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New York City meets Havana in art-fair chef exchange

HAVANA -- Foreign art lovers are breaking bread with Cuban waiters, drivers and parking lot attendants this week in a unique experience that forces diners and chefs alike to overcome barriers of culture, language and five-plus decades of animosity between Washington and Havana.

Ten prominent New York City chefs are teaming up this week with 10 culinary entrepreneurs from Havana's budding private restaurant scene, cooking up savory and sweet multi-course meals from an improvised kitchen built in a shipping container. The diners are mostly foreigners in town for a major art exhibition and Cubans who are being invited to participate in the free meals by the visiting chefs who meet them during the course of their stay.

Blending contemporary American, Italian, Japanese, even Burmese cuisines with Caribbean Creole classics, it's a rare culinary treat in a country where many state-run and independent restaurants serve up dull, unimaginative fare. It's also a performance art spectacle that's about bridging the gap between estranged neighbors and socioeconomic classes.

“The easiest and most interesting way into understanding another culture is food,” said Sara Jenkins, the project's chef director and proprietor of East Village eateries Porchetta and Porsena. “And the easiest, most uncomplicated way to make friends is to break bread at the same table.”

“Project Paladar,” named after Cuba's popular independent restaurants, is part of Havana's 11th Biennial, an irreverent bash attracting 180 artists from 43 countries as well as thousands of art aficionados and collectors. The dining project is being funded by the donations of American individuals.

For 10 days the chefs will take turns pairing off and serving up gourmet meals in the back patio of a cultural center in colonial Old Havana. Guests are greeted with a mojito and escorted to a table for 12 in homage to the maximum number of seats that the government allowed paladars to have when they first opened in the 1990s.

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