The rum is ready, the tables are set and the menus are filled with Caribbean flavor. The food and travel fusion event known as Puerto Rico Meets NYC, kicked off on Sept. 30 and ran through Oct. 4, and encompassed a series of multi-day, multi-format events that celebrate the beauty and culture of Puerto Rico’s culinary heritage. But this venture wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for a serious case of wanderlust from founder Marie Elena Martinez, whose genius mind is bringing Puerto Rico to the Big Apple.
“I pulled out of law school on my post-college Europe backpacking trip when wanderlust got the better of me,” said Marie Elena Martinez, writer, traveler, foodie and founder of the Meets NYC brand. “I wound up in publicity at HarperCollins Publishers for 10 years instead, but at 30, I decided it was time to get back to traveling.”
After an around-the-world adventure that lasted almost four years (on and off) and with more than 40 countries under her belt, Martinez began writing food and travel pieces for publications including Newsday, the Boston Globe, Men’s Fitness, Condé Nast Traveler.com, Fodors and even received dream placements in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
“I was courted by Latina magazine to launch their culinary site, The Latin Kitchen, in 2012 as a founding editor,” said Martinez, who began to hone her editorial talents, but always had a knack for connecting people and places with travel and food. “Naturally, I wanted to find a way to fuse all of my skills while giving people the experience I often had when traveling and immersing myself in cultures around the world.”
So when an opportunity arose to create a festival centered on Baja wines and foods, Meets NYC was born.
“Baja, Mexico was a place where I found myself spending a good amount of time and slowly became familiar with the wine region and chefs pushing the envelope on Mexican food,” she said. “Baja Meets NYC was the first showcase in 2014, doing exactly what I wanted to do—fuse food, travel and experience.”
The chefs were some of the best in the world so Martinez was terrified of failure, but when it succeeded, and other chefs and destinations started approaching her about showcasing, she knew she was onto something.
“Puerto Rico is where my father is from, and it holds a special place in my heart, so it was obvious that this was going to be my next one,” she said.
According to Martinez, Meets NYC is an intimate brand, focused on one destination, making it different from large food festivals. To her, what you eat and who you eat with is an intimate experience, and Martinez believes it should stay that way. So how does one train for such an event? For Martinez, who spent a great deal of her life in Puerto Rico—as a child to a vacationing adult—she pulled from her experience and recalled her first ever “real” conversation with chef turned friend, Wilo Benet.
“I remember talking to Wilo Benet at his restaurant Pikayo in San Juan. He spent hours with me, this completely green writer, and really became a huge supporter of whatever I was doing thereafter,” said Martinez, who didn’t hesitate to ask Benet—and his peers who have also become hers—to be a part of Puerto Rico Meets NYC.
Coincidentally, Puerto Rico Meets NYC happened to fall right in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month, only further highlighting the importance of Latin culture. But if you ask Martinez what her favorite aspect of her culture is, don’t expect to get a solid response.
“It’s impossible, but I guess first and foremost would be the way in which meals and food tradition and history serve as anchors in Latin communities,” she said. “The best memories I have were always the meals over which I bonded with people of all cultures. People and food are such an open exchange in Latin America, and I love that.”
Martinez recalled that whenever she traveled to Latin America and tried to have a quiet meal by herself, she was never left alone, and that was a good thing.
“People pulled up chairs, shared my experience and opened me to theirs. The next night, I was breaking bread in their home,” she said, not forgetting the enriching taste that Latin America leaves on the tongue. “The flavors are all so different. From Peru to Mexico to Brazil to Spain, the flavor profiles are amazing.”
Similar to what she achieved with Baja Meets NYC, Martinez hopes to educate people on the culinary history of such destinations from their own backyard, giving them the opportunity to experience food and travel in a more accessible way.
“I always want to inspire discussion about culinary travel,” said Martinez, who hopes to give travelers and foodies a set of eyes with which to experience a new destination and the culture surrounding it. “I want to break stereotypes and get people to stop pigeonholing ethnic cuisine.”
One would think that the allure of travel would become trite after a while, but that will never be the case for Martinez.
“I’m addicted to the fact that every day is new. There’s constant discovery. Every sunset is a surprise, every meal is a surprise and every custom is a surprise,” she said. “I loathe the ordinary, and travel, to me, is extraordinary.”