Danielle Alvarez interview: The Cuban cook's fascinating tale

Portrait of chef Danielle Alvarez, photographed at Fred's in Paddington.
Portrait of chef Danielle Alvarez, photographed at Fred's in Paddington.  Photo: James Brickwood

Chef Danielle Alvarez is specific about the perfect Cuban sandwich. And well she might be. Her family escaped Cuba during the late 1950s, arriving in the United States in exile and empty-handed. If anyone should know the proper way to make the sandwich born in Florida and made for Cuban migrant workers, it's the executive chef of Paddington restaurant Fred's.

"The bread," Alvarez says, "is a really big part of making the perfect Cuban sandwich and the right bread doesn't exist here in Australia. It's really soft and doughy and the crust is minimal. Then it's filled with roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese and yellow mustard, pressed on the top and bottom with a lot of butter. That's it."

The story of the Alvarez family's migration to Miami is, like that of many of the thousands of Cubans who left the country during Fidel Castro's armed revolution, an intensely sad one. "They had a pretty great life over there - my great-grandfather came from Spain by himself and started a couple of different sugarcane plantations around the island. It's a huge business down there so he did really well, had five daughters, they all had kids, those kids had kids, and they all lived on this one big property."

Gradually, as the country moved towards Castro's strict Communist regime, everything was taken from them and eventually they were forced to move from their family compound. Alvarez's mother, brother and one of their aunts left Cuba first, while her grandmother stayed behind with her grandfather, who refused to leave. Her mother, eight at the time, didn't see her grandmother for four years.

Her family, however, was a little luckier than others when they landed in the US. They had a small apartment, one they shared with 12 people, all in, across two families. "But they were all right," says Alvarez. "Everyone was very poor, but they were all together. It was this community feeling where thousands of Cubans were in the same situation ... so they really banded together."

Shouldn't dining, at its most elevated levels, be that escape from our regular mundane life?

Danielle Alvarez

Eventually Alvarez's grandparents found work - her grandfather as an accountant and her grandmother as a seamstress - and they were able to get their own place. Her mother started school and met Alvarez's father. They married in their early 20s and have been together ever since, living in the same house that Alvarez grew up in. Their family and friends still live within blocks of each other in Miami. "The anomaly is that I went so far away to succeed."

Being American-born, she also had the freedom to choose her path away from the pressures of political oppression. She started studying art in Florida, working in museums and art galleries before taking a desk job at a not-for-profit organisation that commissioned local artists for charity. But the urge to cook was powerful.

"I was one of those people working at a desk job and I was thinking about all the cooking projects I was going to do over the weekend. I started making cheeses and bread and getting into really intricate pastries just so it was a distraction and then I realised the distraction was actually the thing I wanted to do the most."

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Her curiosity, drive, and restlessness pulled Alvarez towards culinary school, which eventually led to her first job - a six-month stint working as an intern peeling eggs at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller's restaurant in Yountville, California (think of it as military school for aspiring fine-dining chefs).

"Being in that kitchen was amazing. It was also a terrifying kitchen to walk into, and one of the scarier moments of my life. And that was my first job. I still can't believe it to this day."

Her first full-time cheffing job, after egg-peeling for Keller, was at San Francisco restaurant Boulettes Larder, where she worked for two years under Amaryll Schwertner.

"She was a tough woman but I learned a lot from her. It's one of those places that's busy with a super small team so you're just thrown into everything. I was doing all the sections. But I'm an observer. I immediately picked the person who was doing the best job and I saw how they worked. And I guess I tried to mimic that."

It was also the restaurant that made her realise she wasn't particularly interested in working in fine dining. "It just feels a little tortured to me. I was never that kind of person. I just want to put it all together and give you something satisfying."

Perhaps it was that, combined with the fact that Schwertner was a Chez Panisse alum, that drove Alvarez in the direction of Alice Waters' famous farm-to-table restaurant in Berkeley.

"Chez invited me in for a trial, which was great. Those kinds of jobs don't come around very often. The chefs I worked with had been there 10 or 15 years. That's a career restaurant. The quality of life is great - great team, great family, great atmosphere. No one leaves - it's too good."

But Alvarez, despite having spent four years working there, knew she'd never be a lifer. It was the fear of it becoming too comfortable, too familiar, even though the work was hard and challenging.

Chez Panisse has famously short work days where staff squeeze in the same work a normal kitchen would do in reduced time. "You have to be so much faster to get everything done but that makes you a better cook, a more efficient chef and gives you so much more free time, which I think they recognise as being essential to quality of life."

She says she's felt a certain itch at every significant turning point in her life, and leaving Chez Panisse was one of those moments. But she hasn't had it since moving to Australia - a result of a holiday that turned into a love affair with this country's dining scene. An old friend from Chez hooked her up with the Merivale team, and together, she and Justin Hemmes sketched out their vision for the restaurant that leans on the central tenets of Chez Panisse Good Times.

"Alice Waters has always been - first and foremost - a lover of beautiful things," Alvarez says. "She does it for love, not for money. It's a place where people can gather and talk and have a delicious and wholesome meal using the best techniques and the best ingredients, creating an all-encompassing atmosphere of joy and pleasure."

But during what should have been a happy and exciting time, Alvarez's brother became sick. Not long before Fred's was due to open in late 2016, her brother died from a rare form of cancer called alveolar soft-part sarcoma. During that period, while also trying to open a restaurant, Alvarez would travel home to Miami every few months to spend time with her family.

"Obviously one of the hardest periods is watching someone you love just wither away. Ultimately, it got to be the end, I flew back home and he passed away while I was home with my family so we were all together. And then I just felt, 'I can't be here, I have to work, I have to do something'.

"Very shortly afterwards, we opened the restaurant. For that year, I don't think I talked about it. It was always present in my mind, and it still is - I don't know that I really grieved it - but I carry on."

Through the pain, Alvarez creates beauty. She feeds people, and she gives them something special. Heightened, but grounded. "Because shouldn't dining, at its most elevated levels, be that escape from our regular mundane life?"

Quickfire corner

Music to cook to: I love Frank Sinatra  – I love 'em all. That's when I'm on my own or with friends. There's just something about it that feels really festive, celebratory and relaxed.

After-midnight snack: Spaghetti with anchovies, chilli and parmesan. And the best thing is those things are always in my fridge.

Kitchen weapon: It's this little whisk with an eggshell green – I've had it forever and I'm always finding little uses for it.

Formative food writing: One I go back to a lot is Marcella Hazan: Essentials of Italian Cooking. And Elizabeth David. For me, women cookbook authors are a huge influence on me and my cooking.

Non-cooking ninja skill: Boxing. It used to be a big thing for me. I love it. I used to train pretty intensely when I was working at Chez Panisse.