Gustu, the powerhouse of an emerging gastronomy
It’s not difficult to fall in love with Bolivia. A boundless land of psychedelic colours, from the crazy city of La Paz to the colonial tranquillity of Sucre, from the jungle to the Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia captures your eyes and your heart. This must have been why, in 2012, Claus Meyer, co-founder of the restaurant Noma, Danish chef Kamilla Seidler and her Italo-Venezuelan associate Michelangelo Cestari chose the country to set down the roots of a restaurant that, in actual fact, is simply one part of a wide-ranging project.
The name of their complex and ambitious gamble is Gustu. Objective number one: to educate. Number two: to help the economy of a poor country with huge potential. Number three: to (re)discover Bolivian biodiversity. How? By serving only products that are 100% Bolivian, in a restaurant whose staff is 100% Bolivian, trained in a school that teaches Bolivians to make the most of their local produce. All things Bolivian, in other words.
But why did they choose Bolivia, and La Paz in particular? In 2010, Claus Meyer had the idea of opening a restaurant with a cookery school in a place that needed an economic and social recovery plan. Of all the countries he considered, Bolivia won hands down because it is very poor but has an impressive biodiversity. On the other hand, La Paz certainly isn’t the first location that comes to mind when you’re thinking haute cuisine. The world’s highest capital is relatively inaccessible: hours of flying time are needed to get there and the altitude can be problematic for people unaccustomed to such rarefied air. So it isn't the most comfortable of cities
Nevertheless, it is the economic capital of a country in which Kamilla and her team believed and continue to believe every day, and when you believe in something, no obstacles can stop you. And very quickly Bolivia has earned a place on the maps of outstanding cuisines.
2012 was the launch year of this new initiative in Bolivia, of which Gustu is just the tip of the iceberg today. Behind the restaurant lies a massive effort of research and study of local products, traditions and regions, and a cookery school that, so far, has provided professional training for 1700 students. Young people who have worked or work in the restaurant, or set up their own restaurants.
“How was it at first? Well, it was tough,” says Kamilla Seidler, the creative mind behind Gustu, the Danish woman named top chef in Latin America in 2016. “People wondered why we were here teaching them to cook with their country’s ingredients.” But the goal of Kamilla’s team wasn’t to teach the Bolivians how to cook; they had a different approach: to apply the successful method of New Nordic Cuisine to the immense variety of ingredients available in Bolivia.
“Bolivia’s biodiversity is stunning,” Kamilla explains. The country has 3500 different varieties of potato, every type of vegetable, quinoa, fish… here you really understand the meaning of the word biodiversity: not only can you choose among many different products, but each one offers countless varieties. Even a simple ingredient such as the chilli pepper comes in numerous varieties, depending on which region you're in, and each one adds its own particular flavour to a dish.
Bolivia may appear to be a country with no real gastronomic tradition, “but the simple fact is that it is more difficult to find good quality food.” If you go to Sucre you should look for the ajì de lengua, on the Isla del Sol try the lake fish soup with the fishermen. Each area has its particular gastronomic characteristic, even though it may not always be accessible to tourists and the first thing people see is the quantity of junk food sold on the streets. Junk food is cheap and everyone can afford it; and at the moment Bolivia is having a bad trip with fried chicken, you see it everywhere, “and this may be why tourists tend to leave with a poor impression of Bolivian cooking. Yet if you know what to look for, you can find some wonderful things. This is the direction in which we want to re-educate people. There are countless interesting dishes in Bolivia, it’s only a question of time before they become objects of devotion: ten years ago, no one knew what ceviche was, now it’s one of the most popular dishes in restaurants around the world.”
Kamilla believes all Bolivia needs is a good dose of self-confidence about its food: “If you go to the cities, they offer you imported food such as Coca Cola and fried chicken, which are the top as far as they are concerned. But if you go into the jungle, you only find the produce of a very restricted ecosystem, and you might be served surubi, a tasty Amazonian fish, which the Bolivians grill wrapped in banana leaves. It's delicious, a pure expression of the local tradition.”
“There are many cooking methods that, coming from Denmark, I was unfamiliar with,” adds Kamilla. “For example, the Bolivians cook in the earth or, in the wine-producing region near Tarija, they cook en la Cruz (on the cross), smoking the meat in a naked flame. The actual smoking technique is one you know, but the methods are completely different.”
“The most interesting thing,” says Kamilla “is the food’s deep connection to the land. It's true, there is a great deal of poverty, but this is one reason why the food is so good, because it is grown with care, not on a large scale, and the flavour is quite different, clear and intense.” You find yourself on Lake Titicaca at 3 in the morning, at an altitude of 4000 metres, fishing at sub-zero temperatures, “one of the most gruelling experiences of my life” Kamilla confesses, and you realise that they do it every morning because it is their daily bread. “You learn to appreciate what you have, instead of always hunting for the perfect food. Working with what nature provides, and getting the best out of it, is a great lesson.”
Of course, it isn't easy running a haute cuisine restaurant in a country that is still short of infrastructures, but then “this is never an easy job! We've decided to stay here in Bolivia and our aim is to support and incentivise small farmers and their families. We want to drive the country’s economy using only local resources.”
All this hard work has produced results: Gustu has just been ranked 14th in the 2016 list of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. Not bad, considering the huge diversity of the continent's gastronomic offering. Who would have thought that, today, one of the world’s most interesting and innovative restaurants is located 4000 metres above sea level?
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