Key West, Florida, has had a number of identities over the last two centuries. It has been a shipwreck-salvaging town, a cigar-manufacturing town, and a military town. Now it’s a tourist town, catering to visitors who pay top dollar for hotels, fishing charters, and meals, and to vacationers who pour off the cruise ships that dock nearly every day. Most of Key West’s restaurants are found along Duval Street, the main tourist drag. Twenty years ago, a restaurant called Ricky’s Blue Heaven opened several blocks from Duval, on Petronia Street in Bahama Village, the island’s historically black neighborhood. Serving mostly Caribbean dishes, Blue Heaven quickly received a rave review in the New York Times and has been unstintingly popular with tourists and locals ever since. More recently, other quality restaurants have opened nearby. Two years ago, Colombian Grace, the island’s first restaurant to feature food from Colombia, joined Blue Heaven on Petronia Street. The proprietor is Zulma Segura.
Nancy Klingener: How did you arrive in Key West?
Zulma Segura: My sister lived here, and she came to visit me in Bogot.. She said, why don’t you come? You’ll like it; it has bicycles; it’s small. She likes big cities, I like small places. Here in Key West, you can be anywhere in just five minutes. I love the size of the island. I love that it’s multicultural. You can meet people from everywhere. And there are bicycles, bicycles, bicycles! When I first arrived, I worked as a waitress at Blue Heaven. I had no experience. I didn’t speak English. But I worked there and I learned English. I saved pretty much everything I made.
NK: How did Colombian Grace come about?
ZS: It was a crazy decision, an impulse. After five years at Blue Heaven, I was like, oh my God, what am I doing now? I have a degree in marketing and public relations, but I didn’t want to go back to that field. At Blue Heaven I discovered I was good with people. I like taking care of customers and spending time with them. When you add food service, I just love the combination. But this restaurant is the hardest thing I have done in my whole life. When I decided to open the restaurant, my mom came here to train the cook. After the first year, the cook left, so I had to start cooking myself. The recipes are my mom’s and my grandma’s.
NK: So you had worked as a waitress but not as a chef?
ZS: I grew up with Colombian food, so I knew the flavors, even though I didn’t know how to cook. At first things didn’t taste right, so I was cooking with my mom on the phone. She’s like, what are you using? How are you doing it? I learned to cook over the phone. Even though I know how to cook now, it’s still hard. Every day something goes wrong with the refrigerator, with the plumbing, with the electric. It’s hard to get fresh vegetables, to find good-quality beef at not-outrageous prices. The hardest thing is getting people to try a restaurant with this name. When I first opened, nobody here had tried Colombian food. Even worse, Colombia has a stereotype in the States: drugs, cartels, guerillas. But there are a lot of great things about my country, like our food, our coffee, our bananas, our flowers. The Colombian people, too. That’s what I’m trying to share, so Americans can get another image of us. Our menu helps. Basically, the restaurant’s success comes down to the freshness of our food. We make everything to order. The hot chocolate is made with Colombian cocoa; the coffee is from my family’s plantation. Our juices are made with fresh fruits, and we make our own breads. We use a lot of local seafood. The restaurant’s décor—the molas, the flowers crafted of natural fibers and seeds and pine bark—is handmade by native Indians in Colombia.
NK: What is it like running a restaurant in a tourist town?
ZS: With customers in a big city you can build clientele. In Key West, there are new people every week. We depend on locals and hotels to recommend us—otherwise it’s really hard to reach new customers. That’s the biggest challenge. There are always new people looking for new things. I’m competing with Blue Heaven, with Santiago’s, with La Crêperie, restaurants that have been here for twenty years. Our location helps because we’re right next to them. But it’s hard to convince people that something from Colombia can be good. Sometimes I go to the corner to send people over to the restaurant, and they ask me what it’s called. When I say “Colombian Grace,” they say, “Oh, Colombian—no thanks.” If I’d chosen another name without the “Colombian,” the restaurant would probably attract more people.
NK: How did you come up with the name?
ZS: I wanted to share a Colombian experience—not just the food, but also the decorations, the hospitality. I thought about using the word grace as a charm. That’s why I called it Colombian Grace. Now people think Grace is my nickname. But the idea was to have a name that captured the beauty of the Colombian experience.
NK: How would you describe your menu?
ZS: Colombia has a lot of regions, and each region has a different cooking style. I’m from Bogot., so I serve city food. These are my mom’s recipes. A lot of people from other regions come here and they ask, where are the soups? Where are all the dishes like stews? My food is a little more gourmet than is typical. Colombians use a lot of garlic—we even make our rice with garlic. We use a lot of fresh herbs, scallions, tomatoes, and fresh peppers. One typical dish is called bandeja paisa. It a sampler of ten different foods—red beans, rice, skirt steak, chorizo, pork belly, green plantains, ripe sweet plantains, eggs, avocado, and a corncake. We make a great stew with fresh tomatoes, basil, calamari, and shrimp. All our breads are homemade. Our corncakes are made from white corn and water, our guava bread with yucca flour. We also serve cheese fingers. Our Colombian scrambled eggs have fresh roasted corn or scallions and tomatoes. They’re delicious! One thing we’re known for is our homemade sangria. We make it with pinot noir, passion fruit, peach, pineapple, lime, lemon, and mango. Every day we press fresh mango juice, pineapple juice, orange juice, and lulo, a tropical citrus fruit from Colombia. It’s really good. Our lemonade is also fresh squeezed. Our salad dressing has no oil, it’s just mango—Colombian mango—with a little hot sauce, honey, and white vinegar. We try to make flavorful, healthy food. It’s like going to grandma’s house. She makes everything right there. It takes a little longer than normal, but in the end it’s worth it.
NK: Key West is at the end of the road. There are no farmer’s markets or other reliable places for fresh produce. How do you handle that?
ZS: I go to the local natural-foods store and the grocery store every day to pick out the ingredients myself. We buy seafood locally, but our special potatoes, our chorizo, our empanadas are shipped from Colombia because they’re not available here, not even in Miami.
NK: I understand the coffee is from your family’s property in Colombia?
ZS: We have a coffee plantation an hour and a half from Bogot.. It’s been in my family for three generations. My aunts are taking care of it now. We do all the processing. We pick the beans, dry them, wash them, and roast them, and we offer this coffee here at the restaurant. Last year I closed the restaurant in August and reopened it in October so I could spend two months working on the plantation. I wanted to connect with the coffee that I serve here. I also wanted to bring back more tools, more pots, more cocoa. I want my restaurant to be authentic.
NK: Why did you choose this location and not something on Duval Street, which gets so much more foot traffic?
ZS: Blue Heaven and Santiago’s always have long lines of people waiting to get in. So I was thinking, all these people are looking for food, and there’s no way they can keep standing in line when Blue Heaven or Santiago’s tells them it’s a two-hour wait. I figured they’d go to the next closest place. Petronia Street is now the best food district in Key West. Duval might mean volume, but Petronia is quality. This neighborhood used to have a really bad reputation, like crack town. But now the police are around all the time. The neighbors help, too. There are cameras on every corner. I haven’t had any problems.
NK: Do you have any plans to change or expand in the future?
ZS: In the future I’d like to incorporate more dishes like soups. In Colombia we drink soup in hot weather. We sweat a lot, and we enjoy it. But here it’s really hard to serve soup in the heat. I’m working on getting a Colombian chef to help me in the kitchen. I’d love to do salsa night, to use the second floor for more private parties. Maybe I’ll have longer hours. Right now I’m open five nights for dinner and two days for breakfast. Probably with more help I can open up more. As for the food we serve, I’m happy with it, and my customers’ satisfaction makes everything worthwhile. That is the real motivation for me. It’s an honor to cook for other people. I take care of my customers as if they were in my home. They can have a Colombian experience without getting a passport!