Ballet & Black Beans: One Bustling Family’s Unique Blend Of Food & Culture

“We go through a lot of black beans, it’s an ingredient that is such an important connection to my culture.”

Family Dinner

Eduardo Vilaro and his husband, David Norfleet-Vilaro, come from very different backgrounds. Eduardo was born in Havana before moving to the Bronx. A former dancer, he currently serves as the artistic director and CEO of the Ballet Hispánico, a Manhattan-based dance company that shares and celebrates Latino cultures through performance and education. David, a former farm boy from Kentucky, is an engineer and app developer. But talking to them over Zoom one evening alongside their teenage son, Max, it’s clear that whatever differences they have are complementary. Take, for instance, their family project Cooking with Cubans, a YouTube channel they worked on together during the pandemic — Eduardo and Max starring, David behind the scenes.

“It was a really great moment,” Eduardo recalls. “The pandemic was hard for all of us, but to be able to do something like that and keep us both motivated, having fun, and using this food that we love so much, for me, it's always a bonding element.” The family made pancakes, “roast beast,” (an Easter specialty) and even Eduardo’s grandmother’s black bean recipe. “Well,” he admits, “there was just one ingredient that I did not add.”

Max is quite a bit taller now than in the vlog — though his parents say it feels like it was about three minutes ago (we feel you) — but it’s clear that the family still sees food as a vehicle for connection and culture. It’s a way to center themselves in the hustle and bustle of running a dance company, developing apps, and raising a teenage athlete.

The family prepared their Easter special, “roast beast.”YouTube

I want to start with Eduardo and David. When you each think about the food culture of your childhoods, what was that like for both of you? Were there certain foods you associate, certain meal times? What was the vibe there?

David: You're going to get two very different answers! I was raised on a farm in Kentucky, so food time for us was more of a utilitarian. When it was time to eat, we ate whatever happened to have been picked or killed in the last correct length of time. It was family time. it was a lot of the things that are cliché, but it was also not a time of extravagant tastes or really: soup, beans, and fried cornbread. We would go out to eat on Sunday morning after church to a restaurant called Joe & Ruth’s — that was the only time to get fancy food. The rest of the time was just whatever we had.

Eduardo, I know you grew up in Cuba for the first five years of your life, and then your family moved to the Bronx. How did that all come together for you?

Eduardo: My family were the ultimate foodies before the term “foodies” was around. There's such a rich food culture in Cuba. It was always who had the recipe, and this was from this aunt, and that. When we immigrated here, there's such a connection to culture and food. It ties you to who you are and also, who your family is and where they're from. No matter what, we found a way to roast a pig whenever there's a celebration. Sometimes on the stove, sometimes in the neighbor's pit, but it was done somehow or another. My father's side of the family is from Spain, so they had the northern Spanish recipes that some other Cuban families may not have.

The Norfleet-Vilaro family’s culinary traditions are far-flung.Courtesy of the Norfleet-Vilaro Family.

And then there was the Bronx, and so, we discovered really good Italian American cooking, especially on Arthur Avenue. There’s also a big Puerto Rican community in the Bronx. So there was a plethora of flavors.

When I talk to athletes and performers, I often find they have a unique relationship with food since they’re so aware of how it fuels the body. Do you feel like your background as a dancer affects how you view food as well?

Eduardo: I think it does in very small ways. [Max] is an athlete and so I'm on him that he needs his protein and he needs his vegetables. The whole balanced meal thing is important for him and for us. But I think sometimes people get it wrong with dancers. Dancers eat. When I danced I just thought of food as fuel, and I needed to make sure that I had it, especially if I had to lift anyone over my head. Now I'm very conscious when I'm traveling with the company in a theater that they get the food that they need.

Max, how do your parents’ backgrounds merge together? What is dinner like in your house?

Max: I think it's pretty fun. On one side you have someone that's okay with takeout and fast-food [gestures to David], on the other side, you have someone that's always ready to make a five star 10-course meal [gestures to Eduardo]. And it's really fun to see where they meet in the middle.

Ok, so Eduardo, you’re the main chef. David, do you enjoy cooking at all?

David: Very rarely do I do much cooking when he's around. When he’s not I procure and cleanup. But I do make sourdough, sauerkraut, kombucha. I do all the fermented stuff, but I don't think of that really as cooking as much. That's like a science experiment gone smelly. I'm an engineer, so I like when it can just follow a formula and make it happen.

Max, do you help your parents in the kitchen?

Max: When I'm hungry, I'll offer a second hand, but no, for the most part, I usually just sit back and watch the show.

What is something you always keep in your pantry and staple that you think you go through more than the average person?

Eduardo: I would say black beans. Taco Tuesdays, burritos, even just rice and beans are all big for us.

David: For me, it’s another type of black bean, which is coffee. If you're asking for the thing that I am most alarmed if we're running out of it would be coffee.

Max: I go through a lot of KIND protein bars.

David: If Amazon were to publish their sales numbers for our region, I suspect they may narrow down to our delivery spot.

If you can think of a favorite meal that you have had, or even a favorite type of meal that you have had or enjoy, what is it? Where were you? What did you eat?

“Even if we order pizza we sit down to eat it together.”Courtesy of the Norfleet-Vilaro family.

David: They both know mine: Pizza. Pizza everywhere. I've never met a pizza I didn't like.

Eduardo: Yes, you have.

David: Okay. One time! As long as there's mammal on the pizza, because I'm a little bit old school about that. I want pizza to have crust, red sauce, cheese and beast, and then I'm happy with it.

Max: So number one is probably King Crab legs. It doesn't matter if he makes them or if we're going out.

Eduardo: I have so many good meals. I've been lucky because I travel, but one that I really sticks out to me is when David and I took a trip to Paris together. I love French food. I love Paris. And he's like “OK: show me Paris.” The first night and I said, “Let's go walk.” And we just walked into the first restaurant. I saw over next to me this big group, family was having these beautiful big cast iron little pots. And I asked the waiter, so what are they having? It was cassoulet and it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It was this lovely little bistro and it was very romantic and we are... [to Max] don't make faces... we just had such a nice meal.

Speaking of travel, Eduardo, you're on the road quite a bit. How do you balance that rigorous schedule and family dinners?

Eduardo: When Max came along, Dave and I really said the dinner together is important. So most of the time when we're together, we have it at the table and I will try and pull out all stops if possible. But even if we order pizza we sit down to eat it together. It is an important ritual part for us. It kind of goes back to when I said we go through a lot of black beans, it’s an ingredient that is such an important connection to my culture, and it’s just so much fun to bring the two of them into that.