At Havana Tropical Cafe, Chef Anna DiMaio mixes Cuban and American flavors
by Jessica Jones-Gorman Photos By Robert Nuzzie
When Anna DiMaio was 11 years old, she asked for an allowance.
“My father was very old school, and told me if I wanted money, I had to get a job,” DiMaio said. “So he took me to this old German bakery where we lived in Pelham Manor, and they hired me.”
The teen would report for her shift at 6 a.m. on the weekends, working the cash register and making coffee, but when she showed up one morning and witnessed the complex baking process that occupied the kitchen, she was fascinated.
“I started getting in at 4 a.m. just so I could watch and learn,” DiMaio said. “The baker eventually gave me little jobs to do, and within six months I was working as a short-order cook, making morning dishes of bacon, egg, and cheese.”
She stayed at the bakery for five years, and when she and a friend scored waiting jobs at a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant in the Bronx, DiMaio found herself in the kitchen there, too, cooking side by side with the restaurant’s owner.
“There is just something instantly gratifying about cooking,” she said. “You put your heart and soul into a dish, add flavors and ingredients that you love and appreciate. And when someone else loves and appreciates it too, it’s just a wonderful feeling.”
After high school, DiMaio enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and completed an externship at the Beach Point Yacht Club in Mamaroneck, NY.
“We did a lot of high-end catering and prepared a nightly dinner menu for members,” she said. “I learned a lot, and when I graduated, they offered me a full-time position. But I worked very long hours…would go in at 7 a.m. and not get home until 2 a.m. I quickly burned out.”
When she met a personal chef at a family brunch, DiMaio shifted gears and began working for a personal catering company.
“I needed to step back from the industry, make my own schedule for a while,” she said.
So, at the age of 22, she opened her own company, calling it Westchester Culinary Creations.
“It was amazing to get back into the type of cooking that I really loved,” she said, adding that a gym owner whom she had been cooking for weekly soon asked her to help with his business’s meal prep.
“I was fascinated by the idea,” DiMaio said. “I did tons of research and a lot of leg work and opened a second company called My Fitness Chef.” The meal prep company works hand-in-hand with trainers and nutritionists to prepare portions of healthy food for gym-goers. As each of her businesses progressed, the chef took a step back and ran each from a distance. She moved to South Jersey and actually found herself with some free time.
“Even though I was visiting each of my businesses three times a week, I missed the sweat of the kitchen,” she said. “So I sent my resumé to a local business to fill the void.” That local business’s general manager was Carlos Salvador of Havana Tropical Cafe.
“I could see his passion right away,” DiMaio said. “It was refreshing to see how hands-on and involved he was. It’s not the type of kitchen I am used to, but I knew I could learn from him and he was very appreciative of my knowledge. One of the main reasons why I took this job was to learn the secrets of Cuban cooking. It’s such a delicious cuisine…very flavor-forward and fresh, and you can’t learn its techniques at the Culinary Institute of America; this is something you can only pick up in a true Cuban kitchen.”
“We work with a lot of fresh fruits, veggies and proteins,” she concluded. “Last week we did Cuban fish and chips with hand-cut plantain chips and a chimichurri coated and battered cod. It was a great dish that combined American food and a Cuban genre. I’m definitely having fun blending these two cultures and cuisines.”
Havana Tropical Cafe
300 Shore Drive, Highlands / 732.708.0000 / havanatropicalnj.com