It's no surprise that Like Water for Chocolate
is one of Maricel Presilla's favorite movies. Like the scrumptious film, Presilla's life is an amalgam of food, art and history. "I've always been interested in the history, folklore and tradition of food," said Presilla last week while sitting at a table for four at Zafra, the new Cuban Latino eatery she co-owns with Clara Chaumont and Leonardo de La Sierra. Originally from Cuba, Presilla now resides in Weehawken. She began cooking professionally in the early 1980s when she was working toward her PhD in history at New York University. "I grew tired of being in front of a word processor," said Presilla. "I went to visit a friend who was working at a Manhattan restaurant called The Ballroom. The chef [Felipe Rojas Lombardi] said to me, 'If you're going to stay in the kitchen for more than five minutes then you need to cook something.' So I made a flan and it sold. I was so excited." Like one of Presilla's luscious corn tamales, the experience was addictive. She immediately began working in The Ballroom's kitchen, cleaning squid and peeling potatoes, while she finished her degree. "I also tested recipes and worked as a restaurant consultant," she said. "I was living a double life." In the early '90s, with a PhD in hand, Presilla decided to devote herself to food fulltime and attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. While Presilla does not focus on French food - she specializes in Latin American cuisine - the Institute offered her a traditional kitchen environment where she could hone her skills. In the mid-'90s, Presilla's worlds collided. Combining her passion for food with her training in history, Presilla spent five years traveling through Latin America researching indigenous recipes along with local traditions. The result is a cookbook entitled The Classic Foods of Latin America
(Scribner) which is due out in January 2001. Patrons of Presilla's tiny eatery, located on Third and Willow streets in Hoboken, will benefit from her meticulous research. Zafra's pan-Latin menu features authentic Mexican tamales, Argentinean steak, Dominican soup, Uruguayan salad, Peruvian potatoes, Ecuadorian lemonade and Cuban sandwiches. With bright yellow walls, Mexican floral tablecloths, and Medieval pottery prominently displayed behind a wooden counter, the warm and welcoming space is the perfect backdrop for the Zafra's unpretentious fare. To further authenticate the experience, Presilla utilizes traditional Latin American preparations, like using a mortar and pestle instead of a knife and grating her tomatoes and onions instead of chopping them. The result, according to Presilla, "is a unique flavor and texture." "I'm a cook who happens to be a food historian," Presilla modestly explained. "You can't do this from the comfort of an armchair."