Over 1000 kilometres and a two-hour plane ride from mainland Ecuador is San Cristóbal, a remote Galápagos island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The easternmost and (geologically) the oldest island in the archipelago, it is home to unique flora and fauna, as well as MUYU restaurant. The pioneer project brings produce from farm, forest and ocean to the table, and empowers women and youngsters to shape the future of the hospitality industry on the island. It's also a place where you might be joined by one of Golden Bay's local sea lions for a fish lunch, if you're lucky.
Yet life on this destination island has been less than idyllic over these past months. When the coronavirus pandemic struck earlier in the year, the bottom fell out of the tourist industry overnight. Zero incoming flights, and a lack of humanitarian or financial aid, left a community of 9000 islanders isolated, vulnerable, without work and exchanging goods for food.
The town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the administrative and political capital of the islands, where MUYU is located, lost hundreds of daily visitors and with it $50 million - a quarter of the expected annual income to the islands as a whole. But these are resilient islands, which have evolved over millions of years, and where Charles Darwin once planted his flag. They have evolution in their genes.
Brazilian-Italian Luciana Bianchi, a trained chef, writer and all-round seasoned food professional and activist, used to spend much of her time travelling and lecturing around the world, until she was left "speechless" following her first trip to the Galápagos. For the past three years she has made it her mission to protect the future of her beloved island with her business partner Pablo. The duo of eco-professionals in gastronomy and hospitality founded MUYU to ensure the longevity of "one of the last paradises on Earth" as they call it, the community they call family, and a place they call home.
MUYU closed to guests on 17 March and has remained shut ever since, explains Bianchi. "Our situation is very critical. MUYU is fighting for its life. We are trying to open on 20 December and need to move our Crowdfunding to avoid bankruptcy. More than 200 families depend on MUYU today, and MUYU is today a symbol of hope for many."
The two friends acted swiftly to look after their staff as the after-shocks of the pandemic resonated. "We had to think quick to ensure the safety of our team," says Bianchi. The restaurant was one of dozens around the world to successfully apply for a grant by 50 Best for Recovery Fund, providing financial relief for restaurants worldwide in partnership with S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna. The aid package offered an immediate lifeline, helping the restaurant to buy food for the team, seeds and garden implements.
Like many of the islanders during the pandemic, the MUYU team was forced to reflect on the urgent need for self-sufficiency, with a lack of resources from the mainland and accelerated projects which were perhaps a few years down the line. Together they transformed the rooftop of the restaurant into a farm and began planting vegetables in an urban garden that was already under construction. "Our team is now a big family, planting, harvesting, cooking and supporting each other. The money arrived at the right time. You cannot imagine what a great help it was," says Bianchi.
MUYU serves as more than just a seaside restaurant. It's also an educational pilot project that the partners initiated to prove that it is possible to make a successful, ethical and environmental business model in their Galápagos Foundation. Funded by private donations, they are "on a mission to help Galápagos towards a sustainable tourism model, where gastronomy and hospitality are the two main pillars, hand-in-hand with conservation and sustainable practices."
"We realised that our own company could be the 'guinea pig' to show the population that it is possible to protect the environment while making a living, and that circular economy is the only way to guarantee a healthy future for the archipelago," Bianchi explains.
The foundation trains youngsters and women to be the first sustainable gastronomy and hospitality professionals in the Galápagos Islands. "We know that through our projects we can build a community that can make their job a tool for conservation. We are firm believers that this is the only way to protect Galápagos - by changing conscientiousness," says Bianchi.
"Most of them arrive without any formal training, and after a two years are ready to work as qualified professionals. Before the pandemic, all members of our team were paid fair wages, shared tips - they worked and learned. Now they are working as volunteers to help us to save MUYU and their own future."
There are many success stories to come out of the project. One of them is Anabel, the restaurant's sous chef, who was "a shy housewife, very insecure, had no previous experience in a professional kitchen, and after two years training is a role model for women's empowerment. She had a baby, after one year had cancer, managed to beat cancer and is now a great professional chef and an inspiration to all of us. On top of that she is the first to be part of our Galápagos Foundation project Artisan Mothers."
As well as empowering a diverse team, inside the kitchen there's also freedom on the plate. As the island doesn't have a native indigenous community, food culture and traditions are open to interpretation and change. "It's a place without native indigenous roots, which usually form the basis of local cuisines, followed by various cultural clashes," Bianchi explains.
In the kitchen, chef Marco Salamanca doesn't use meat, and cooks with local produce, like organic vegetables from family farms, MUYU's own rooftop garden and its urban garden. Vegans and vegetarians are well catered for. Then there's always the catch of the day, with dishes including scorpion fish, octopus and seafood ceviche. "Foraging and unpretentious, delicious dishes are our signature," says Bianchi. "Our MUYU bar is also part of the same philosophy. It is a wild bar - forest-to-glass."
As well as growing its own produce, the restaurant has also activated a zero-waste cooking project. "We believe that when we reopen MUYU we are not going to have more than 10% of product waste for compost purposes," says Bianchi.
Right now, they are working on helping farmers produce excess citrus fruits, such as mandarins, and turning them into cakes, jams and breads using the entire fruit, seeds and all. And if the team weren't busy enough learning, growing, cooking and composting, they are also passionate foragers, creating the first catalogue of Edible Plants of Galápagos, and hope in the near future to have a free public platform available online.
If, according to UNESCO, the Galápagos are a natural heritage site for humanity, there's no better place to start a sustainable community. "If we manage, this is going to be one of the most inspiring stories of a community saving a restaurant," says Bianchi. And as she works to keep their island afloat for many years to come, she is reminded of the words of her favourite author, Eduardo Galeano: "Many small people, in small places, doing small things, can change the world."