Noma's Co-Owner Thinks Bolivian Food Is the Next Big Thing
Danish celebrity chef Claus Meyer owns two fine-dining establishments. The first is Noma in Copenhagen, No. 1 on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three years running and recipient of two Michelin stars. The wine-paired tasting menu for two at the avant-garde eatery costs about $900.
The second is Gustu, where a couple ordering the wine-paired tasting menu will spend just $260. That’s quite a discount from Noma. There’s just one catch: Gustu isn’t in Denmark, one of the world’s richest countries; it’s in Bolivia, the poorest state in South America, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Spring issue.
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I don’t care if the Noma guy owns it, I remember thinking when I first caught wind of Meyer’s new venture, which is scheduled to open in April. No one’s flying to La Paz to eat llama cooked in a vacuum-sealed bag. Meyer himself isn’t concerned. “With all those hundreds of thousands of foodies traveling the world to capture a new culinary adventure, if they were told that something fantastic were made of wild ingredients from the Amazon, and if those products were interpreted by talented chefs, they’d buy their plane tickets,” the 49-year-old chef tells me by telephone from Norway.
And therein lies an irony. The target market for Gustu -- perhaps Bolivia’s only restaurant to use exclusively Bolivian products -- won’t be everyday Bolivians, 51 percent of whom live in poverty and even more of whom won’t be able to afford the tasting menu. (There will be a lower-cost bakery and cafe opening at the end of the year.)
Gustu’s target market will be bankers, embassy expats and, if Meyer is correct, gastrotourists -- an elite subset of the global culinary cognoscenti who spend their disposable income on multicourse menus, Instagram the dishes as trophies and think nothing of hopping continents for a meal. Meyer thinks he’s got their next great destination dining spot, albeit in a most unlikely locale. Never mind the altitude -- La Paz is a brutal 3,600 meters (12,000 feet) above sea level -- or the lousy restaurant scene; there are no major critics or blogs to champion (or chastise) the cuisine of La Paz. Things weren’t looking so good for Gustu, I reckoned. But that was before I tried the llama.
My taxi is careening down the autopista, a road that descends from El Alto into the heart of La Paz. It’s my third day in the country, and I’m returning from a trip to Uyuni, where the rainy season has turned the salt flats into the world’s largest mirror. The scenery is stunning. The food is not. In Uyuni, there might be more red-sauce joints per square foot than in New York’s Little Italy. At the famed Luna Salada Hotel, the chef registered a look of confusion when I turned down his offer of spaghetti.
Here’s the problem: Bolivian restaurateurs don’t have faith in their indigenous cuisine. With the exception of the very good El Vagon del Sur, it’s nearly impossible to find a proper Bolivian restaurant in La Paz. Diners are instead subjected to continental-style beef and shrimp at Aransaya or llama saltimbocca at Pronto Dalicatessen, a passable Andean-Italian restaurant.
Meyer is well aware of this issue. “Fifteen years ago, no one had heard of or knew about fine Peruvian restaurants, and the finest dining spots in Lima used to have French menus,” reads the website for his Melting Pot Bolivia Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to elevating the role of Bolivian cuisine.
For Peru, things changed when Gaston Acurio burst onto the scene, turning seviche and other native fare into an exportable commodity with highbrow international chains like La Mar and Astrid & Gaston. It’s this Peruvian model that Meyer wants to apply to La Paz. And given his previous experience pioneering a national cuisine, he may be the right guy to do it.
Ingredients from outside the region -- including foie gras, olive oil and tomatoes -- were banned in favor of musk ox, moss and lichen. Noma, which accommodates just 42 diners at a time, is now nearly impossible to get into. Meyer could have duplicated the concept in any number of world capitals, and the crowds would have followed. Instead, he decided to export not a restaurant but his belief that a nation must find its own path to culinary development -- with a little support from abroad.
To help him spread this hyperlocavore mind-set, Meyer approached IBIS, a Danish nongovernmental organization that promotes equal access to education among the poor of Africa and Latin America. Together, they shortlisted five countries that met the following criteria: biological diversity, low crime, high poverty, political stability and cuisine with “unreleased potential.” Bolivia scored best, and the result was Gustu, a $1.1 million restaurant and cooking school that Meyer says will be profitable in four to five years.
Gustu’s gastronomic shackles will be even stricter than Noma’s. Nothing from neighboring Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay or Peru. Every last ingestible item -- alcohol included -- will be Bolivian. That means no bourbon, scotch or vodka; instead there will be singani, a Bolivian analogue to pisco but with a heck of a lot more floral flavors. (Think jasmine-infused gin.)
Much of the profits will be reinvested into the Bolivian food movement and educating young Bolivians. In other words, Gustu is the equivalent of the socially responsible Mission Chinese Food in New York and San Francisco, where 75 cents from the price of every entree is donated to local food banks.
Destination diners, of course, won’t come for charitable reasons. They’ll come for the food. And that’s where things start to get exciting. Bolivian cuisine, with its spicy chicken stews, roasted meats and enough potato preparations to put most American steakhouses to shame, is magnificent. And if there’s a scarcity of Bolivian fare at restaurants in La Paz, there’s a plethora of lunch stalls hawking fresh-pressed juices and spicy beef tongue.
So when Gustu co-chefs Kamilla Seidler and Michelangelo Cestari invite me to a midday meal, it’s not at a restaurant but at the famed Achumani Market, with tables staffed by old ladies doling out saltenas -- bright-yellow empanadas filled with a spicy broth.
The meal costs 10 bucks. That in itself is a problem. Ethnic food, for lack of a better term, is often viewed as common, and its price reflects the sentiment. Will anyone, Bolivians or foreigners, be willing to pay Gustu’s prices for food that isn’t part of the internationally accepted canon of haute cuisines?
“See that oil on top of the sopa de fideos [noodle soup]? We’ll strain that out,” Seidler says. “We’re going for something more refined.” That’s an understatement. Gustu’s kitchen is equipped with high-tech toys such as chamber vacuum sealers and wet-dry combination ovens that are a trademark of today’s avant-garde cuisine. The trick with Gustu is that while the food is indigenous, the cooking is not. And therein lies another challenge: Who, besides Cestari and Seidler, will actually be able to cook this food? Poor young Bolivians, some with little culinary background, that’s who.
At the La Paz central bus terminal, a gaggle of Andean mothers are swarming around Cestari, a native Venezuelan, who, at 6 foot 1 inch, towers over just about everyone in the country (except for Jonas Andersen, Gustu’s 6-foot-5-inch sommelier and mixologist). From a distance, it would appear the women are asking for Cestari’s autograph. Upon closer inspection, I realize they’re demanding his phone number. They want to be able to check on their daughters and sons -- aka Gustu’s 30 aspiring chefs and waiters.
“I feel like a father to them,” says Cestari, who gets on a bus to give the 19- to 27-year-olds a pep talk. They’re being packed off to Lima, where they’ll train for six weeks at La Mar, Astrid & Gaston and other renowned restaurants. The bus ride is 27 hours. Most of the young people have never set foot outside the country.
The reason for the field trip isn’t just training; it’s to expose the young apprentices to good food and service. Already, they’ve been subjected to the cooking school’s rigorous curriculum, including a quiz by Andersen on the intricacies of photosynthesis, fermentation and beer production. The 30 students will rotate through all of Gustu’s cooking and service posts during their tenure, so they’ll be fluent in all aspects of restaurant work.
“When our students leave Gustu, we have the intention of investing in them and their ideas,” Meyer says. “So the idea of Gustu will disseminate into Bolivian society and not remain something just for the rich.”
In the building that will soon be Gustu, the one furnished room is a test kitchen of sorts, where Seidler and Cestari prepare a preview of six dishes, followed by cocktails. Given the quality of the restaurant fare I’ve tried elsewhere in Bolivia, I’m not expecting much. But what follows is nothing short of magical.
First comes a swath of farmer’s cheese and purple corn puree. It looks quite fancy -- until I see the chicharron (fried pork rind) on top and realize I’m being served dip. About twice as porky as the American variant, the chicharron is enlivened by the puree, which packs enough lime zest to cure scurvy. That’s pretty good dip.
Next is a plate of gumdrop-sized pink potatoes coated in spicy aji amarillo pepper puree. They’re topped with a “paper” made of the same spicy peppers and finished with shavings of chuno, a Bolivian specialty that involves freeze-drying, and occasionally trampling on, potatoes in the mountains to preserve them.
The one-bite morsels pop into the mouth with ease, like vegetarian caviar. The layers of flavor -- nutty, spicy, vegetal -- are as complex as those at a Michelin two-star restaurant. Lesson learned: Next time Aunt Dot serves you a plate of lousy mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, take them out in the snow and step on them.
If none of the above appeals to you … too bad: There won’t be any substitutions on the a la carte or tasting menu at Gustu. Cestari is committed to this point.
“We are not here for the guests. The guests are here for us. We want to give them our experience, our conception of food,” he says, adding that he won’t be taking special requests for a side of beans and rice either, which would be like asking for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan.
Andean Surf and Turf
Next up is vicuna jerky with hearts of palm, a poached egg and fried trout roe. Why fry the roe? “Because that’s how the chulita in the market said she’d cook them,” Seidler says. Good move. Frying gives the caviar the same chewy texture as the beefy jerky. Call the dish Andean surf and turf.
Course four is llama -- a shoulder poached in butter for 14 solid hours. The meat, which chews with all the heft of a strip steak, possesses a surreal sweetness that the Gustu chefs fortify with a hint of banana essence. A topping of almond shavings, piney at first, dissolves on the tongue like snowflakes. It’s all the magnificent equivalent of a fruit posing as a steak posing as a llama. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever tried, anywhere.
The desserts are simple. Sugar cane juice whipped into a soft meringue and topped with singani-infused tumbo (banana passion fruit); it’s like Vermont maple candy on a tropical vacation with a Frenchwoman. And lastly: pacay, a Bolivian fruit that is shaped like a banana, tastes like a cross between a litchi and a watermelon and has the consistency of cotton candy. Seidler stuffs the fruit with chocolate ganache to mimic its natural black seeds. The flavors are clean and pure. This is a destination dish.
The six-course menu (washed down with a lemony singani cocktail) is hands down one of my favorite meals of the past 12 months.
Will Gustu be as splendid for the anonymous diner? How will wealthy Bolivians react to a no-substitution policy dictated by waiters who by design come from low-income families? These and other questions will be answered come April. As to whether I’d personally visit any country on earth just to eat at a single restaurant: of course not -- Noma included. But do I hope to return to see Bolivia join the ranks of nations who refine their humble fare into ambitious tasting menus? You bet.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com).
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