms. When they came out at the end of class, all of the Canadian kids were stoked from the experience, and for many it was clearly life-changing. They were also impressed at the high level of education they witnessed in Cuba, where elementary school students study from 7:30am to 4pm, with nine 45 minute classes a day!

Now that everyone had a good feeling for Cuba and its wonderful people, it was time to get to know the local culture even better with some adventures-in-food!

As a market veggie grower, Caveman Brendon was front and centre when we visited a community garden near our resort. I've got a big thing for community gardens and urban agriculture myself (there are no better places to combine physical activity, nutrition, nature, and community).

But community gardens and urban agriculture projects are all over the place in Cuba because of necessity - the unstable and highly restricted supply of food imports Cubans endure has inspired them to pursue food sovereignty by growing their own! All the students on the trip pitched in and got their hands dirty after taking the lead from Brendon!

As much as Brendon's into gardening, Shawn Hartwell's into fishing and sustainable seafood. After scoring a hand-line and some hooks (totally Old Man and the Sea), Shawn led groups of students to the end of the pier near our resort to catch some fish alongside the expert local youths.

His mentoring started at the sea...

...continued to the market...

...and culminated in our resort's poolside restaurant area, where he gave the culinary students a demonstration on how to make a seafood stir-fry using locally-sourced ingredients (like lobster and octopus!) that could not have been any fresher.

On our second-to-last day it was time to balance the students' Cuban experience out with a little educational sightseeing.

We all visited a spectacular underground cave system near our resort that literally glittered with crystal-encrusted caverns and stalactites, stalagmites, and very rare sideways cave crystal formations known as helictites. 

On our last night it was time for the trip's mentors to get together and have some fun trying some Cuban cuisine at a restaurant not far from where we were staying.

My wife Lisa and our two boys took a break from the pool and the beach to enjoy some seafood too! I definitely have to thank Paul, Dean and Amanda for inviting the whole Stacey crew along... it made the trip really special for me.

On our bus ride from the Toronto airport to Stratford, the teachers asked the students what they had learned during their time in Cuba:

"I learned about another culture."

"I learned to appreciate all we have here in Canada."

"I learned how to be a better person."

Paul Finkelstein's motto is 'Food as a tool for change.' Once again, he promoted positive change in the lives of students through a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience, and I am personally very grateful to have once again been included in another of his adventures. 

I wonder where next year's trip will be?


  1. BTW anyone interested in our trip to Nunavut last year should also check out the November 2011 issue of Canadian Living magazine featuring an article I wrote documenting both sides of that amazing Canadian student exchange!

  2. Hey there Steve,
    You've been busy I see! Have to admit, I'm a little jealous of you being in Cuba with Fink. Well, not the "with Fink" part, but the "being in Cuba part". ;-) This time last year, we were, literally, freezing our you-know-whats off in Cambridge Bay and now you're soaking up the rays in Cuba. Awesome.

    I read the Canadian Living article...well done, my friend! Great stuff. Brought back good memories.

    Keep up the good work. Where to next?

  3. Twyla, you definitely deserved to be on the Cuba trip too after our Arctic adventures last year! I guess next year we'll have to continue to forge new territory - somewhere in the Southern hemisphere would be great! If anyone can make it happen it's Fink (so I guess we'll let him come along)!