Is Bogotá the next Lima for Foodies?
Is Bogotá the next Lima for Foodies?
Colombians do not need a Jennifer Aniston fan club to dislike Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the 2005 Brangelina film that depicts Bogotá as a warm-weather tropical suburb in “Columbia.” The real Colombian capital is a sprawling NYC-style metropolis with 9 million inhabitants, and its mountainous 8,500-foot elevation mocks every word of “warm-weather tropical suburb.” The same movie scribe penned Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, so factuality is not necessary his forte, but Colombian frustration is not with a single movie. Rather, it is the widespread stereotypes that cast Bogotá as the capital of cocaine and kidnapping. The city certainly experienced dark times for a quarter century, but modern Bogotá is a cosmopolitan capital with boutique hotels, designer stores and an educational culture that inspired its Athens of South America nickname. The city also boasts a world-class restaurant scene.
Consider Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2014, an influential list compiled by Restaurant magazine in England. More than half of the entries belong to only four cities: Buenos Aires (11), Lima (8), Mexico City (6) and São Paulo (6). Indeed, these cities claim epic restaurants like the Amazonian-sourced D.O.M. in Brazil and the elevation-themed Central in Peru, and their food scenes are recognized around the world. Chile is another respected food destination, but surprisingly, it is Bogotá (4) and not Santiago (3) that claims the next-most entries on the list. Just as Lima was the fast-rising newcomer at the turn of the millennium, Bogotá is on the rise now, and notable similarities exist between the two food scenes.
Is Bogotá becoming the next foodie destination a la Lima? The answer is a mix of yes and no, but positives can be found in both the similarities and the differences.
The similarities between Peruvian and Colombian gastronomy start with biodiversity. Peru excelled by applying French and Japanese techniques to its immense natural resources, yet Colombia boasts an even higher level of biodiverse abundance. The World Resource Institute ranks Colombia second (behind Brazil) globally in biodiversity, while the Convention on Biological Diversity claims the “megadiverse” country has more than 300 different ecosystems. Natural forests cover the majority of the mainland, including its Andean and Amazonian regions, and Colombia is the only South American nation with Pacific and Caribbean shorelines. Tayrona National Park near Santa Marta epitomizes the abundant ecology with the jungle-clad Sierra Nevada Mountains crashing into the Caribbean Sea. Mother Nature is a major motivator for tourism with jungle lodges, coffee regions, mountain hikes, diving and fishing, but it also provides a culinary bounty that the nation is only now able to appreciate.
“A big reason for the improving food scene is that Colombia is finally together,” says Gaeleen Quinn, co-founder of the Bogotá Food and Wine Festival. “We were divided by war for many decades, so in terms of gastronomy, we did not know about other cultures in Colombia. Some people could not drive from one city to the next, so bringing ingredients was impossible. With the festival, we bring traditional cooks from all around the country to feature dishes and ingredients that we might not know we had several years ago that are also Colombia. All of a sudden, we started to have amazing hearts of palm from the Amazon and Putumayo, and we are able to enjoy delicacies grown here in our backyard. It is not part of our culture in terms of Bogotá, but it is part of another culture inside Colombia that we are just starting to know. I actually think this is just the beginning.”
Celebrity chef Leonor Espinosa, or Leo, epitomizes the use of Colombian culinary biodiversity with Leo Cocina y Cava in La Macarena neighborhood. Her famous dishes include seared tuna with fat-bottomed Santander ants and ice cream made with the red-tinged Colombian soda Kola Román. Meanwhile, musician-turned-chef Tomás Rueda takes a similar small-farm approach a few blocks away with Donostia and the family-style Tabula. Mini-Mal, an innovative restaurant and design store in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood, even made it the restaurant’s mission to showcase as much Colombian biodiversity as possible.
“Colombia has 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and its cultural diversity includes African traditions, indigenous, Spanish and even Arabic,” says Manuel Romero, a partner at Mini-Mal. “We want to raise awareness for lesser-known flavors like tucupí, an ají [pepper] from the Amazon; piangua, a clam from the Pacific coast; and the purple potatoes from Boyacá. For example, Arrullos is an entrée made of coconut cookies, or cocadas, topped with Pacific coast basil leaf and a mixture of octopus, white squid and tiger shrimp cooked in coconut milk, spicy green curry and juice from the Amazonian fruit copoazú. Our idea is that visitors experience a broader notion of our natural and cultural wealth.”
Another similarity with Lima is the number of chefs who returned home after seeking experience and opportunities elsewhere. As the U.S. and European economies sputtered in the late aughts, the Colombian economy soared, and Bogotá became a stylish destination that even claims a Dolce & Gabbana martini bar. Many young chefs thought they would find fortune working international kitchens, but Colombian opportunities inspired many homecomings accompanied by high levels of culinary training. For example, El Cielo is the city’s most innovative restaurant with Juan Manuel Barrientos channeling gastro-geniuses like Ferran Adrià and Wylie Dufresne. The 31-year-old chef trained at the revered Spanish restaurant Arzak in San Sebastián and under famed sushi chef Iwao Komiyama in Argentina. Similarly, the young couple behind the Grazia café returned from NYC where they worked at Daniel, the same restaurant where Dominique Ansel (The Cronut) made his name. Down the street, the almond croissants at Masa are legendary, and founder Silvana Villegas previously worked in NYC with Jean-Georges Vongerichten whose namesake restaurant claims a triple Michelin star.