6:oo a.m. The soft gong alarm tone on my Blackberry sounds as I gently try to stretch myself awake in a bed that is not my own. I rub my stinging eyes, cough a few times, then shuffle to the bathroom, grab a Kleenex and blow out a wad of soot-tinged snot from my nose – just like I’ve been doing every morning for the past 5 days I’ve been working in Miami. It’s a little chilly today so I grab a few thin layers of clothing, slip on my Havainas and flip-flop outside to get some chimneys of charcoal ignited and ready for todays recipe testing session – the coals will be blazing hot by the time I return from getting my daily fix.
Still hovering in the kind of woozy fog that should keep me away from fire, sharp knives and heavy machinery, I make my way to the corner gas station, but this is no ordinary service stop. Part gas station, convenience store, vendor of wonderful wines, pricey cigars, and a cozy tapas joint, it is also home to a Cuban coffee bar where I ingest my daily quotient of caffeine in the form of styrofoam cups filled with cafes con leche, (grande, please!), and cortaditos – both heavily fortified with Cuba’s largest export, sugar. Esperanza is the senora in charge and her clucking displeasure with my ordering coffee sin azucar on my first day shamed me to what is now, after five days, a very sweet little habit. Esperanza turns out skinny, crisp and buttery white Cuban bread from her heavy grill as the tostada I munch while standing at the bar which doubles as the cigar display case. My eyes finally open wide and civility returns to my demeanor. I’m armed and ready to join my kitchen comrades in another fourteen hour day behind the grill. Come Saturday when the gig is over and I return to snowy Cleveland I’ll be missing this place and my Esperanza.