Jen Rose Smith reports for CNN:
La Paz, Bolivia (CNN) — Midway through a 17-course tasting menu at Gustu, a La Paz restaurant where dinner and drinks for two could cost more than many Bolivians could afford, a plate arrived bearing three translucent cubes of ceviche.
The chewy, sweet-tasting meat was lagarto, a reptile known in English as a yacare caiman.
Before arriving in Gustu’s gleaming kitchen, which is heated against the high-altitude chill of La Paz, the caiman swam and basked in the steaming rainforest of the Bolivian Amazon. When fed on piranhas and the occasional capybara, the reptiles can grow to almost 10 feet long — and they’re not exactly a mainstay of elegant dining rooms.
High cuisine’s peasant revolutionGusto: A pickled Amazon queen ant tops gusanito chile, banana vinegar, avocado emulsion, beet microgreens and pickled harlequin beets in tacos de hormiga, or ant tacos. Courtesy Patricio Crooker/Gustu Gastronomy
In elite restaurants in destinations around the world, though, chefs have long been rethinking the basic elements of high cuisine, stocking their kitchens with organ meats, foraged plants and gnarled, unlovely roots.
At Los Angeles’ Animal, elegant small plates feature pig ears and marrow bones, once the stuff of peasant kitchens. In New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a $258 tasting menu might include stinging nettles, invasive knotweed and sassafras buds from the surrounding forest. British chef Fergus Henderson has helped bring “nose to tail” cooking to fine dining in the United Kingdom, and a recent summer menu at his St. John restaurant in London listed pig’s tongue, trotters and spleen among the options.
For some chefs, it’s a return to authenticity or sustainability. For others, it’s a question of flavor.
But for a handful of Bolivia’s young, ambitious chefs, Amazonian caiman, altiplano potatoes and fish from Lake Titicaca have a revolutionary appeal.
Gustu: A celebration of South America’s native quinoa, this dish features a quinoa cream, three varieties of cooked quinoa grains and house-made quinoa miso. Courtesy Patricio Crooker/Gustu Gastronomy
The country, which is majority indigenous, was a Spanish colony for almost 300 years, until 1825. It’s a history that still resonates.
“We always grew up thinking that everything good came from outside of Bolivia,” said Gustu’s 28-year-old head chef Marsia Taha. “Now we’re looking at what we have here.”
Taha, a La Paz native who’s worked in the Gustu kitchen since the restaurant opened in 2013, has found the job to be a lesson not just in cooking techniques, but also in botany and wildlife biology.
“Every single month, someone comes into the restaurant with something I’ve never seen and never heard of, and I have to ask my scientist friends: ‘Can I eat this?'”
Gustu: Raw llama is seasoned with lemon zest, chive oil, pickled green peaches and crispy corn. Lean and flavorful, llama has long been an important part of traditional diets in many parts of the Andes. Courtesy Patricio Crooker/Gustu Gastronomy
At first glance, Taha’s culinary journey parallels the original vision of Gustu owner Claus Meyer, co-founder of the acclaimed Danish restaurant NOMA.
Looking for a new project, Danish-born Meyer combed the globe for an impoverished country where an innovative restaurant could be an economic boon, but also one that would be rich with “undiscovered” ingredients.
He found that in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America. With a landscape that goes from snowy Andean peaks to Amazonian rainforest, the country’s varied ecosystems and biodiversity produce a remarkable variety of foods.
The country appealed, Meyer said speaking with a reporter from The Guardian newspaper,in part because “you have access to a large diversity of products, unknown to foodies.” Even as he celebrated Bolivia’s natural resources, Meyer’s comments sometimes seemed to dismiss the country’s own culinary traditions. [Bolivian Thoughts opinion: I have to agree with this assessment, Meyer and others tried to “create/innovate” and disregarded Bolivian cuisine. If we look at the Peruvian cuisine, how it grew in popularity, they did not take Meyer’s path. They did not have to include “ants” in the menu to be “different.” Bolivian food is tasty and deserves its own place. Meyer’s view is wrong. He brought different tastes with Bolivian grown food, that is his merit, but he can not downgrade Bolivian typical food.]
“Bolivia may have the most interesting and unexplored biodiversity in the world,” said Meyer, suggesting that his work in Bolivia could be transformative, and that he’d seek out young people with few opportunities.
“We would be the catalysts, in opening their eyes to the enormous potential in the country,” Meyer said to Danish reporter Julian Isherwood.
When Gustu opened to the public in 2013, international coverage by food writers was incredulous.
With thin air, cold nights and grinding poverty, La Paz seemed a shocking choice for a star restauranteur. In a skeptical comment that echoed a chorus of voices largely ignorant of Bolivia’s food traditions, Bloomberg writer Ryan Sutton wrote that “no one’s flying to La Paz to eat llama cooked in a vacuum-sealed bag.”
According Sumaya Prado, who handles communications for the restaurant, Gustu’s arrival in Bolivia brought more shrugs than fanfare among locals. “It was a crazy gringo restaurant in Latin America’s poorest country.”
But since the restaurant opened under the direction of Danish chef Kamilla Seidler, Gustu’s helped transform the La Paz food scene, starting by shaking up local ideas about what qualifies as high cuisine by putting indigenous ingredients front and center.
And unlike in those early years, the chefs currently making headlines are Bolivian.
Meanwhile, Meyer’s talk of “discovery” — which one local chef accused of colonial undertones — has given way to a high-flavored celebration of Bolivia’s heritage.
Cooking national pride
Popular Cocina Boliviana: Locoto, a locally grown pepper, is stuffed with shredded beef in red ají, another Bolivian chili. Traditional cuisine in Bolivia makes use of a wide variety of chilis that range from mild to fiery. Courtesy Alexandra Meleán/Popular Cocina Boliviana
Under Socialist president Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Latin America, Bolivia is simmering with a new found pride in local traditions. [Bolivian Thoughts opinion: evo is simply a demagogue autocrat. His speech to the world and what he actually does inside Bolivia is completely different. This blog is full with his mishaps, corruption and inability to govern, and disregard to Mother Nature and Indigenous rights. He wasted over $180 billion dollars over the last 12 years, holding absolute control of ALL State powers. Of course, he doesn’t want to leave power. He is very much like Maduro and Ortega.]
“In 2006, when Evo Morales entered the presidency, there was a big change,” said chef Juan Pablo Reyes Aguilar of Popular Cocina Boliviana, which opened in November 2017. “There was much more pride in being Bolivian, and it resonated in art, architecture, painting, design and food.”
The tiny restaurant was founded by a trio of friends — Aguilar joined forces with chef Diego Rodas and manager Alexandra Meleán — who met at the La Paz restaurant ONA, where they felt frustrated by the limitations of cooking high-end cuisine that catered to foreigners. (Set in the elegant Atix hotel, whose Bolivian-inspired façade was conceived by a pair of New York-based design studios, ONA blends Bolivian flavors with more international cooking.)
“It was like: ‘You can be Bolivian, but not too Bolivian,'” said Rodas.