Caracas, Venezuela. On my top ten travel destinations for one reason: Arepas! The arepa is a simple flat bread made from corn flour and water, then fried in a pan. In Venezuela, it is then cut open and stuffed like a sandwich with a variety of ingredients. I first had an arepa for dinner in a hole in the wall restaurant with my foodie buddies JBS and EBS. I ordered the La Jadinera arepa and ate it moaning with each bite–a habit I can’t seem to kick. Since that first night of a $5 dinner, Caracas, the restaurant, became my favorite spot to chill between classes in the city and the first place to take all friends who visited the city. Bobby Flay even hosted a Throwdown episode at Caracas!
Once I left the city, I missed this place so much that I taught myself how to make the arepa de Pollo and got decent at having it at home. However, nothing came close to the arepas at Caracas. It’s the first meal I have as soon as I arrive in New York City. That was until last March.
EBS, MWA, and I had arrived on our third annual girls trip–not knowing that this may be our last trip for a while–we planned our usual routines of rotating beds so each of us had one bed to our self for one night and each of us picked one meal that we must have no matter what. EBS chose her usual, Genarro and I chose, Caracas. We went for Sunday brunch early to beat the rush.
If you’ve never walked around New York early on a Sunday morning, add it to your bucket list right now! The city is bright and silent. Memories from last night’s parties float down from above. Shop owners and chefs walk calmly to work. The sidewalks seem wider than the night before and taxis line the roads in abundance. The three of us walked toward Caracas in a nearly vacant East Village. We arrived so early that the restaurant hadn’t even opened yet–a sign of traveling in your thirties. So we walked around our old friend and waited. By the time Caracas opened, my hunger had quickened. I was so glad to be back in this comforting spot, ready to taste the familiar flavors.
A series of red flags followed which I ignored one by one because my memories were just a little stronger. First red flag: when EBS tried to order Venezuelan Coffee, the server gave a confused glance and reminded us that they had Blue Bottle coffee. EBS and I exchanged a “what the fuck” look. Second red flag: the menu had changed and my favorites were suddenly missing! I can be flexible–sometimes–so I ordered one new arepa Leeks Jadinera and an old favorite, de pollo. Third red flag: our arepas arrived looking similar to the ones that I so dearly loved for so many years. Yet, one bite told me that this place had changed. It was not the Caracas of my twenties. It had grown into a larger business and this meant a change in flavors. I ate completely disappointed. My heart sunk and shriveled. I had the choice of one meal and it was this mediocre one. My attempts of being okay with the change didn’t fool anyone. The girls tried to make it better by discussing how the owners may be working a little less now and perhaps had a better quality of life. Maybe they can afford vacations now. The question that lingered in the air was: why does the quality have to go down once a restaurant expands and gets more locations? Does financial security immediately mean lower quality/less passion for the art form?
After being really upset and having to walk it off, I began to explore this idea of becoming a successful teacher and what that means in my life today. Has the quality of my teaching gotten poorer or have I let go of needing everything to be perfect and less uptight about the classroom? If one of my former students sat in on one of my class today, would they hate the taste and long for the familiar taste of a Ms. C from their past? I would like to say that the quality of my teaching has gotten better that each year I come a little closer to genuine experiential learning. I would like to say that I have also become more successful and the two are not mutually exclusive. But the truth is there are many things that I made a part of my job that simply aren’t anymore. I don’t discipline students the same way. I don’t teach my mini lessons in the same way. And I don’t get worked up over disagreements with students or colleagues for weeks at a time becoming so obsessively anxiety ridden trying to solve the other human whom I really don’t have any control over. So the quality of my life has definitely improved. Not being stressed in the way I used to has also affected how my students see me. Not to say that I’m perfect and never have a bad day or get frustrated in the classroom. I am human. If financial success has allowed me to grow into a better teacher, why didn’t it do the same for Caracas?Answer this question means that I have to allow myself to be open to a different perspective.
Well, perhaps the chef was not the usual chef. Perhaps the owners are living a less stressful life by giving their chefs a bit of freedom to explore as artists. Isn’t that what I want for my students? I do give them way more freedom to make mistakes and yet, when this happens to me outside of the classroom, I hold in such harsh light. When I attempt to put myself in the owners of Caracas’ shoes, I am able to see a valuable perspective. It’s important to grow and this will bring success which allows us to create new art pieces whether it be culinary, teaching, musical, etc. Perhaps had I abandoned my need for nostalgia and opened myself to a few of the newer items on the menu, I may I found an arepa that touched my soul today instead of trying to relive my twenties. Although the old will always be there, sometimes the new allows for a different perspective.
Watch the Bobby Flay Throwdown Below: