We were standing in the posh restaurant of the Club Nogal in Bogota. All the tables were bare, waiting for the dinner crowd that would pour in a few hours later.
At the far end of the restaurant Daniel Garcia, a Michelin starred chef from the Basque Country, was busy, bent over a table near the large picture window. The table, crowded with plates, glasses, frying pans and spatulas, was just the right distance from the window so that the soft light of the Bogota afternoon would illuminate the photo shoot that was in progress.
Daniel carefully placed a portion of orange-flavored bread crumbs on the white plate before him. His thick fingers were stained yellow, silent testimony of a long day in the kitchen. He delicately set an elaborately worked tomato on top of the bread. With a careful pulse he cut asparagus at just the right angle and completed his composition of rainbow of colors by adding it to the plate.
He mesmerized everyone around him with his dedication in designing the dish. Who would have thought those thick fingers could be so delicate? Surrounding him were cooks whose white hats looked like mushrooms that had popped up in the dining room. The feeling of anticipation in the room was intense as everyone tried to absorb a little bit of the genius before them.
After Daniel was done setting the meal on the plate, the photographer with his Cannon and his tripod became the center of attention as he captured the dishes for a future edition of the culinary magazine Casa Viva Cocina.
A couple of hours earlier I had walked into the kitchen at the Nogal Club to interview four chefs visiting from the Basque Country. When they took one look at the tall blonde journalist sent from the Colombian gastronomy magazine to interview them, they all had the same reaction. With a wide eyed look of surprise they said: “But you’re not Colombian! What are you doing here?”
The devotion of these Basque Country chefs and their passion for what they do impressed me. Surely that devotion and passion are among the necessary ingredients to not only survive but excel in the tough culinary scene in a country with so many Michelin starred restaurants.
Here’s an overview of what we talked about.
When I spoke with simple, straightforward Daniel Garcia, I realized that soft spoken exterior covered some pretty firm convictions about food and life. A little bit of background about Daniel; he worked in the best kitchens in Bilbao before opening his own restaurant, Zortziko, in 1989, a restaurant that is now a classic in the region and has a Michelin star to prove it. (To find out a little more about the city of Bilbao, click here) More recently, in 2005 he opened the Aula de Cocina Daniel García and in 2010 he opened the restaurant Atea.
Daniel’s kitchen is all about his roots and traditions. “The person that most influenced me was my mother; to watch her cook, the way she used the simple elements and techniques common in home cooking. These are the principles of my cuisine.”
With a sad tone, he said, “What we hear about Colombia is bad news and excessively alarming. But to understand a country you have to visit it, get to know it and then give an opinion. It’s like a dish in my restaurant; you have to eat it and then you can give an opinion.”
After ‘tasting’ Colombia, he said, “In Colombia’s gastronomy, you can see the passion through the finished product…from what I’ve seen in Colombia, the most important and greatest virtue is the transparency of the flavors of the ingredients.”
“Tradition is important,” he confirms, “but it has to be brought up to date, it has to continue progressing. In Colombia a whole world of excitement about food is opening up. Colombia has the foundation; now it has to develop the techniques and ideas.”
Ricardo Pérez has a lot of energy. It’s noticeable when you talk with him; there’s a certain restlessness about him. And that energy surely has helped him widen out in the gastronomic world as an entrepreneur. He started working in restaurants when he was 18, and started opening his own restaurants in 1999. He began with Txalgorri and later branched out with the Grupo Yandiola, which now includes restaurants like La Florinda, La Terraza, The Boar Afterwork Bistrot and others.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also participates in radio and television programs and has received national gastronomy awards.
For young people thinking about starting out in this profession, he had a basic bit of advice: “I recommend this profession but it’s a huge challenge. You have to understand the profession. Chefs are emblematic now, but the reality is far from what some think; you have to work very hard.” However, he added that being a chef is “a very fulfilling work. We make people happy.”
About Colombia he said, “Gastronomy is doing well here. I like the popular food; here I ate the best tamales in my life”. Some of his favorite dishes in Colombia are carne asada en vara, platano maduro, sancocho and arepas de choclo. Of course, fruits like lulo amazed him, too. “They’re way better that what we have at home [in Spain],” he emphasized.
For the photo shoot Ricardo made compota de navidad (see picture below) as well as a delicious dessert that you can see on page 66 of the Casa Viva Cocina article.
After finishing his studies, Beñat Ormaetxea worked in restaurants in Lasarte and then became executive chef in the Bistró Guggenheim in Bilbao. In 2007 he opened Jauregibarria , which has received national awards.
One of his best memories of Colombia is visiting the Palo Quemao market. When he arrived at the market, the smells impressed him: outside, the flowers, and inside the herbs and the smell of earth and vegetables. “I got goosebumps seeing the best of each region of Colombia”.
For the photo shoot Beñat made vieira over lemony potatoes – see the photos and recipe on page 63 of Casa Viva Cocina article.
Jabier Gartzia started working in restaurants when he was young while he waited to see what direction his life was going to take. In time, cooking became his life. Now at the helm of his own restaurant, Boroa Jatetxea, he focuses on traditional Basque cuisine and is the proud owner of a Michelin star.
“I like to visit other countries to interchange culinary experiences. I thought that I wouldn’t find that much innovation in Colombia. But it’s wonderful here! The latest trends from around the world are used here.” In fact, he commented that Colombia is more up-to-date than many other Latin American Countries.
And, like everyone else, he loved the fruit. He also considered the pork in Colombia to be quite good, and to prove that he prepared it for the photo shoot. His crispy-skin boneless pork can be drooled over on page 64 of the Casa Viva Cocina article. He served it with a pineapple puree with a touch of lemon, and accompanied it with cubes of coffee-flavored jelly because hey, we’re in Colombia.
After the food was photographed, it was time to capture these chefs in action in the kitchen, so I followed the photographer back to Nogal Club’s kitchen. The chefs, a little stiff at first before the camera, began to relax and started a mini food fight. It was fun to see to see those Vascos laughing, joking and having a good time together.
Those hours spent with these unpretentious men that are doing amazing things were memorable. Taking ideas and dreams and working hard to make them into a reality that others can enjoy is the work of true artists.