Think of Bogotá and what comes to mind? Possibly not that it was joint fourth highest placed city at the 2015 Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards. With restaurants like Criterión (No 18), Leo Cocina y Cava (No 33), El Cielo (No 30), Andres Carne de Res (No 43) and Harry Sasson (No 24) leading the way it’s certainly a culinary star in the rising.
Fine Dining Lovers chats to the new and old wave of Bogotánian chefs that are breaking frontiers, in a country that has only just begun to discover the depth and diversity of the flavours it has to offer.
With just a few weeks to go before the 2016 winners are revealed in Mexico City on 26 September, things are heating up in the kitchens and restaurants of Colombia’s capital. I have just finished an extraordinary week, dining with the top four chefs in Colombia, hearing their stories and why they think Bogotá is soon to become the number one fine dining destination in Latin America.
I meet Juan Manuel (El Cielo) at the end of lunchtime service as the last guests are gushingly leaving, saying how they had to come for lunch as it was impossible to get a table for dinner this week. It’s the Feria de Flores (The Medellin Flower Festival). He must be exhausted. He’s working both shifts, launching a new restaurant plus his own gourmet coffee line. I figure he’s only got 30 minutes to spare before he sprints off to the Jungle in a black hawk helicopter to teach ex Army and FARC fighters how to cook instead of kill. But we talk for three hours. He tells me about his family, indigenous love stories, what influences his cooking and his passion for his country.
It’s the same with all the chefs I meet this week. What binds them is not only their passion for cooking, but for cooking Colombian. “Its one of my obsessions, I need to help my country, I need to help the peace of my country, to regenerate social fabric,” Juan Manuel tells me between plates of his new tasting menu.
Manuel’s way of fusing these passions is to teach and work with ex-fighters effected by the civil war. Leo Espinosa does it by working with indigenous communities. Jorge Rausch by leading an international initiative to cook more with the lion fish (an invasive species that is endangering coral reefs and other fish supplies) and Harry Sasson is leading the vanguard to get Bogotá recognised as the number one fine dining destination in South America.
But what does this all mean? What if anything makes Bogotá and its chefs unique? “It’s International” they all agree. But it’s more than that Sasson explains “We are doing our own thing we are not imitating or copying”. “While we are showing our local and national identity we are also international and diverse,” Espinosa continues. “We are like Buenos Aires in this respect”. Espinosa’s Biome menu is a great example of the diversity of the modern Colombian cuisine she speaks of.
Reminiscent of Virgilio Martinez’s award–winning altitude menu it takes you on a journey through some of Colombia’s many biomes, using traditional indigenous ingredients presented with ultra modern refinement. Showcasing dishes such as vegetarian Babilla crocodile (yes, apparently it’s vegetarian) with Amazonian pepper broth, Mangrove Snail on a bed of Santa Catalina salt (you eat it like an oyster) and Tuna with Santander ants (Hormigas Culonas or “big-butt ants” to you and me), all paired with her daughter's clever non–alcoholic or fermented juice concoctions such as coca leaf bubbles and fermented corozo water.
Perhaps this diversity is what is fuelling the fire in Bogotá. It certainly has a wide range of national and international cuisine to offer, however in many ways still feels like it is only just beginning to show its teeth, which makes it an exciting time to be here. Sasson, who has been at the forefront of Colombian fine dining since he opened his first restaurant in Bogotá 20 years ago tells me how things have changed. “My style is the same, but before everything was imported, now we use many more local ingredients. I have my local fish guy, my meat guy, my local asparagus and palm supplier ... Now we are showing our face, our flavours”.
Is this what is making Bogotá great now? “Bogotá has always been great, it’s just that the people are only getting to know this now, we just need to promote it more,” Jorge Rausch tells me as he flies into his seat next to me. Jumping from one interview to another, before he rushes into the kitchen and then back to me. Chefs are busy creatures. It’s in their nature. Rausch agrees with Sasson. “When we first came we made more international food, now we make more Colombian food … We are using more local ingredients in fine dining”.
Like the others, he and his brother are about to open a new restaurant with a focus on Colombian food. Its called Local. “95% of the ingredients are Colombian.” An evening at Criterion has many a treat in store, such as their Tiradito de pez Leon and Scallops au cheval on rosti potatoes. Sasson's self-named restaurant offers a fusion of classic French and Colombian fare, intertwined with his taste for the orient. And his Club Colombia restaurant serves up some of the best traditional family feel-good food in Bogotá, such as Tamal Bogotáno and delicious Sancocho (which changes daily). “We keep things simple, no make up” says Sasson. “We are using more Colombian ingredients every day; plantains, fava beans, palm hearts, yuka, stuff that brings back memories”.
More than ever before chefs in Colombia are using and experimenting with both traditional and forgotten indigenous ingredients in evermore exciting and innovative ways. And there is an abundance of ingredients to choose from. Colombia is the second most bio-diverse country in the world and is home to around 10% of the world's species thanks to its many and varied ecosystems (over 300). It has somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 plant species with more endemic species than any other country, and is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in the world, with a rich historical and cultural heritage. Maybe it is the importance of holding onto their cultural heritage that in many ways drives these and other chefs here. Maybe this is not just a story about Bogotá but a story of Colombia. The old ways meeting the new. A respect for tradition and culture that they are blending with the modern world of gastronomy. Perhaps this is a global statement that is true of all good chefs. They take the old and reinvent it for a new generation, but this feels like something special. Entire generations missed out on the opportunity to experience the varied flavours and traditions their country has to offer.
“I want to live and show Colombia in my cooking, to know the tradition, the ancestral and the popular,” Espinosa concludes. Manuel feels the same. He talks of strange fruits that you can only find in the Amazon, which when you chew turn in to peachy-pineapple bubble gum that tribesmen use to stick birds to trees, as he serves me a sweet mushroom, potato and elderflower desert followed by some strange concoction that envelops the table in liquid-nitrogen. “Colombia is a phoenix, that is shining, it is on fire and everyone is looking at us,” he says with a glint in his eye. Perhaps this is it. Perhaps it is this new feeling of pride and optimism as Colombia rises from the ashes that is leading Bogotá and its chefs to new heights. Perhaps after so many years of conflict, which the whole country wants to leave behind, these chefs are looking forward nd striving to fulfill a mission to show the world that Bogotá is open for fine dining business.