Chef Danielle Alvarez talks Cuban coffee

Danielle Alvarez

Danielle Alvarez talks Cuban coffee, falling in love with Australia, and the brunch culture that’s inspired the United States.

To chef Danielle Alvarez, Cuban coffee is a tradition and cultural reminder of the community she grew up in.

Born in Miami, United States, Danielle is a proud Cuban American. Her grandparents and parents were all born in Cuba, and moved to the US during the Cuban Revolution in the late 1950s.

“Because so many Cubans emigrated at the same time, Miami became its own version of Cuba. They really brought Cuban culture with them, and coffee was one of those things,” Danielle says.

“I definitely didn’t have a taste for it. Cuban coffee or Cafecito, is really intense. From a coffee aficionado perspective, I don’t think there was much value in the actual coffee, such as the provenance of the beans and how they are grown. A lot would have been Colombian, pre-ground coffee but made super strong with lots of sugar. Sugar is grown in Cuba, it’s one of the main crops so it features heavily, but Cuban coffee is really a beautiful social experience and an example of how coffee can become part of the culture.”

Growing up, Danielle recalls sugar-laden Cuban coffee served sporadically while at the nail salon, hairdresser, or while running errands.

“Someone was always walking in with Cuban coffee with little cups that they’d pour into and distribute to everyone. No- one ever turned it down,” Danielle says.

Her childhood home in Miami’s downtown Brickell area, near the Cuban quarter, was a Spanish-speaking mecca filled with little parks where old gentlemen played cards or dominos, and drank Cuban coffee as they socialised.

Before moving to Australia, Danielle thought she had good coffee appreciation. She drank filter coffee and ground her own beans, but she didn’t realise the level of detail involved in a making a good cup of coffee.

“I never really paid attention to what made a great cup of coffee versus an average cup. I didn’t know what questions to ask to find out, so I didn’t. It wasn’t until I was exposed to great baristas in Australia that my knowledge developed,” she says.

“In Australia, I love how everywhere you go, the first question is: ‘do you want a coffee? It’s a given. Coffee culture here is so important. It’s also amazing how many coffees get dished out in restaurants to staff. Every few hours there’s a full tray of coffees circulating, and everyone remembers your coffee order. Going back to how Cuban coffee influences culture, I think the same applies here.”

Danielle credits her partner Dan for introducing her to AeroPress coffee, which he used to serve at Sixpenny restaurant in Sydney where he worked as a sommelier. She says the process of making an AeroPress coffee each morning eventually became too tedious, and she upgraded to a Breville machine. She grinds her Sample Coffee beans each morning.

“I can see how different the quality is. When I go home [to Miami], I’ll be pretty unhappy in the mornings without my Sample Coffee brew,” she says.

Danielle adds that while boozy brunches are commonplace in the US, breakfast in Cuba generally consists of a pastry – her favourite being pastelitos de guayaba – with cream cheese and guava paste. Where Australia has influenced the US, she says, is brunch.

“Breakfast culture in the US was not a thing. I’d say Australia is leading the way and influencing [other cultures] with its avocado toast and great flat whites,” she says.

“What I also love about Australia’s café culture is that even the totally nondescript, non-interesting looking café, or the coffee shop at the airport, still produces a great cup of coffee.”

Growing up, Danielle’s food culture was heavily Cuban influenced. Her mum would cook hearty stews, beans, and rice, and every chance Danielle got, she would help in the kitchen, and learn by her mother’s side.

“She used to call me her sous-chef, and that probably was the beginning of my love of food, and not just food, but what food does for family and friendships,” Danielle says.

“My mum loved to throw parties. She would happily cook for everyone, and she did it so well, so effortlessly. It was a real joy to watch her in her element and see how happy she made people through her food. I think that probably stuck with me and made me think ‘that’s what I want to do’.”

Danielle didn’t think her love for food would be enough to start a professional career. Instead, she studied art history at college but quickly realised her passion for food was overtaking.

“What I was doing on my weekends was cooking for people. I would spend the whole week planning what I was going to make. I loved shopping for the ingredients and prepping and spending the whole day in the kitchen. I realised it was what I really wanted to do,” she says.

“I don’t think it’s the right translation for most people because being an avid home cook does not translate to loving the foodservice industry. It’s a totally different way of working, but for me, it actually did. I loved the food part of it, but I loved the culture of restaurants, how dynamic the environment was, being on your feet, and the fact that no two days were the same.”

Danielle began her cooking career in California as an intern at three-Michelin star restaurant The French Laundry.

“I couldn’t believe I was there. That was the first restaurant I worked at. It struck me that everyone worked super hard, they were extremely disciplined, and at the end of an intense service, everyone just wanted to go for a beer and hang out. I loved this sense of community and the friendships that were built into the restaurant,” she says.

Danielle then spent time in San Francisco at Boulettes Larder before relocating again to California to work at Chez Panisse, focusing on farm to table food.

“It was probably the best cooking job I ever had. A lot of people say it’s the birthplace of ‘farm to table cooking’ in the US. It was incredible,” Danielle says.

After four years, Danielle finished her tenure and booked herself a trip to Australia in February 2016 as a treat to herself.

“I was totally charmed by Australia. I loved the restaurant culture. I thought the food was amazing, and everyone was so friendly and nice. On my way back to the US, I sent an email to my one Australian friend – David Prior – who I worked with in California and told him how much I loved the country. I said: ‘If you ever hear of any good job opportunities, let me know.’ By the time I landed in Miami, he had replied to me and said: ‘perfect timing, I was just approached by the Merivale Group to see if I could help them find someone to do a farm to table restaurant in Sydney.’ It was crazy timing,” Danielle says.

She made her way back to Australia to trial for the new Paddington restaurant, Fred’s.

“[Merivale Chief Executive Officer] Justin Hemmes and I hit it off. He was so open to letting me do what I wanted,” she says.

“I had a sketch of how I wanted the restaurant to look, where the kitchen is literally in the middle of the dining room. There is no distinction between the floor and kitchen, but they made it exactly to what I had sketched.”

Together, Danielle and Justin built their dream kitchen, which was awarded two hats in its first year, and has retained them ever since.

Danielle says her five years as Head Chef at Fred’s taught her a lot. She decided to take a step back from commercial kitchen life in May 2022 to pursue other creative projects, and hasn’t looked back.

“I didn’t really have a plan. I just knew I needed a good break. I wrote my next cookbook called Recipes for a lifetime of beautiful cooking, coming out 31 October. It’s a book with more than 100 recipes about simple home cooking that’s really accessible to everyone,” Danielle says.

“Home cooking has become more of my life now, but I’m still doing events and working with corporate brands, brand partnerships, creating content, and have more exciting plans coming later this year. I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made. I’m super happy with where I’m at.”

Danielle doubts she would have found the same success in the US as she’s done in Australia, but says she’s proud of the work she’s done to create the life she leads.

“Australia has been really good to me. I’m almost a citizen myself. I’ve passed my exam. I’m just waiting to have the ceremony to make it official,” she says.

“At some point, you need to make some decisions to get the life that you want. But it often does mean lots of years of really hard work, which is what I’ve done.”

This article appears in the August 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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