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Venezuela: Pandemic Adds to Chefs' Woes 

02 September, 2020
venezuela pandemic problem

Image by: Fine Dining Lovers Artwork / iStock / Shutterstock

The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted everything, not least gastro-tourism, leading to empty tables in restaurants great and small. But now chefs are turning to local customers to get their businesses back on track post-lockdwn.

But Moreno says that the situation in Caracas, the capital, is still very privileged compared to the rest of the country. Like many chefs around the world, Moreno created a brand, Cocina Viajera, exclusively to deliver food during the pandemic. He focused on three projects, selling hamburgers, Asian food, and pastry. One of the biggest challenges has been to adjust the prices for the delivery service, since the costs for transportation in Venezuela reach exorbitant prices, forcing restaurants to charge much more for what they serve. (In early May, the government announced a fuel price increase of more than 70% of the minimum wage, which now stands at 80,000 bolivars, around 4.30 euros). 

With the compulsory closure of their businesses to the public, many chefs and restaurant owners had to adapt to delivery, a model still developing in Venezuela. While some prefer to take the food to the customers' homes themselves, others seek partnerships with food delivery companies, such as the newly created Ubii Go, which already has 36 registered businesses and another 40 on its waiting list.

"Venezuela is a country with huge inflation rates, where people cannot save money. But, I call it 'the country of possibilities' because, among all this crisis, there is a demand for everything", says Lígia Velazquez, VP of communication and marketing of Ubii Go, who says that there are a variety of options now in Caracas. "The projects range from Spanish restaurants to pokes, from sushi to hamburgers, artisan ice cream, pizzas, macarons, fried chicken, and much more," she explains.

She says she is surprised by the number of different foods and dishes she has tasted since the beginning of the pandemic. "Venezuelans are known for being hardworking and resilient, characteristics we have developed even more in the last difficult years. While some people plan to leave the country, others want to stay and reinvent themselves. I see a lot of people doing great things". 

 The current offer of ‘worldwide cuisine’ finds fertile ground with the proliferation of a new type of business called bodegones, which sell many imported supplies and groceries, from truffle olive oil and Kobe beef, to fine charcuterie and all kinds of wine from around the world. Which is ironic when the trucks that transport locally-harvested products, such as vegetables and herbs, cannot reach other cities due to lack of fuel, causing major food shortages. To add to this irony, during the worst economic and social moment in recent Venezuelan history, chefs in Caracas have access to the best imported gourmet ingredients they have ever had. 

"There are many things that negatively influence our condition, but I fear that we may lose an important part of our culinary roots," says chef Héctor Romero. According to him, most restaurants that managed to establish themselves in this challenging pandemic scenario are mainly those that cook more contemporary food.

"As everyone struggles to stay in the market, many have closed down, mainly the traditional restaurants, perhaps permanently. I'm talking about successful businesses, which have been open for years,” says Romero, who runs Instituto Culinário de Caracas, a cooking school that trains professionals.

"While the school is far from opening again, I continue to work in a culinary workshop to serve ready meals and other types of food. We don't have face-to-face classes at school at the moment, and, as we are at the peak of the pandemic, I don't think we will be back in the short term," he says. 

Hector Romero - Venezuela

Photo courtesy Hector Romero / El Comedor

The interruption of training for local cooks has also become a problem, according to Romero. He explains that the Venezuelan diaspora caused a flight of investment capital, and also the loss of great talents, including in gastronomy. Many cooks have left Venezuela during the last few years, when almost 5 million people emigrated. 

Carlos García, one of the most prominent Venezuelan chefs, was one of them. He decided to move to Miami to offer his wife and daughter a better life. "The situation of restaurants and other businesses in the country had worsened in the last five years, when there was no longer even a guarantee of basic resources to work. The food shortage was beginning in Venezuela, I wanted to raise my family in a different reality, and we decided to move out,” he says.

The chef, who worked at El Bulli, El Celler de Can Roca and Mugaritz, runs Alto, his fine-dining restaurant in Caracas, and opened Obra Kitchen in Miami two years ago. Both of his venues remain true to the roots of Venezuelan cuisine. "We have always been faithful to the principle of our tradition, working with local flavours and producers," he says.

He adds that despite the situation in his home country, all the cooks who stayed, including his team at Alto — the only restaurant in Venezuela on the list of Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants — strive to do their best because they expect the situation to change someday. They need to be there when that happens. "They've had to adapt themselves to a different reality, to find new ways to work, especially now," says García.

Under the chef's supervision, Alto created a delivery and takeout-only menu, with dishes such as braised lamb with artichokes and cassava celery and ‘malojillo' cream with cured tuna. García used to spend a month or so in Miami, then 15 days in Caracas, but since the pandemic he hasn’t been able to get back and check how things are going in person. 

"I can hardly wait to go back. It is my home, where I opened my restaurant, which made me the chef I am. I want to keep fighting next to my family from Alto,” he says. “We have been in this struggle for many years, and we will continue, like so many talented Venezuelan chefs, hoping that all of this will end someday soon.”

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