Comida del alma
Food for the soul
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 21:01
On any given day, a group of young Latinos can be seen walking down Lisbon or Minnesota Avenue. It would be easy to assume they’re on their way to cause trouble. The laughing, joking and anxiousness surrounding them can be easily mistaken as a recipe for disaster, when in fact, the group is only on its way to get a taste of home.
Another dinner by Felix Santana, the people’s chef.
Santana, a senior international business major, attends UB with a full course load, but off campus, he’s recognized as one of the best cooks by his friends – and even some strangers. Santana currently caters small, private events for friends and family for free but hopes to expand his horizons by opening a food truck in Buffalo and, eventually, his own restaurant.
“I feel like the kitchen is my office; it’s work,” Santana said. “I can see myself doing this for 80 hours a week and not complain. My back [will] kill me, I’ll feel pain, but it’s all mental.”
Last Saturday, Jan. 26, it wasn’t Santana’s friend’s kitchen that was his office. Santana hosted one of many “coros,” a Dominican slang term for get-togethers but with a Latin twist.
The group of approximately 15 consisted of both UB and Buffalo State College students. Within five minutes of being at the Lisbon Avenue apartment, it was easy to see the camaraderie. The music alternated between bachata, merengue and hip-hop, but the mood stayed the same – comfortable yet hungry.
Although Santana’s friends considered him the host, he seldom made appearances in the living room and only exited the kitchen to get fresh air followed by a pull from the hookah placed on the coffee table.
Santana’s best friend and pseudo-sous chef, junior nursing major Amanda Torres, grew up in the world of catering. Her mother, a caterer herself, taught Torres from a young age how possible it is for a person to single-handedly feed hundreds.
Santana has never had any formal training, yet Torres considers him a genius.
“We jokingly called him ‘the food whisperer’ the other day,” Torres said. “His love for food and catering to others and seeing them enjoy his food: that is what gives him his talent. He has a huge heart and he puts all his love into his food and the people he makes it for.”
Last Saturday’s coro was a light day for Santana. While friends sat a few feet away discussing the Knicks-Hawks game, their fantasy basketball rosters and social plans for that night, Santana and Torres made a Dominican-style dinner. The menu for that night included ribs, morro de gandules (rice and pigeon peas), pastelitos (baked puff-pastry filled with savory beef) and pastelon, or Dominican lasagna (sweet plantains, beef and cheese), according to Santana.
Despite waiting hours to dig into Santana’s one-man potluck dinner, the get-together at the Lisbon home didn’t end when the food was served. In fact, conversation became louder and more spirited, and while some ran back to get second and third servings, others organized a post-dinner game of dominos while they digested their food.
Nights like these are common for Santana, according to Marlene Ferreris, his old roommate and a 2012 alumna with a Bachelor of Arts in geography.
“Sometimes living with Felix felt like we lived in a soup kitchen,” Ferreris said. “He loves doing it for others, and being in college, it’s something that makes everyone around him feel at home, away from home … [his cooking had] a lot to do with our house being the center of socialization.”
Santana’s interest in cooking began at age 15 while watching his grandmother prepare Thanksgiving dinner in his native Lower East Side of Manhattan, N.Y. Within a year, his interest grew to a talent, and he assumed the responsibility of cooking the annual feast for his family.
By the time Santana arrived at UB, he had already honed his craft. Shortly after his freshman year began, he declined paying for a meal plan and began to cook in his dorm, MacDonald Hall.
Santana specializes in Latino, Italian and American food and hopes to develop his skills into other food genres. But for now, his current menu keeps his sizeable group of friends (and their friends) tight-knit and comforted.
“I cook on average for 15-20 people every day,” Santana said. “There’s never a certain number … and if more people come, I start cooking again. Food never runs out.”
Santana’s cooking has sporadically made its way onto UB’s North Campus, as well. After discovering the now-defunct Latin restaurant Papi’s was overcharging Student Association club PODER (Puerto Rican Organization for Dignity, Equality and Responsibility) for food, Santana offered his services free of charge.
According to Darwinson Valdez, president of PODER and president of Santana’s fraternity, Lambda Sigma Upsilon, Papi’s charged PODER $900 to feed 150 people, while Santana only required $550 to feed 250 people.