Six week photo essay

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A long and narrow restaurant with only six tables is nestled among a series of vacant storefronts in the Manhattan Valley on 103rd and Amsterdam. The restaurant is so small that a white chiffon curtain is all that divides the eating area from the kitchen. In the basement folding filo pastry into squares, baking a chocolate cake or rolling oatmeal cookies you will find Fidel Hernandez.

In 1962, at the age of two, Hernandez moved from Cuba to the Miami, Florida, with his older brother, mother and father. He said that his family was fed up with the Castro regime. But shortly after their arrival, his father died of cancer. He says he remembers his mother overwhelmed with caring for two young boys and learning to navigate in a foreign country and with a new language. “My mother use to call from her job and ask my brother or me to pull things out of the fridge or start the rice, a staple in Cuban cuisine.” Learning to cook from scratch at such a young age, he added, shaped his thoughts on working in the food industry. “I know that it’s very important for families to eat the right food. My mother never bought food that was already made. we rarely ate out.”

Dr. Laura Sporny, a Professor of nutrition at Columbia University said “many individuals, adults and their children, tend to eat foods that are just more calorically dense and so it doesn’t take long for them to feel full when they eat that.” Red beans, a traditional Cuban dinner, is Hernandez’s favorite meal. Just as Dr. Sporny described, Hernandez mother made it to keep her two growing boys full. “I would want it all year round but my mother would complain that she wouldn’t make something so hearty in the summer,” he added.  It’s a stew made of skirt steak, various types of root vegetables, milanga, potatoes and pumpkin, and it’s reminds him of his childhood. But unlike most Americans today, Hernandez grew up rarely eating fast food.

Hernandez, (AGE), is a self-proclaimed food and nutrition enthusiast. He said that his love of food motivated him to open this restaurant, Busters, 11 years ago. The restaurant stands alone in a society where increasing numbers of people are exchanging carrots for french fries and pasta for Big Macs. This is troubling considering one third of all American adults are obese reports the Center for Disease Control.

That’s why his restaurant and his cooking style are both healthy and family friendly. They don’t deep fry their food and use limited amounts of oil. Hernandez met his current business partner, Glenn Trickel, in 1997 while working the odd kitchen job at The Equitable restaurant in Manhattan. He said they had an immediate connection; they both loved food. “We hit it  off right away and really had a great working rapport.”  Hernandez was trying to make extra money for the holidays while Trickel was the Executive Chef.

The pair call their food “Spatinental cuisine.” It’s a trademark they coined meaning “everyday foods, prepared with wellness and health, in mind” said Hernandez.  The restaurant opened in Burgundy , New Jersey, and was a hit right away said Trickle “We were a hit right away. People thought that we were a young, fun, exciting place. The food was fun and different than they were use to.”

And to stimulate the local economy, the restaurant buys a majority of their fresh produce and meat from the billion dollar farmers’ market industry.  They are getting on the local bandwagon. In the last year, the number of farmers markets operating in the United States has increased by almost 20 %.There are now 7,200 markets said the U.S Department of Agriculture. Hernandez said he likes knowing that the animals are grain fed, free of artificial hormones and are treated humanely. It also means the fruits and vegetables are picked the same day. Meeting the farmers and developing a relationship with them is something Hernandez cherishes. It’s one reason he goes back to farms like that of Lucia and Charlie’s in Princeton, New Jersey.  “It’s a feeling of going to a family member’s home. They are very welcoming. it’s like a gift.”

Busters is Hernandez’s life. That’s where his friends are and where he gets to live out his passion for food. He said that working 12 to 13 hours a day doesn’t allow time for socializing, even with Trickel. “Sadly, or not sadly, my friends are basically here. They come to busters. This is my life. This is what I dedicate myself to. I don’t see it as a drawback. I love it. ” Hernandez said he feels like he belongs as Busters. It’s a diverse neighborhood, they are right across the street from the Douglass Houses, and two blocks from new multi-million dollar condominiums. But that makes for a more interesting clientel said Trickel. “Over here you have such diverse group of people with different incomes. There are foodies here that cane be very intimidating at times.” He added that “there are people like me who work everyday and come here for a treat.” When he isn’t baking, an art form in which he has a degree from Florida International University, he’s greeting the customers. Serving, he said, “is the ultimate selfish gratification. You make people feel good,” he said. And “when people eel good, it makes you fee that much better.”

On his day off, Sunday, Hernandez likes to relax at home by checking his emails, playing with his three cats, gardening and connecting to his fans on Facebook. But lately, the day has been spent at Occupy Wall Street. Hernandez said he is part of the 99%. That’s why he supports the Occupy Wall Street movement and has been apart an active participant since the beginning. He has donated clothing, a bicycle, taken food to their kitchen, participated in protests and provided the protesters with mouthwash and toothpaste. He said he found out about OWS through Facebook in early August. That’s more than a month before the movement even began.

Although he’s active in the movement, Hernandez said he’s disappointed with it and the way the city has reacted. Recent events on Wall Street, he said, are reminiscent of his past in Cuba. “Wall Street which is suppose to be a public street and you see the NYPD barricading the streets and preventing normal American citizens from demonstrating or walking on the street. we pay taxes so the NYPD can serve and protect, that’s what we do. They are serving and protecting the interests of the people with the money.”

Hernandez hopes to help improve nutrition in school through a new realty he show he’s written called “The Treatment”. The show is a competition between school chefs to see who can create the best tasting and healthiest meal for their students. And until the show is picked up, Hernandez and Trickel are happy where they are. It can be tough sometimes, but it’s fun said Trickle. “It has just been a great experience of growing, the arguing and things like that, which you do in business especially as things are changing. It’s a struggle, but it’s such a joy, it really is.”  They do hope to franchise the restaurant, but don’t want to grow bigger and risk sacrificing the relationship they have with their clients and with each other.

Extra:
The Bistro, in Coral Gabels Florida, is where Hernandez got his first take at the food industry. He was rejected twice before finally being hired as kitchen staff.  He said that the first week he got there was hell. “I use to go in the bathroom and I was so frustrated that I would literally ball. I just wanted to punch one of the maitre-des.” “ Hernandez’s persaonlity, he said “is not very easily manifested. “ He said he “is very tenacious.” If I want something, I really go for it. “

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