What I Learned Speaking to Fidel Castro’s Personal Chef
How a Dish of Fish and Mango Sauce Changed Erasmo Hernandez Leon's Life
For his book How to Feed a Dictator, Polish journalist Witold Szablowski interviewed Erasmo Hernandez Leon, the former bodyguard and chef of Fidel Castro. The following is based on Szablowski’s conversations with him.
I knew I wanted to cook from the start, probably because I’d worked in a restaurant before then. In our unit there was a real cook, whose name was Castañera. Whenever I had a spare moment, I went to see him, and I questioned him about how to make various things. He’d cooked at a very expensive restaurant before then; he’d joined the revolution because he’d fallen afoul of one of Fulgencio Batista’s men.
We ate what there was, mainly ajiaco, which is a very popular soup in Cuba. Everyone knows how to make it. I used to make it with Castañera almost every day. You take sausage, bacon, chicken, or a pig’s head—whatever you can use to make a stock. Once that’s ready, you add beans, corn, potatoes, sausage, rice, tomatoes—whatever you have on hand. You can also add fish or shellfish, but in the mountains we very rarely had fish, never mind lobster or shrimp. You toss it all in the pot. And you cook it on a slow flame for about half an hour.
It’s delicious, and also very nourishing, so it was ideal for the soldiers.
Che Guevara ate the same as everyone else. He never turned his nose up at the food, even though he was from a rich family and must have been used to good food. Castañera would probably have known how to make a dish from his home country, but there was no question of Che eating anything different from the ordinary soldiers.
The one thing that singled him out was his love of black beans. He could eat an entire big bowl of them.
Finally, a few weeks later, we set off toward Santa Clara. I took part in all the major battles in that campaign. I fought at Caibarién and Camajuaní, where Batista’s men ran away from us without firing a single shot.
My hometown fell a day later. It happened so fast that some of our comrades sensed a trap. But there was no trap; the road to Havana was open to us. Batista was well aware of this, because a few hours later he fled to the United States. There was so much going on that I didn’t have the time to visit my parents. After the Battle of Santa Clara, Rogelio Acevedo was promoted to captain and Enrique to lieutenant. We all went to Havana. I was shown appreciation too; Che took me into his personal bodyguard.
But I didn’t work for him long. You want to know how I ended up with Fidel Castro? Just a moment, I really must deal with that swordfish. Bear with me a while. I’ll tell the waiter to bring you some more coffee.
I met Fidel a few days after we entered the capital, at the house of Antonio Núñez Jiménez, a scientist who would later be the first Cuban to sail to the Antarctic. Jiménez had been in Che’s unit too and then became head of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform. The meeting at his house had to do with that reform, and along the way it turned out Fidel needed someone for security. Che adored Fidel and wanted to share everything he had with him, so without a second thought he told me to transfer to Castro’s bodyguards.
Was I pleased? Of course! Not only had I finally met Fidel; I’d started working with him too. I spent several years walking behind him—fetch this, take that, let’s go here, let’s go there. But although we were working for the chief, no one ever thought about food. There was always something more important. I was the first to think about the fact that the chief went about hungry, so one day I just set up a cooking pot and something to go in it and then made a campfire, and once El Jefe had finished his meeting, there was soup ready for him. It wasn’t part of my duties, but I’d always liked to cook, and that way I didn’t go hungry either.If you work in the president’s kitchen, you have to be able to plan the work well and to delegate the tasks properly.
Fidel liked this idea, so I did the same thing more often. In time I started taking the pot with me wherever we went.
We often worked right around the clock; Fidel would invite guests, or he’d stay up late with someone, or he’d suddenly feel like having something to eat, and by now he’d gotten used to the fact that I could always sort something out for him. But no one ever complained. We all knew the revolution would only succeed if each of us, whether a minister or a bodyguard, gave all he had.
And four years of my life flew by like that, years in which a great deal happened in Cuba. Fidel carried out the agrarian reform, thanks to which all the land passed into the possession of the state. He took the factories away from the Americans. He organized campaigns to combat illiteracy, which in Batista’s day nobody in Cuba had bothered about.
It all happened so fast that my memory of those years is poor. I didn’t even have a home; I slept wherever Fidel happened to be.
Until one day Celia Sánchez, his close friend and companion since the Sierra Maestra days, took me aside and said, “Erasmo, you’ve got a great talent for cooking! Fidel can have as many bodyguards as he wants, but it’s hard to find a reliable chef. Maybe you should get special training?”
It was a great compliment, because Celia had very often cooked for him herself, and Fidel used to say he only liked the food she prepared.
I had already been wondering if the army life was right for me, thinking that in fact I got more pleasure out of cooking, those moments when I could see how the spices totally changed the flavor. How the same dish came out slightly different every time I made it. And above all, how Fidel and all the others liked what I had cooked.
I told Celia it was a great idea. Yes, I’d like to go to culinary school.
My fellow guerrillas were amazed. Me? Fidel’s bodyguard?
That was the most direct route to becoming an officer.
But I stuck to my guns, and Fidel agreed, and so instead of being his bodyguard, I became a kitchen boy.
To get into the school, I had to pass a cooking test. I remember that I cooked a fillet of fish in diced mango sauce, which won me first place. Even I was surprised. For that sauce you have to have very good demi-glace, which is a thick stock. You take marrow bones, chop them into small pieces, and bake them for 20 minutes in an oven set at a very high temperature. The best sauce comes from ox bones, but in fact you can use any kind of bones.
Meanwhile, you fry carrots, tomatoes, and celery in olive oil. Once the bones are browning, you put everything in a large pot and simmer it over a very low flame. For how long? At least two days. A well-made demi-glace has the consistency of aspic. The rest of it is simple: you fillet the fish and fry it, ideally in olive oil. In a separate pot you heat up the demi-glace. Once it’s hot and the fish is cooked, you add the mango, but wait until the last minute, because it disintegrates very quickly. The mango should be diced, not too small and not too big, about the size of a thumbnail. You cook it until the mango starts to dissolve. Once the fillet is fried, you pour the sauce over it.
Later I used to cook that dish for Fidel, who liked it very much. I knew the recipe from a restaurant in Santa Clara.
The school was wonderful. We had teachers from France, Italy, and Paraguay. Surprisingly, there was no one from the Soviet Union, though the island had been full of Russians ever since the Americans had placed an embargo on Cuba. My favorite teacher was a man named David Griego who had been a chef at an expensive hotel, the Habana Libre.
To be a good cook—especially one who cooks for such prominent people—it’s not enough to know how to cook. Anyone can learn to do that; if you have a recipe and you make it once or twice, it can’t fail to come out well. But if you work in the president’s kitchen, you have to be able to plan the work well and to delegate the tasks properly. You have to plan several hours, sometimes even days ahead. I’d had no way of learning how to do that as a bodyguard. And that’s the knowledge David Griego passed on to me.
One day, after about a year of school, Celia asked me to come and see her. She complained that Fidel often forgot to eat all day. Or someone would cook for him, but he’d say he didn’t like the food and then start making himself spaghetti in the middle of the night; that was one of the things nobody else could cook for him, not even Celia.
So Celia asked if I could sometimes come by after school to cook for him.
Of course I agreed.
The biggest problem with Fidel was that with the guerrillas he had learned to eat at various times of day. It was impossible to plan ahead with him. For a cook that’s a tricky situation. You’re on the job at any time of the day or night.
But I was also aware of the pluses. Fidel wasn’t the type to complain; he ate what I made for him. If anyone was going to criticize the cook, it was more likely to be Raúl.I remember one time Castro’s mother cooked paella for us all. I thought I managed very well with the cooking, but I didn’t know how to make such a good paella.
One time we went to Birán, where Fidel was raised and where his mother lived to the end of her life; his father died before the revolution. They had an enormous farm there. Fidel had eight siblings, and if they had stayed on their father’s farm, each of them would have had a very good life. But he brought about the revolution, and he had to set an example. When he carried out the agrarian reform, one of the first farms in Cuba that he took into state ownership was his father’s.
He left his mother with nothing but a small cottage. His father had earned it all through hard work. He was no American capitalist of the kind we were to fight against, but a Spaniard from Galicia, who had ended up in Cuba when he was very poor; everything he owned, he had built from scratch. But Fidel couldn’t take the land from everyone else and let his mother keep theirs. While he was still fighting in the Sierra Maestra, when he set fire to the large sugarcane plantations, one of the first ones he gave orders to burn down was his father’s. Have you ever seen a sugarcane plantation on fire? I have. It leaves a sticky, sugary taste in the air.
His mother never forgave him for that. Of course she was very pleased when he came to visit and always received us cordially—I think she loved him the best of all her children—but it was plain to see there was ill feeling between them. They only ever talked about very general topics: “How’s life?” “Everything’s fine”; “lots of work”; “it’s hot today.” Our other comrades and I often offered to leave them alone, but Fidel didn’t like being left on his own with his mother. “There’s no need,” he’d say.
His father had regarded him as a troublemaker who’d never amount to anything in life. He could have expanded the family estate. He was very capable: he’d graduated from high school and then law school with top grades. He could have become anyone he liked. A politician? Any party would have chosen him as its leader. An athlete? The American baseball league offered him a professional contract. A chef? He was a great cook, and if he’d gone to the same school as I did, I’m sure he’d have become the best chef in all of Cuba.
But he earned a law degree and started to help the poor, instead of opening a legal practice for the rich. He could hardly make ends meet.
His mother was a superb cook. Before she became old Castro’s second wife, she’d been his maid, and probably his cook too. I remember one time she cooked paella for us all. I thought I managed very well with the cooking, but I didn’t know how to make such a good paella. I tried asking her how she did it, but she just smiled. Good cooks never betray their secrets; they’d rather take them to the grave. I thought she must have added a spice to that dish that I couldn’t identify.
Afterward I talked about it with my teacher at culinary school, and he said that in such cases it’s often the water that’s the critical factor. It may not have a flavor, but its quality can have a tremendous effect on the taste of the dish. Indeed, quite near the house they had their own spring, and the water from it tasted very good. Maybe there was something to that.
From How to Feed a Dictator. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Books. Copyright © 2020 by Witold Szablowski. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.