How is taking fine dining and gastronomy at 3,656 meters above the sea? Meet chef Marsia Taha from Gustu, now preparing meals at Kachi Lodge in Salar de Uyuni.
First it broke the glass ceiling to become Bolivia’s first fine-dining restaurant that dealt with only Bolivian ingredients in an initiative spearheaded by Claus Meyer’s Melting Pot foundation. And after racking up a slew of accolades since its 2013 opening including ranking in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and cooking for Pope Francis, Gustu has embarked on a new endeavour: catering for a sustainable lodge in the inhospitable Salar de Uyuni.
Kachi Lodge opened its doors last month in the stunning high-plateau salt flats. Located 3,656 metres above sea level, Uyuni is a popular destination on the South America travel trail for its breath-taking snow-white landscape, freshwater lakes, unique sunsets, volcanoes and flocks of flamingos. Contracting the Gustu team, led by head chef Marsia Taha, to provide the catering was a no-brainer for Kachi.
As per the philosophy at Gustu, which is located in the capital city La Paz, traditional Bolivian ingredients are the heart of the Kachi menu. Here, however, the emphasis is on showcasing authentic delights from this unique high-altitude region, and Gustu prepares every meal for guests who come on a minimum two-night stay. Chef Taha talks Fine Dining Lovers through Gustu’s newest dining experience.
Where do you source products?
We purchase ingredients from the towns of Uyuni and Salinas, a three-hour drive away, and only buy from local producers. At least 50 percent of products are sourced directly from the region’s communities; that’s a Gustu philosophy. We don’t use any ingredients from Bolivia’s Amazon or Chaco regions, for example, so Kachi’s menus are totally focused on using products from this area.
Notable endemic products include a wide variety of potatoes as well as quinoa and cañihua [Chenopodium pallidicaule] – the latter is also a native high-plateau grain – as well as meats such as llama and alpaca. We also use local cooking methods, such as covering meat with salt to preserve them and make charqui, or freeze-drying tubers to make chuño or tunta (freeze-fried white potatoes).
What’s the inspiration behind this culinary journey?
We’ve taken a lot of inspiration from this area, thinking about local producers and their ingredients, but the other part adheres to Gustu’s philosophy and serving classic dishes. Of course, it will never be the same as in La Paz because, here, we focus on the Salar’s regional products.
For breakfast we serve homemade pastries such as cinnamon rolls, fresh fruit juices and eggs your way; it’s pretty filling because guests will spend several hours trekking in the salt flats and need plenty of energy. Afternoon snacks might comprise churros, cuñapes (cheese rolls) or biscuits made from local seeds, served with tea or coffee. Those depend on what ingredients we can buy at the local markets. Lunch is designed to be eaten on the go, while dinner consists of three courses such as creamed cañihua with confit carrots, confit pork with mash potatoes and bell pepper, and cane sugar meringue with tumbo (banana passionfruit).
What are the challenges working in this destination?
I’ve never worked anywhere with such a hostile climate as Uyuni! It’s the biggest challenge, and the combination of salt and sun means skin burns really quickly; protection is obligatory.
There are also limitations on daily tasks because electricity is in limited supply and we can’t use our usual equipment such as blenders and fridges. Water can also be in short supply as it freezes over.
It’s hard to improvise in the Salar, so with regards to allergies and intolerances we need to know about them at least a month in advance because it can take a little longer than usual to source other ingredients. I’ve learnt so much being here – and it’s all worth it.
What’s on the menu?
Temperatures are very extreme – it can easily drop down to -20ºC at night and be -1ºC during the day in winter – so guests need to consume a high-protein, high-carb and high-fat diet because they digest food quickly. When it gets really cold, your body asks for the carb trio of potatoes and chuño, pasta and rice, as they generate heat for the body.
What’s the set-up like?
There are two kitchens, one close to Kachi’s domes in front of Tunupa Volcano, and the other in Jirira, which is 15 minutes away and home to just 25 inhabitants. Production and pre-production takes place in the Jirira kitchen, when we need to cook for longer and use electricity because the camp is fuelled by solar panels. We take those pre-produced dishes to Kachi’s kitchen to continue cooking, assembling and plating.
How is Kachi Lodge and Gustu’s work influencing Uyuni?
The biggest impact, in my opinion, has been on the community of Jirira, whose inhabitants are mainly older people; the younger generation had already migrated to towns and cities. New employment opportunities have emerged and so the young people have started to return. That’s wonderful because the village had been forgotten and had barely any economic possibilities and people have opened little stores and laundries, are cooking for Kachi staff and working in the lodge, so it’s great to see this project having a small but positive impact here.