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Articles / María Mercedes Grubb Will Not Be Denied

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María Mercedes Grubb Will Not Be Denied

Published July 20, 2023

Through hurricanes, earthquakes, and a pandemic — not to mention the usual restaurant-world sexism — Grubb has managed to clear a space for herself and her amazing food


On a Saturday this past April, at Chef’s Dinner Table, a private dining club in Manhattan hosted by Ronnie Rodriguez and food writer Kathleen Squires, Maria Mercedes Grubb was the guest chef. While publicists and food writers in cocktail attire snacked on her thin, crisp bacalaitos topped with ramps and flowers or her tostones with caviar, Grubb glided through the open kitchen. She gently palpated duck liver in a pan, added a sprig of tarragon to split pea soup, moved past another cook with a tap on the shoulder instead of a shout, and hugged guests as they entered the room. Many were old friends, and some were fans. Soon after, she ushered everyone to the long table and presented her first course: Roble Blanco, a delicate crudo of flounder in spring red onion pickle juice, dusted with sumac and hibiscus, inspired by the white oaks of San Juan. As folks headed back toward the door at the night’s end, she quickly found them individual treats to take home: a paper bag of morels, aji dulce fresh from the island, or a jar of guava syrup. She had expressed herself, but after everyone left, she stayed to clean. Grubb had been working since 6:30 a.m., and she was tired.

A week later, Grubb sat on the edge of a lounge chair by her pool in San Juan, wearing a white bathrobe and enjoying a rare moment of relaxation under the blue sky before her son Jack returned from school. “I’m just happy this last popup ended yesterday,” she said on our video call, her voice slightly worn from exhaustion. Her husband Colin Grubb, a writer and rock musician, teased from the background, “You’re doing an interview in your robe? You’re like a member of Oasis.” 

“Yeah, what’s your point?” Grubb joked. Turning back to the camera, she explained, “It’s like opening a restaurant for a day, and then, poof!, it’s gone—you have to think about what’s next.” 

Right now, that question — ‘what’s next?’— is more pressing than ever. Grubb has spent 20 years bushwhacking through a thorny restaurant industry. Amidst hurricanes, earthquakes, and a pandemic, she has cleared space for herself. In 2019 she became the first Puerto Rican woman nominated for a James Beard award. On the island and around the country, her platform for promoting Caribbean cuisine is still growing — you can watch her mother order Padma Lakshmi around the kitchen while making pasteles on the latest Taste the Nation. However, at 44, Grubb is still working 16-hour days in the kitchen, a pain in her shoulder is settling in, and demands at home are intensifying. Her teenage son is autistic and epileptic; he can’t communicate verbally or use the bathroom alone. For several years, Grubb’s mother has helped with Jack, but a week before our interview, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Grubb says, “She’s a trooper; it’s gonna be okay.” Like her daughter, she leans on the family motto “na’, seguimos” — “It’s nothing; we’ll move forward”but for Grubb to move forward this time, to keep cooking professionally, she will have to clear a new path—again.

Grubb started cooking at eight years old. Before school, while her classmates snoozed, she stood beside her mother at the stove, learning how plantains should sound on their first dunk in the oil and how sofrito should smell as it blooms in the pot. Preparing ingredients for her mother’s food stall and her father’s hot dog cart was a chore, but that food paid for her education. Grubb said, “My parents worked hard to put me in private school. I was the one girl from the ‘hood, so I was an outcast in school and the neighborhood. But I didn’t give a shit. That’s where I learned English. My father taught me that my skin color didn’t mean shit.” Though her parents never graduated high school, they positioned María for college. 

Sixteen years later, in 2004, now married, Grubb enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York. The timing wasn’t great for new endeavors; Jack was recently born and diagnosed with autism. But Grubb was determined. She said, “One day, I sent my husband to Sur La Table to get me something, and he told the cashier I was going to the French Culinary School. She told him, ‘I went there too, and I’m working here.’ My husband said, ‘Not my wife. She’s stubborn.’ There were 16 of us in my class,” Grubb said. “I’m one of two still doing this.” 

Culinary school catapulted Grubb into restaurants like Pastis and The Modern, but in the kitchen, like in grade school, she was an outsider. She said, “The chef and the line cooks were usually white boys—besides me: the Dominican-Puerto Rican-Black-Latina. I had to watch my step even more. I remember showing up with an injury, and the chef said, ‘Okay, you can go home,’ but I had to show him first; otherwise, everybody would hate me for the next week on the line.” She forged ahead, eventually developing deep camaraderie and mutual respect among other cooks, particularly at family meal. She says, “There would be a cauldron of something going, and everyone would throw something in. That’s how I learned ramen and kimchi.”  

At the Modern, Michelin-starred Chef Gabriel Kreuther inspired her. “He was an Alsatian chef but mixed things everywhere,” she said. “I learned that I could do anything as long as I immersed myself in the Why and How of the ingredients. That cemented my love for the industry.”

As Grubb became enchanted by New York restaurant life, two years, then two and half years, and then three years passed, and Jack still hadn’t spoken. At six years old, he was still non-verbal and non-potty trained. “I thought I could make it all work, but my husband watched Jack constantly. I was working sixteen hours, and he couldn’t do it alone,” she said. Her mother offered to help take care of Jack, and her brother offered to help her start a restaurant. But both were still in Puerto Rico. So, after 14 years away, she returned to the island with an international cookbook in her head and the diploma she promised in her hand. 

Grubb began hosting groups of 25 at her house for nine-course dinners, and the Underground Dining Club was born.

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She said, “I was cooking everything I missed from New York. The first popup was Korean, then Parisian, then Basque. Before every popup, I immersed myself for weeks into learning.” Good local ingredients were harder to come by — trammeled by a hundred years of US policies like the Jones Act and Operation Bootstrap, Puerto Rico imports over 80% of its food from the mainland — but Grubb formed relationships with farmers as motivated as she was to diversify the island’s agriculture. In 2013, she had enough of a following to open a restaurant, Gallo Negro, with her brother. She said, “I would change the menu every three months. I cooked Korean fried chicken with white kimchi made from local vegetables, a Moroccan Harira soup that I made more like a chili.” The phone was constantly ringing. Folks from Food & Wine, Vogue, Vice, PBS, Condé Nast, and Grub Street visited and praised the bar program and Grubb’s masterful fusion dishes. Gallo Negro quickly became one of the most celebrated restaurants on the island. 

It was always a challenge, Grubb says. “You come in one day, there’s no power; you come in another day, there’s no water; you come in another day, and there’s a strike or government lockdown.” 

Then, in September 2017, Hurricane Maria blew the roof off.

Maria was the first category-four hurricane in 85 years, landing two weeks after Hurricane Irma. It crushed a weak power grid, flooded roads, and decimated farms. At Gallo Negro, grease and mold covered all of the interior surfaces. Grubb and her brother gutted it, painted, and rebuilt it, but on the morning of her grand reopening in January, no one showed up for work — a third of the island was still without power, and many staff had fled. Alone, she hauled groceries from Costco, pulled the starter rope on a small generator, and chopped onions and garlic under a quivering lightbulb. She and her brother swept away the last puddles in front of the restaurant and opened the doors. Slowly, business returned, and so did the press. In 2019, she got a call from the folks at James Beard. They were nominating her for The Best Chef: South category. 

Later that year, two years after surviving 174-mile-per-hour winds, they were wiped out by airborne particulates floating on a gentle breeze. The COVID-19 pandemic forced them to close the restaurant permanently. 

The closure was devastating, but she grew closer to Jack during the months at home. She said, “Before, I was always working 16 hours. So Jack and my husband were best friends. I would come home like, ‘What about me?’ Now he’s always looking for me. I don’t wanna lose that.” On social media, Grubb posts pictures of her and Jack playing together by the pool, smiling and moving to the music in the car, and showing off the best t-shirt and sneaker collection any child or adult has ever composed. Family members have suggested she stop cooking to be at home with Jack, but she realizes she will be taking care of Jack for her whole life, and she can’t cease to exist. She tells them, “I’m still here, too.” She has transitioned into consulting and pop-ups, which still require travel and long hours, but are much more flexible than running a restaurant. She says, “I have one talent, so I need to make sure this works. Also, it fulfills me, makes me happy, and gives me peace between the chaos.” She continued, “That is where, for one second, all I’m thinking about is putting something beautiful out there and expressing myself. I think you noticed at the [New York pop-up] that is my Zen place.” She continued, “Things are starting to fail, and my shoulder hurts. It’s all these little things, and my body’s like, ‘Fuck you, bitch.’ But then I feel like I have to prove that as a Dominican, Black, female, mother of an autistic boy, you can still do it.” 

That brings us back to the lounge chair, poolside, wondering what’s next. The day we spoke was the first day of a week-long vacation. The family recently moved into that house for the pool because the water soothes Jack. Grubb would like to be able to stay there, but she’s also considered moving to Philadelphia, where her husband’s family is, perhaps to start a bodega, a brunch spot, or even a restaurant group. She said, “I worked so hard to get here, and I still love cooking and creating, and it’s like trying to find a balance for both [career and family]. It’s harder for female chefs. We don’t have a big money man coming with a cigar and a whiskey saying, ‘I’m gonna give you a restaurant group.’ I have so many male friends, chefs with five or six restaurants, and they no longer move a finger. That’s my next ambition. I want to start a restaurant group. I don’t know how, but I will figure it out. I want to go big. I wanna go really big.” 

She’ll find the best way forward and start clearing a path. Obstacles loom large, but she’ll regard them as her mother always has—like they’re nothing, “na’.”