An Inside Look at Caña by Juliana Gonzalez
From a young age, Juliana Gonzalez enjoyed working with her hands. She was drawn to arts and crafts in school, loved being in the kitchen with her mother as she prepared traditional Puerto Rican dishes such as calditos (a savory broth) and comida criolla (Creole-inspired cuisine). During her college years at Inter American University in San German, Puerto Rico, she would get together with friends to cook after a long day of classes.
"I remember traveling to Cerro Maravilla in Ponce to celebrate Christmas and Three Kings Day, and how my farther would prepare the lechón a la varita [pork] and my mother the arroz con gandules [rice with peas]", says Gonzalez. "I have always felt inspired by Puerto Rican food culture."
After graduating from university with a degree in marketing, Gonzalez moved to Miami, Florida, to study culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University. During her studies there, she travelled to Spain for three months for an internship program; it was there that her passion for cooking was sparked.
"I am a passionate, creative, and hard-working woman, and when I was in Spain I realized I wanted to put those skills toward being a chef," she says.
The Making of Caña by Juliana Gonzalez
The name of Gonzalez's acclaimed fine-dining restaurant, Caña by Juliana Gonzalez, came from her and her partners' desire to select something that both Puerto Ricans and Spaniards could identify with. Although Caña is overall all a Puerto Rican concept, it also includes Spanish elements from Gonzalez's time in Spain. Moreover, Spain is an important country in the history of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rican traditions are heavily influenced by Spain's long-standing presence there.
The cultivation of sugar cane (caña de azúcar) and the production of sugar largely forged the local and international identity of Puerto Rico. Additionally, in Spain the phrase "vamos a meter caña" is extremely popular, translating more or less as "let's do this." Caña is also defined as the glass in which wine or draft beer is served. All of it came together for Gonzalez, and she saw in that word—and rich meanings of that word—an opportunity to bring an exciting restaurant concept to life in her home country.
"At Caña, you are able to discover well-done Puerto Rican cuisine in a new style," Gonzalez says. "For example, I asked my mother many times how to make a specific traditional dish, and consequently added my own special touches to mold those dishes to my own taste and style."
On the other hand, some of the dishes are traditional Spanish specialties, but with a Puerto Rican twist. "At first, I was scared to try new recipes. But gradually, as I gained experience, I learned what people like or dislike, and which are the best mixes of flavors. I learned to create dishes based on my tastes and preferences in the international cuisine," she says.
During her years in the kitchen, Chef Gonzalez has realized that the world is constantly evolving—including the culinary world. She sees this as a positive thing, and is passionate about searching for new products to source from local farms.
"Evolving in the kitchen is not really about discovering new recipes, but rather about discovering new products that contribute to the creation of unique, delicious, and exclusive dishes," she says. "For me, an example of these dishes is the pumpkin with herbs salad at Caña.”
"The biggest mistake a chef can make is to only cook traditional plates," Gonzalez continues. "It is crucial for a person to get out of their comfort zone—to be fearless and try different flavors."
Leading with that mindset, Chef Gonzalez describes Caña as an evolving project: "All cuisine has its own evolution, and although it is extremely important to maintain traditions, I see this as a starting point of evolution for the gastronomy in Puerto Rico and in the world."