Finding solace and inspiration in cooking and serving during lockdown.
By Paxx Caraballo-Moll as told to Katie Lockhart
Paxx Caraballo-Moll is head chef at San Juan’s Jungle Bao Bao, an independent kitchen inside Jungle Bird bar. They are a James Beard semifinalist and Food & Wine Best New Chef 2019. In and out of the kitchen, they are a queer activist and leader of Puerto Rico’s #queersinthekitchen movement.
In Puerto Rico, we get packed around the end of November until May. We were doing really, really good. It was so crazy from one week we were packed, parties and everything to the next week—dead.
When COVID-19 came to Puerto Rico, we thought, “Oh my god, we really have to close.” We tried to do the takeout thing through the window. We tried it for about a week, and we had a whole “quarantine and chill” promo and everything. I have to be honest, that did not work for us at all. So my business partner and I made the decision—we’re closing the shop.
It basically went from zero to sixty, and then we were locked down. I had to close everything. And we did a GoFundMe for all my kids—my employees. When we had to close down, my staff knew they weren’t going to work, but they knew, once the country opened, we were eventually going to hire them back.
But it was crazy because all of a sudden, GoFundMe did not apply to Puerto Rico. I did a GoFundMe years ago to start a food truck, and Puerto Rico was included. We had to call a friend from New York so that we could include this person on the GoFundMe account, so she could do the whole thing and send the money through PayPal, which took five weeks. Then, we gave the money to our kids. I was like, “Come on, this can’t be that hard.” But yeah, it was.
You know you have to take care of your people, and our community always gets bread crumbs, so that GoFundMe was essential. I needed to make sure that they would get something.
We didn’t really apply for any loans because I know the fine print will come back to bite everyone. But through our accountant, we’re still waiting for our $1,200 stimulus checks. We still haven’t received that. We tried to do the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, which was like $500, but the server was so busy, and every time we opened it, it went down.
My staff is entirely queer, and we’re very small. We have myself and my business partner and two cooks and a dishwasher, who also helps in the kitchen. It’s all dykes, trans, and gays baby. I never thought I would run a kitchen like that because I never thought it would be possible. If you can imagine it and create it, it’s great. It’s beautiful not to feel any anxiety and to feel safe in that space. I deeply love it.
Puerto Rico is always left behind for everything. We’re a commonwealth after all, and I don’t think the government we have now has responded well to the situation. To be honest, I do read and watch the news, but I just want to disconnect. I don’t want to be a part of it, and that’s not good because this is the world I’m living in right now. But Puerto Rico has always been left behind, especially in the last three years with the hurricane and the earthquake and now this crazy shit.
I’m living alone for the first time in 11 years, and I love it. I never thought I would like living alone, but I do. But those two first weeks for the lockdown, to be alone and not talk to anyone, you’re just thinking crazy shit 24/7. That sucked.
Then the people from World Central Kitchen called me, and I was like, “Yes, I need to get out of my house right now.” So I’ve been working with them, and it’s very therapeutic, and I am deeply, deeply grateful because in a way it saved me from going crazy alone in my house.
We were doing over 900 meals for first responders and communities, and now that the country is opening, we have lowered that number down to 500. So we serve the community we’re in, and a lot of hospitals, doctors, nurses, and first responders.
It’s a very honest and simple operation. You have to be very practical, and you have to feed them something that will nourish them and fill them up. So we’re doing a lot of Puerto Rican Criolla food, which will include a starch, protein, and vegetables. We get there around 6:30 or 7 a.m., and we have a lot of big huge pans and a lot of chopping vegetables. We’re buying from local farmers, so that’s beautiful. It’s an operation that I’m really proud to be part of. We are around five or six people at the Santurce kitchen. There are around 15 World Central Kitchens operating throughout all of Puerto Rico. It’s very humbling, and it feels great that you’re serving the community.
I would say that World Central Kitchen saved me personally. Some landlords were forgiving rents, but that was not the case in my new building. I’ve been working with them to pay my rent and have some food money. But I am OK—I’m not victimizing myself whatsoever, I’m OK. It is a privilege to be in lockdown. I’m very aware of that.
Just two months passed, and now the country’s getting to open again, I don’t think that’s a good idea. People are being careless—they’re not wearing their masks. People are forgetting about keeping their social distances and everything. I don’t know, I always try to keep healthy. I’ll still wear my gloves. I’ll still wear my mask.
We recently reopened again, and it’s been two weeks now, and it hasn’t been bad, but it’s not great. So let’s see what happens. I mean, I never saw this coming, none of us did. We’re rethinking everything. But we’re open now from Thursdays through Saturdays, for pickups and deliveries. We started last week from 2 p.m. till 6 p.m. And this week we expanded that to 10 p.m.
I would say the first week it was really good in the sense that we made more money in a short amount of time. That felt really good, but this week specifically, when we extended the hours, I didn’t really see that much difference. And I do have my cooks that I want to honor, but if we’re not making money, I cannot keep you there. I mean, it breaks my heart, so I hope that this week picks up.
I don’t like treading into unknown waters because I hate uncertainty. So it’s very scary, and I’m a chef that always puts my crew in front, and I want to uplift them, but when we’re not making money, that’s a very scary thought. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that has been feeling this way. It’s just very scary times.
But we’re following the rules of sanitation, wearing masks and gloves. We want to be up to par. We did a deep cleaning, cleaned the kitchen area upstairs, sanitized everything.
The heat has started to come to Puerto Rico, so I would say that being masked in the kitchen in Puerto Rico during this heatwave is very, very different than if you were in the States. As a trans man, to have a binder, to have the gloves and the mask and the apron, and all this heat—it’s kind of crazy. It makes you feel vulnerable and anxious.
It’s different because the fun thing about being in a kitchen is that you know the hustle in your shift and the plates coming in, but we’re receiving orders through the phone and online, and we’re cooking for that. It’s a lot of idle hours. I’m very thankful to be serving and cooking food, but never in a million years would I have pictured it was going to be like this.
We’re doing a very limited menu. We’re thinking about expanding it, but I really have to see how everything goes. We need to be very mindful of how we are using our money. Right now, we don’t even know what will go on in the next month.
So we’re serving a limited menu of classics that we do at Jungle Bao Bao, like the crack eggplant that everyone loves. We have this version of a Scotch egg, but instead of sausage, we wrap our egg in a mix of falafel and alcapurrias, which is a Puerto Rican fritter. We have kimchi fried rice, where we make our vegan kimchi in-house and a green papaya salad.
We were going to open a steamed bun shop called El Baoricua—because we are boricuas that make baos—that we closed down after the hurricane. We were going to open that shop in Santurce once again, and then all this happened. So, we’re merging El Baoricua and Jungle Bao Bao through our takeout window. We have our classic baos we were doing mixed with Jungle Bao Bao food.
My dream is to open my own restaurant. I still have not achieved that. I would love to do that. I close my eyes, and I know exactly how I want that restaurant to be. But I never pictured a pandemic. So for now, I’m concentrating on my window and rethinking everything to give you the most memorable food that you can get on your couch in your home.
Of course, I want everything to go back like before, but better. Living on an island, I could see how human beings would fuck up the planet, because when you got in a car, and you went through the coast, you could see that the color of our oceans changed for the better during all this. Like the days during lockdown were beautiful because no one was polluting the streets, so the oceans changed color, and so did the air. I’ve never seen prettier days than when we lived in lockdown, which was beautiful and sad at the same time.
So that makes me think like, do I want to go back to normal? What does “normal” mean? I don’t know. I know it sounds very idealistic and corny, but I just want a better world.