Cuba Libre

Joe Schneider had already graduated from culinary school and spent time in professional kitchens when the Caribbean cookbooks started calling to him. They told of a complex and infinitely variable cuisine that incorporated the native fruits and vegetables of the Caribbean islands (Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the smaller islands) and was influenced by wave after wave of immigration and colonial conquest. Caribbean cooking includes elements of many cuisines, pressing local fish, fruits and vegetables into the service of Spanish, European, African and even Chinese- and Indian-influenced dishes.

Caribbean cuisine is a riot of tropical produce, spicy soups and sauces, fritters, pies both sweet and savory, coconut cream, one-pot dishes such as callaloo and pepperpot, chowders, ceviches and peppery soups. But Schneider found that even this extraordinary variety of tastes was too limiting for his restless and innovative intelligence. What he serves at his Boulder restaurant, Rhumba, is his own version of Caribbean cuisine. "It's not exactly what you'd be eating there," he says. "I believe in having fun with food."

That belief started early. Schneider grew up in a large family, he explains, "where we had plenty of leftovers to play with, and I was always experimenting and making something out of what my brothers and sisters saw as nothing."

He was also fascinated by knives. "I had a knife collection, and I would spend my own money to buy sharpening stones, and I'd always be cleaning the knives and taking care of them," he remembers. He's still delighted when the professional, mobile sharpening outfit, Rolling Stone, comes to Rhumba. Schneider races outside to chat with the proprietor and examine his collection of kitchen implements. "It transports me back to being a kid again," he says.

Schneider began his culinary career early, washing dishes at a local steak house at the age of fifteen. He then enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. But even there, immersed in classical French technique, he experimented. He asked endless questions, both of his teachers and of the chef in the French-Italian bistro where he worked. At one point, Schneider says, "I was asking the chef a question about black pepper in a reduction: Do you put it in at the beginning, like in a bouquet garni, or do you put it in at the end because it gets bitter if you leave it in?" The chef became defensive and tossed out the relevant page number from Escoffier -- which, Schneider discovered, proved the chef right. "I sat down with him and explained that I was not singling him out. I was only trying to take every opportunity to learn everything," he remembers.

"The whole time we were learning classic French cuisine, all I could think was, 'Wow, this is great. How can I screw it up? How can I mess with it? How can I take out ingredients and substitute ingredients or take just the idea of this dish and make something original and new?'"

While most of his classmates re-created dishes they'd learned in class for a practical exam, Schneider prepared halibut en papillote -- a traditional technique -- using untraditional ingredients. "I was giddy when I turned it in," he says. "I couldn't wait to see my grade, because I knew the chef was going to be blown away. I thought I was really showing my comfort level with the cuisine." He laughs. "He didn't see it that way."

Schneider received a poor grade, but he also entered the halibut dish in a cooking contest and won third place.

He continues to experiment. "Years ago I stopped writing down recipes," he says. "I pore over cookbooks. I love them. I have a huge library at home. I look for ingredients or different ways of using things. That's what I write down. Something like pomegranates. I'll look at a whole recipe, a whole cookbook, and what I'll get out of it is pomegranates. Maybe it'll be the way that they're using them -- oh, pomegranates over whitefish -- that's beautiful.

"When I go to a restaurant where the food is classical cuisine, I can read the menu and taste it as I'm reading it. What inspires me is reading menus and saying, gosh, I can't imagine what those combinations are. It gets you wondering. It inspires you to order that dish to experience it yourself. And then through your dining experience, you're growing, you know? Now when you're cooking dinner, you're going to put together a combination of things that you never thought possible..."

After graduating, Schneider went to work at a Napa Valley country club known for its food. The club's structure was highly corporate, he says, and for the first time he found himself miserable in a kitchen and wondering if he really wanted to be a chef. But he had debts, and he stayed two and a half years. "Then," he says, "I realized: Oh, it's just the structure, it's not cooking; I do love cooking.

"It's not about money; it's about: Are you happy? Do you feel good going to work?"

Schneider returned to Santa Barbara and soon found a more congenial restaurant, a French-Italian bistro owned by a German couple; the husband was a master chef. He assigned the nightly specials to Schneider, who initially found the responsibility overwhelming. "I would go to the bookstore for a couple of hours before work every day and just take notes like crazy," he remembers.

It was at about this time that Caribbean cookbooks began their siren song, and Schneider started experimenting with Caribbean-influenced specials. The German chef didn't know what to make of this, but the specials sold well, and he allowed the experiments to continue.

Schneider soon moved on, first to Key West and then to Boulder, where he began working at Dave Query's Zolo Grill. Within six months, he'd become executive chef. A year and a half ago, he and Query opened Rhumba.

It's a lively place. The decor is bright, and the talk and music are loud. A large painting of Che Guevara gazes down at diners. Schneider went to Cuba last summer, and the visit had a huge impact on him.

The country is set back in time, he says, and the people "have such an intensity about them, such a sense of community and pride." However, he found the food situation "pretty dismal." "They can't get ahold of good ingredients, and they can't get many ingredients. At the restaurants we ate in, there was so little salt and pepper on the table that if everybody had wanted to season their food, there wouldn't have been enough to go around. One thing they did have was sugar. It was hard to get a cup of coffee without so much sugar in it that it actually thickened the coffee."

Schneider sees Rhumba as an integral part of the community, a place where customers feel known and welcomed. He displays work by local artists; he is generous in his support of Boulder charities and nonprofits. Above all, he wants to communicate the joyousness of Caribbean culture to his customers.

The snake that serves as the front-door handle symbolizes the transition to another place, another time. "It's a kind of wildness," he says. "When you go to the Caribbean, you expect to be knocked completely out of your consciousness. It's about vibrancy, life and energy. We want people to come in here and experience another world."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman