Taste Travels: Q&A with Milena Pagán
Welcome to Taste Travels, our series on exploring and finding culinary voice. We’ll be celebrating the foundational techniques and flavors our favorite chefs and creators grew up with, including how they’re blending them into their everyday lives and making meaningful new traditions. Each story we highlight aims to showcase the fluidity and evolution of food across cultures and continents.
In celebration of our Taste of the Caribbean kit launch with Loisa, we teamed up with Milena Pagán to share the story of the Puerto Rican flavors she grew up with and how they find their way into her life and onto the plate as a Northeast-based chef and restaurant owner. Read on for Milena's story, and head to the link in bio for her hearty habichuelas negras recipe – a classic Puerto Rican stewed bean dish but using our ingredients.
Q: What are some of your earliest memories in the kitchen and how have they informed your perspective on food and gathering?
A: I have always enjoyed how cooking food brings people together. My earliest memories in the kitchen involve the elder women in my life showing me recipes for traditional dishes. It has taught me that cooking is nourishing others, forming community, being resourceful and passing on history through cuisine.
Q: What’s your most nostalgic dish?
A: I still remember when my grandmother taught me how to make habichuelas guisadas. I used to hate beans as a little girl and when she showed me all the tasty bits she put into the pot, how colorful and fun they were, I was more open to trying them. As an adult chef who grows her own food, I've learned to appreciate the benefits of beans for well-being as well as the soil health.
Q: How has your voice as a chef and artist evolved over time?
A: As a chef, I feel a huge responsibility to cook in a sustainable and resourceful way. I am thoughtful about not making prime cuts of meat the centerpiece of every dish and instead cooking more seafood, beans, vegetables and organ meats. Similarly, I look at my edible garden and challenge myself to use all the edible parts of the plants – roots, leaves and fruit. Using under-appreciated ingredients to make tasty and beautiful foods is my favorite party trick.
Q: What culinary traditions have you either held on to, or evolved for your friends and family today?
A: I learned to make traditional pasteles from my mother and I still enjoy making them. It's best done assembly line-style, so I gather a few friends, teach everyone a step and then we work together. Everyone gets to make them to their taste and take some home at the end!
Q: What role do beans play in your life?
A: We eat beans pretty much every time we eat rice, which is daily! In my kitchen, beans are always a hearty and filling pantry meal. In my edible garden, growing beans is essential to improve the soil.
Q: What's the legacy you want to leave with your cooking?
A: I would like to impress upon the general public the beauty of Puerto Rican cuisine and the strength of our people! Puerto Rican food is not very well known, and there is something so beautiful in a cuisine that was born out of the historical struggle of being the world's oldest colony. Cooking our food is how we reclaim our painful history, and I love to share that history when I put a dish on the table.