Guatemalan chef Debora Fadulhas been obsessive about ingredients ever since she learnt to eat. As an adult she’s made it her life's work to celebrate those ingredients, re-connecting a country with its farmers and their produce. The 36-year-old is also widely recognised as part of the new wave of Guatemalan chefs shaping the future of the country’s gastronomy, and this year became part of an elite global group, the 50Next Hospitality Pioneers.
At Fadul’s Diacarestaurant in Guatemala City, which opened in 2018, and her not-for-profit projects, producers are always at the heart of what she does. By exploring the country’s indigenous cuisine and ingredients through the lens of three pillars – respect for the earth, person and kitchen – she highlights the country's breadth of native and delicious ingredients, educating her students and guests with kindness and enthusiasm. Her ultimate ambition is to give value and visibility to producers in a country which is 80% reliant upon agriculture.
Graduating from Camile, Escuela de Alta Cocina culinary school in Guatemala City aged 16, Fadul always knew she wasn't destined for classical European-influenced cookery. "I wanted to know who I am and the country in which I am standing, where is Guatemala? What do we grow here? We are so well known because of our ingredients and nature, why aren’t we putting value in it? I saw it as a defect in Guatemalans," she explains.
Fast forward to today, and through her energetic dedication and ambition, she has founded three non-profit projects to educate diners about the origins of sustainable Guatemalan products. In 2021 she was also nominated as Latin America’s Rising Star Female Chef.
Through Diacá, which translates as ‘from here', her single-table tasting menu restaurant, she takes diners on a journey into deliciousness. "We don’t make Guatemalan food; we make local Guatemalan ingredients. We make different cultural types of plates, different daily bases, we mix all those nostalgic feelings," she explains. Dishes are designed to generate conversations and connect guests with exactly what they are eating and where it comes from. “Because clients will eat, but if you make them have a connection with the ingredient, then they’ll have a connection with nature, with the farmer, and the line is going to be continuous, it’s not going to stop in our kitchen and that’s why we do this,” she explains.
Guests take a virtual tour of her homeland’s farmsteads during each meal. At the start, they might get to guess the flavour undertones of various scented bottles whilst surrounded by displays of local produce, like corn husks. “When they sit down, they start to listen to stories about the dish, ingredients and farmers. When you open the menu, it’s not a menu, it’s a whole directory of farmers and you’re eating their menu,” she explains. A seasonal menu is dedicated to each of the farmers, recording their names and addresses, allowing guests to search the farmer and buy their products when they return home.
The pandemic gave Fadul and her team the time to fulfil another of her dreams, creating a searchable digital database of Guatemalan producers, Crece en Guate, giving farmers online visibility and direct contact with consumers.
Aside from being a visionary and an educator, Fadul has a unique talent for approaching ingredients, a tasting muscle which she started to exercise as soon as she was weaned. As a toddler she’d spend hours at the table, having a conversation with herself, deciphering flavours and tasting ingredients separately (each ingredient wasn’t allowed to touch), thus training her palate and learning from the beginning how ingredients relate when mixed.
Taking the time to listen is something she tries to instil in her chefs, guests and students. "The thing is, when you sit down and eat, you don’t listen. You just eat and think it’s something your body needs, but at the same time something beautiful is happening, you’re receiving information from nature and it’s amazing because it’s a way to start a really beautiful conversation with each one of them.
“The way it works is that your body always receives this information, like ingredients are alive and they’re telling you something.
"The tomatoes from this farm are going to be totally different from a farm in Milan – you cannot generalise flavours, nature is always evolving, that’s why you have to have a conversation with them every single time you eat."
Articulating her unique approach to ingredients was a challenge initially and “it might sound crazy to some,” she admits. Her eureka moment came when she learnt how to 'cup' coffee from her coffee farmer husband, "I was like, 'oh my god this is the answer!' This is the way my mind works in a natural way. I don’t force it – to feel how the ingredients taste, it’s just something natural in me. The way that coffee cupping works was a way for me to explain how your mind works when you taste something. I realised we need to learn how to cup ingredients."
Each and every ingredient that enters her kitchen is put through her 'cupping' system of tasting and logging. A couple of years ago, she started formalising her previously handwritten notes with Estudio Diacá, a sensory lab and collective thinktank. All the farmer’s information is logged for each ingredient, including the season, when they harvest and grow, plus all the visual aspects and aromas, flavours, textures, sweetness, acidity, and all the negative and positive flavours. For example, white corn might display notes like coffee, flour and camomile while red corn from the north near Mexico is very creamy with notes of pumpkin, black sugar and old spice.
Her cupping technique also allows the farmers to grow their narrative with their produce. "You have to have a really close relationship with your farmers, especially in countries like Guatemala where we don’t usually value their work. At the end of the day, the main purpose of this system is for farmers to feel proud of what they’re growing. If we tell them your corn tastes like this and this is what we did with it you see their faces and you see how they start to feel more valued."
Many of her chefs said that they 're-learnt' how to cook through her technique, she explains. "The way we do recipes, we say that the ingredients tell us what to do with them," after all, "you shouldn't use a vegetable you don't know, just like you shouldn't marry someone you don't know," she jokes.
In this way, dishes are built by the ingredient from the bottom up, with the ingredient setting the tone, rather than the classical way of learning recipes and techniques. As a result, combinations are often bold and unique, like white chocolate and fish.
"You have to learn how to have a conversation and a relationship with the ingredient and then you can learn the technique that you can put on it. We have been learning the other way around, the ingredient is lost in it," she says.
"We do a mix between authentic Guatemalan ingredients and super good ingredients that we grow here. Guatemala is a land rich in indigenous ingredients like amaranth and black as well as tomatoes and chillies. Guatemala grows some of the best sesame seeds in the world. We have really good soil, same with black lemon, cardamon, coffee. It's also the third biggest producer of mushrooms after China and Mexico."
Fadul’s days are busy and with her infectious enthusiasm and drive, she’s a talented narrator on an unstoppable mission to tell the stories of the greatest gifts from Guatemala’s land. “If people listen to my message, they will listen to the producer’s message which is way more important than mine.”