Jasper Alivia, who came to Chestnut Hill all the way from the South Pacific island of American Samoa, stops to chat with customers at Cuba Libre, where he is the executive chef. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Len Lear

I doubt if anyone has come to Chestnut Hill from farther away than Jasper Alivia, 40, who lived on Ardleigh Street in the home of a St. Joseph’s University school buddy, Chris Siegel, from 2004 to 2006. (After that, Alivia moved to New Jersey when he got a job cooking at Cuba Libre in Atlantic City’s Tropicana Resort-Hotel.)

Jasper was born in the Philippines and raised in American Samoa in the South Pacific. His formative years were spent watching his parents run a restaurant in their hometown. His mom ran the kitchen, and his dad ran the business end of things.

“The greatest gift they gave to me, my brother and two sisters,” he recalled, “was the emphasis they put on the absolute necessity of higher education. They made sure that all four of us went to college in the U.S.”

Jasper came to Philadelphia in 1989 to attend St. Joe’s. At first he lived in Bryn Mawr, and later Ardmore, and worked at the now-defunct Arroyo Grille in Manayunk to earn tuition money. After five years, Jasper earned a degree in economics and moved to New York City, but instead of cooking up a career at a major Wall Street financial institution, the idea of a career as a chef began to percolate in his mind.

Alivia wound up graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York while living in a hole-in-the-wall in Manhattan. “I had a bed, bathroom, sink and refrigerator,” he explained, “but that was OK because I was learning from some of the greatest chefs in America.”

Jasper interned with Rocco DeSpirito, chef/owner of Union Pacific in New York, former owner of Rocco’s restaurant, which was the subject of a “reality show” series on national television, and a celebrity dancer on Dancing with the Stars. Jasper also worked with Peter Hoffman, famed chef/owner of Savoy in SoHo.

“He was a great mentor,” said the handsome, effervescent Filipino native. “He taught me all about the importance of sustainable fishing, seasonal local ingredients, fresh produce and so on. He said, ‘Forget about a TV deal. Just cook simple, delicious food,’ and that’s really all I am trying to do. I get enormous satisfaction from making good food for good people.”

After several years at Savoy, Jasper “really missed Philly and decided to come back.” He returned here, moved to Chestnut Hill and worked at Vega Grille in Manayunk and then Cuba Libre in Old City, both under famed Nuevo Latino chef, Guillermo Pernot. In 2006 Jasper married a college friend, Tracy, who is currently director of training for a group of restaurants. (Former Chestnut Hill photographer Susan Beard, who had a studio on Highland Avenue, shot their wedding photos.) Jasper took the job cooking at Cuba Libre in Atlantic City, but after 16 months an opportunity opened up that he could not turn down.

He was hired to be executive chef at blue2O (pronounced blue-two-oh), which was then in the process of being constructed on Route 70 at Haddonfield Road, across the road from the former Garden State Race Track. In May of 2010, however, Alivia’s old mentor, Guillermo Pernot, asked him to join Pernot at Cuba Libre, 10 S. 2nd St. in Old City, and the former Chestnut Hiller could not possibly refuse.

Currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, Cuba Libre is one of the most spectacular looking restaurants in the Delaware Valley. The sumptuous two-level dining room resembles a movie set from the film noir period. (You can just imagine Humphrey Bogart at the next table whispering to Lauren Bacall, “Here’s to you, kid.”) There’s an indoor courtyard framed by three-dimensional facades of houses and balconies, stucco walls, thatched roofs, stained glass, wrought iron, salvaged doors, arched entranceways constructed from vintage materials and a ceiling of skylights and fans.

Although you’re indoors, you really do feel the ambience of an outdoor cafe. They even used to have a DeSoto automobile from the 1950s — some of  them could probably still be found on the streets of Havana — sticking out of one second-floor wall, but they have since moved it to another Cuba Libre that was opened in Atlantic City in 2004, where Jasper previously worked. (Maybe they moved it because it got too many parking tickets.)

Cuba Libre is one of the most spectacular looking restaurants in the Delaware Valley. The sumptuous two-level “outdoor courtyard” resembles a movie set from the film noir period.

Because of one relatively small group of passionate Cuban-Americans in South Florida, the U.S. Government has still not lifted the now-ridiculous 50-year-old trade embargo on that beleaguered, dirt-poor Caribbean island that has been in place since the Kennedy Administration. While it’s true that the one-party monopoly in Cuba (kind of like what we’ve had in Philadelphia for even longer than 50 years) continues to engage in routine human rights violations, so does Saudi Arabia, among many others, and we have no problem buying their oil. The Cuban embargo does not mean, however, that Philadelphia area residents cannot get their fill of Cuban food and drink — and without the cost and time expenditure of a trip to Havana — at Cuba Libre.

During our most recent visit in mid-June, several dishes that blew us away were the crispy, tangy spring roll of chorizo and shrimp ($6), earthy traditional black bean soup ($7.50), passion-on-a-plate mahi-mahi filet with an amazing, silky lobster-flavored “forbidden” black rice and squid ($22.50) and sensuous caramel and mango ice cream ($6). There are dozens of rums, Mojitos, beers and cocktails, but we both loved their Mai Tai ($10) with lots of fruity flavor without being overwhelmed by alcohol, as is so often the case.

A first-time visitor would be well advised to try Cuba Libre’s amazing “15 tastes of Cuba” — small tastes of 15 different menu items for $39 per person. There are bound to be certain items that thrill your culinary mojo, and you can order full-sized portions of those items on your next visit.

As executive chef at Cuba Libre, chef Alivia is responsible for executing the menu, creating weekly features, food/labor controls and training the staff.

“With the new piqueo menu (small plates) and many other dishes that chef Guillermo has brought back from his travels to Cuba,” said Alivia, “we have been very busy. The summer has been good to us here in Old City; our brunch menu has been revamped, and we have seen an increase in people spending the weekend mornings with us.”

When Jasper and his wife (they have no children) have a chance to dine out themselves, where do they like to go? “I enjoy Chinatown. Shioa Lan Kun is my favorite; the salt baked squid is ridiculous … Han Dynasty in old city has incredible ‘dan dan’ noodles and a great cold pork belly appetizer. Also a favorite is Dinic’s roast pork in the Reading Terminal Market; get greens on it. And Jose Garces’ restaurants are consistently good. Love Amada … if I have time to make a night of it.”

For more information about Cuba Libre, call 215-567-7683 or visit www.cubalibrerestaurant.com