Bolivia. Where to begin?
I had been in contact with Michelangelo Cestari, who is one of the chefs at Gustu (yes, there are two). For those of you who are not familiar with Gustu, it is a cooking school, forerunner of the movement to introduce the world to the amazing wealth of raw ingredients in Bolivia, as well as an insanely good restaurant in La Paz. Claus Meyer of NOMA fame is duplicating his new Nordic movement, only this time on the other side of the world and with a completely different set of ingredients.
I was slated to stay with the aforementioned Michelangelo, and his housemates, Kamilla Seidler (also the chef), and Jonas Andersen (front of the house manager as well as wine and cocktail guru) near the restaurant in the neighborhood of Zona Sur. Michelangelo had also arranged for a taxi to pick me up from the airport upon my arrival.
After a few plane rides, I arrived at the airport in La Paz. To be exact, above La Paz in the Altiplano where airplanes actually have to climb to land, which is a strange way to enter a country and will play a role later in my tale. While taking a bit longer than I would have liked going through customs, owing to my wrinkled US dollars being used as an entry fee to the country, my taxi was loaded with my luggage in the early hours before dawn.
I hate to admit it, but my Spanish is lacking. Put me in a kitchen, and I’m fine. In everyday life, not so much. That being said, my driver and I actually managed to have a sort of conversation. I could just be imagining this as it was dawn and I hadn’t slept on the plane.
The drive down into La Paz was beautiful as the sun climbed over the mountains. It was a Saturday, so there weren’t many people out as we drove down the Prado. After about thirty minutes, we arrived at a large metal door in a wall a block long. There were other doors, and other houses, but again, I was exhausted. As I was extricating myself from the tiny taxi, the driver had rung the bell and awoken Michelangelo, who ushered me in and up four flights of stairs to my room where I thankfully passed out.
When I awoke, there was an Andean woman who was cleaning the house who spoke no English but had a note from Michelangelo for me with the number for a taxi and directions to the restaurant. After a few tries, I finally procured a taxi and was off to the restaurant to learn about Bolivian cuisine.
Upon my arrival, I was greeted warmly by every single employee I encountered. After finding my host, I was introduced to Kamilla and Jonas. They set me up at one of the tables upstairs and brought me a dish of lamb, yuca, and artichoke. It was my first meal in Bolivia and it was sublime.
I was eager to see all of the restaurant, and was paired with Renata Zalles, a CIA graduate with roots in Bolivia who worka at the restaurant. She ushered me around the prep area which is larger than my whole restaurant and serves as the heart of the school while introducing me to the many students and stagiaires who were on hand that day. I was taught to make saltenas, which is somewhat of a cross between an empanada and a soup dumpling. I worked with Steve, who was from Canada and on his way to Chile for a year of work/study. We prepped for the dish of palm marrow with charque (llama jerky) and poached egg yolk, which while a delightful contrast in textures, was very labor intensive.
Many of you have had hearts of palm. This was not what you are used to in the slightest. First, the palm is in its raw and unprocessed form. It must be peeled of its outer husk, which is full of thorns. Next, it must be split and each individual layer is peeled apart to make fine strips which are assembled into a nest of sorts for the finished dish. It took me, Steve, and a few other of the students who intermittently came and went on different tasks, about an hour to get enough for that night’s service. About twenty to twenty five portions. I’m no slouch when it comes to prep. This was serious work.
When we had finished with the palm marrow, I ascended into the service kitchen to observe service and generally try to stay out of their way. Mostly, I took a lot of pictures. It was the most pristine kitchen I have ever seen. Later, I was informed that all of the equipment was imported from Denmark as it was cheaper than buying it in Bolivia. I really cannot stress enough how beautiful this kitchen was. The walls were slate with convection ovens built in. The floors were polished slate and looked brand new even though the restaurant had been open for almost eight months. Sorry, I’m a chef, I have a thing for kitchens.
Service went off without a hitch. The students run the stations and either Michelangelo or Kamilla expedites and plates every dish. A year ago, these kids hadn’t cooked before and now they’re running a stellar world-class kitchen. It is really amazing what is going on there.
On Saturday nights, after service, the whole crew gets together at the bar for drinks and to talk about the previous week. I had a snack with Kamilla while we waited for everyone to finish up. 100 day aged beef with fermented carrots and salt. That’s it. Three things. Perfection on a plate. The thing is, most Bolivians don’t get it. They don’t age their beef in Bolivia. Kamilla does, and it’s delightful.
After everyone joined us and I had a few drinks, I caught a cab back to the house with Kamilla. Remember that little snippet about the altitude? It threw me for a loop. At the house, I slept like a baby. I needed it. Sunday was going to be a big day.