Category Archives: Kitchen Talk – Conversations with Chefs

Kitchen Talk: Colin Scott – Master Blender for Chivas

Colin Scott

It’s early in the morning on Carrera 7th in Bogota, in the elegant J. W. Marriott hotel. Colin Scott, the Master Blender for Chivas,had arrived from Lima the night before, and would spend a few brief days in Bogota before heading on to Caracas. This was his fourth visit to Colombia.

He looked very Scottish in his kilt, and his perfect attire was completed with the argyle jacket, white shirt black tie and dressy mink sporran. We took our seats in the comfortable arm chairs of the bar area of the La Mina restaurant.

I have to admit I was nervous. Here was the Master Blender for Chivas, the creator of Chivas 18. But his big smile and his laugh that comes from deep inside him put me at ease.

English Tea

The first order of business was tea. He’s from Scotland, after all. His Colombian hostess proudly offered him a fruit infusion, which he politely accepted but put down on the table without tasting. He shook his head, and commented to me; “It’s a shame to ask for tea in Colombia, isn’t it?” Tea in the land of coffee. But he needed his English tea to start of the morning; where to get a proper tea in Bogota?

About 10 minutes later the hostess came back into the restaurant, proudly proclaiming, “We found tea!” Sir Colin couldn’t be more pleased. “Proper tea?” He exclaimed, “Oh, look at this!” A smile brightened his face, and he looked at me and proclaimed, “We’ve got English Breakfast.”

A proper start to the morning.

His honey-like voice is smooth and full of character, like one of his whiskies. His fatherly explanations show that he enjoys sharing the wealth of information he’s accumulated over the decades. And he had the patience of a man who waits 25 years to blend a whisky.

This Master Blender behind the flavors of Chivas 18 and 25 has whisky in his veins – he literally grew up with whisky. “My grandfather worked in the whisky industry and my father also did. I grew up around that, and learned about whisky.”

Travels  and Education

He now travels around the world as an extension of his job as master blender. “ I used to do blending 24-7, but it’s a great chance to go to different countries, meet the people and see different traditions. “ About Bogota he comments: “It’s an exciting city with lovely people. And they’re great Scotch whisky drinkers. Thank you for that.”

As world ambassador his role is to get around to the bars and the clubs to promote the product and educate the client. For instance, he talks with the barmen and encourages him to try this aged, super premium, luxury whisky – and then the barman transmits that to his clients.

“Because – why do people drink what they drink? Because their friends drink it. Why do you have to drink what others are drinking? There’s so much variety. And in the case of Scotch, they’re all great; it’s all about your own personal tastes.”

When people try whisky, they know it’s good but they don’t usually know that much about it. His job is to give them the knowledge so they can understand what the differences are; it’s not just a whisky is a whisky is a whisky.

Flavors and Blending

Blending goes back 150 years, though distilling Scotch goes back 500 years. Little has changed over time: it’s the same natural ingredients, the same process is used.  “It’s amazing the array of flavors that you get from just cereal, water and yeast. You get fruit, vanilla, nut flavors. Where did they all come from? The ingredients are the same in all the distilleries, but the resulting flavors are unique to each one. So that gives us this wonderful array of flavors to select from to actually create the taste experiences.”

Colin Scott got his start in Chivas back in 1973. After starting with bottling, he says, “Then I got involved with spirits quality, which brought me in touch with the blenders. I got tested, and then joined the blending team. That was a very exciting, fantastic, place to be, with all those different whiskies of different ages.”

In 1989 he became master blender. To be a master blender requires not only experience in the industry. For a master blender, a good nose is important, since he needs to have the capacity to store and remember the aromas of thousands of whiskies. He also needs vision to be able to nose a new spirit and project its character in the decades to come.  And it takes technical skill to know when a whisky reaches perfect maturity. “I think the real attribute of a blender is the passion. He’s going to put the time into it: 7, 8, 10 years, and that’s a lot of time.”

His greatest moment is to see the reaction of people to the whisky, when he presents his creations. “It’s very exciting to go and represent that”.

Then he smiles and sums up his work of a lifetime: “So when someone picks the glass up and tastes the whisky, and smiles, you think Whew, job done! It’s good to see that smile – that will do me.”

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For Spanish speakers, you can read the article that was originally published in Casa Viva Cocina: Maestro de Sabores Colin Scott.

New York Chef Heads Up Cacio e Pepe in Bogota

Robb Finn has a lot of energy. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute, he worked at a number of New York City restaurants, including Daniel Boulud’s Daniel. He opened up restaurants like Fatty Cue (and their offspring Fatty Crab and Fatty Crab St. John), Blue Smoke Battery Park City, Fritzl’s Lunch Box, several of Michael Psilakis’ restaurants, and others.

Robb was recruited by the Takami restaurant group (think: Osaki, Central Cevichería) to open up their newest addition to the Bogota dining scene, Cacio e Pepe. I sat down with Robb Finn to talk about how he got into the world of food and his first year as a chef in Bogota.

You’ve opened a number of restaurants; is it accurate to say you’re attracted to high adrenaline experiences?

At every opening I tell myself it’s the last opening. I tell myself I’m going to stay put, do something small and low-key…and every single time it just gets more and more intense.

You mentioned that you dropped out of high school. Isn’t it quite a leap from not finishing school to opening restaurants in NYC?

I dropped out of school when I was 15. I was getting good grades but I was incredibly bored. I got my GED and worked washing dishes at a diner, and later I waited tables. I traveled around, and when I came back I realized I love hospitality. So I bartended in places throughout Jersey and later I opened a bar as the manager. Really, I just kind of fell into it.

I’ve been cooking with my mom since I was old enough to stand. Then one day at a restaurant, the chef didn’t show up and they said to me, “Let’s do a tasting.” I said ok. From there, I decided to attend culinary school. From then on it’s been non-stop; I‘ve just been running.

Did you have any fears about moving to Colombia?

I was very blind to any danger. Growing up in Jersey City for part of my life, and working in NYC, I was used to it. What could really happen in Colombia? It’s pretty much the same thing everywhere; I mean, walking home from work in Brooklyn I could get smashed in the back of the head with a bottle and that’s it.

How’s it going working in the kitchen with Colombians?

My Spanish is horrible, so I have no idea how it works [with the kitchen staff]. It’s almost spiritual; it’s a deeper bond because we don’t necessarily understand each other all the time.

The kids feel good about what they do, they’re proud of their work. At the end of the night, I’ll be at the bar hanging out and the kids will come up and say, “Hey chef, thanks so much.” Everyone is so excited. It’s really cool. That doesn’t happen in NYC.

Interview with Robb Finn from Cacio y Pepe
Interview with Robb Finn from Cacio e Pepe

What will we eat at Cacio e Pepe?

It’s progressive Italian food designed for a Colombian palate. Part of the Italian influence is to use local ingredients, cooking with what’s fresh. We make everything possible in-house.

Cacio y Pepe in Bogota

 

One of the top sellers has been the meatballs, much to the chef’s surprise. The pizza has a fat crust, Brooklyn style, much to the confusion of some Colombians.

Appetizers run from $5,000-11,000, and main dishes go from $21,000-40,000.

This article forms part of the Kitchen Talk – Conversations with Chefs series.

Kitchen Talk: Mikel Garaizabal Pildain

This post forms part of the Kitchen Talk – Conversations with Chefs interview series.

Mikel Garaizabal in Bogota, Colombia

Mikel Garaizabal Pildain is a busy man. An expert sommelier, since 1996 he’s given more than 800 wine tastings around the world. He’s a teacher at the Escuela de Hostelería de Gamarra in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain and he’s also an enologist at the Mendraka Txakolina winery.

But that’s not all. He presents and coordinates a TV program, Yo Con Vino (Wine and I), as well as radio programs. He’s also found the time to write four books, two of which won Gourmand Awards in 2003 and 2013 as best books in their categories.

While he was visiting Bogota in November of 2013 I had the chance to talk with him about wine and wine culture in Colombia.  (Click here to find out a bit more about the wine tasting at the Club El Nogal where I met him).

He’s visited Colombia several times and has noted the progress in wine culture in this country where wine consumption is just beginning to take off. He observes that in Colombia, “There’s a real boom in knowledge.”

But he adds, “There’s still a huge potential for growth.”

“In Colombia and many parts of Latin America wine is for the elite. But the world of wine should be open to everyone. In Europe, in the poorest households and the richest, there’s always wine.”

And for those of you who are wondering why wine in Colombia is so expensive, you’ll be comforted to know you’re not alone. Mikel brought it up, saying; “Why is wine so expensive here? I don’t understand the prices, I really don’t.”

Interview with Mikel Garaizabal in Bogota
Interview with Mikel Garaizabal in Bogota

He also commented on the important work of sommeliers. When the service is inadequate in a restaurant, the work of others in the chain of wine consumption is lost. The sommelier’s work should focus on the consumer’s enjoyment, which begins with education.

“The consumer has to be educated so he can demand the best service in restaurants. He’s paid a lot for that bottle, so he should demand good service.”

On the pleasure of drinking wine, he added, “Behind every wine bottle there are stories and cultures: there’s a long history, and each vineyard has its own culture. The idea is to transmit that to the consumer. That’s why a wine tasting should be enjoyable, because drinking wine is enjoyable.”

Mikel Garaizabal in Bogota, Colombia
Mikel Garaizabal in Bogota, Colombia

Click here to read about the visit of four chefs from Basque Country to Bogota. Warning: this article is in Spanish, originally published in the Colombian culinary magazine Casa Viva Cocina.

Click here for a behind the scenes look at that visit of four chefs from Basque Country. This post is in English.

Have you had any wine tasting experiences in Latin America? Tell me about it!

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Kitchen Talk – Nicolas Quintano of Matiz Restaurant

This article is part of a series of conversations with chefs in Bogota. Click here to read other articles in the Kitchen Talk series.

I was sitting by the miniature palm trees and ferns decorating the vertical gardens alongside  the waterfall in Matiz’s outdoor dining area. Sunlight peeked its way in and made the white linen on the tables seem brighter.

Nicolas Quintano joined me at the table. Sunlight lit up his brown hair and crisp white chef’s jacket. At 29, he still has a baby face. This is the executive chef at Matiz.

Nicolas Quintano Matiz Bogota
Nicolas Quintano from Matiz Restaurant in Bogota

background

Nicolas, from Santiago, Chile, always had an interest in art and architecture. But coming from a banking family, that created a certain amount of problems. Nicolas simply didn’t see himself spending his life behind a desk; active, creative, constantly in motion, he wanted to work with his hands.

So he graduated college with an art degree instead of a financial one, and opened up his own art workshop. He traveled with his art in expositions to Canada, Mexico and other countries.

Inspiration

When he went to Florence, Italy, to specialize in drawing, it happened. Florence changed his life.

But it wasn’t art that opened him up to a new world. It was food. Living in Florence, he realized the importance of food in people’s daily lives and fell in love with the simplicity of the ingredients used in the region. “Using just tomato and olive oil…well, that’s your dish is, and it was wonderful,” remembers Nicolas.

He and his girlfriend started planning to open a restaurant. The obvious first step was learning to cook, so he returned to South America to study cooking at the Cordon Bleu in Peru.

He graduated best in his class. Older than other students in his class, he had a different viewpoint, one that was more oriented towards getting results. Paco, one of the instructors, took an interest in Nicolas, and after graduation put him in contact with Olga Lucia, the manager at Matiz.

Olga Lucia invited Nicolas to Bogota to prepare a tasting menu for her. Wanting to impress Olga, Nicolas asked Paco about her preferences and found out she is a vegetarian, interested in yoga and well-being. Nicolas found organic products at the market and worked hard to present Olga with his best. He’s been working ever since at Matiz.

Karen P. Attman interviews Nicolas Quintano of Matiz Restaurant
Karen P. Attman speaks with Nicolas Quintano of Matiz Restaurant

success

Nicolas considers his success in the kitchen to come from understanding flavors and how they work together, how they flow into each other, change each other, and come out as something different.

And his personality helps a lot. He has an eagerness to be impressed by what he’s experienced in his travels around the world, and he recognizes the power of simple ingredients artfully prepared. He has an energy often associated with the young and an earnest desire to share the best he has, which he uses to make the kitchen at Matiz one of the best in Bogota.

Baby octopus at Matiz Restaurant
Baby octopus at Matiz Restaurant

bogota and food

For Nicolas, Bogota has been an amazing surprise. The green urban scene reminds him of his hometown, Santiago: “You have the mountains, and the sunlight here is so explosive.”

In the Bogota food world he can see that things are changing. Restaurant owners are opening their second or third restaurant. He sees more of a tendency toward bistro-type restaurants where people pay less for good meals. Foreigners are investing here, which raises the standard and makes competition tougher – but Nicolas is always up to the challenge, and loves trying to reach and satisfy that increasingly knowledgeable public.

work

At Matiz Nicolas feels the freedom to be like the owner. “I have the liberty to cook whatever I want. I can choose what I want to serve; of course, I have filters, which is good, but I get a lot of freedom.”

The influences on the menu are wide, including Japanese, Chilean, Peruvian, Mediterranean, and of course, Colombian. There are also cultural mixes, like gnocchi made with plantain and cheese.

Salad with tangelos at Matiz

He’s happy with the ingredients he finds in Bogota although he sees the need to have more consistent suppliers. From Medellin he gets bok choy, carrot and amarantha sprouts. He makes the lentil sprouts and the sun dried tomatoes on the premises.

He would love to work more with local ingredients. For instance, he gets his lamb meat from a local farm where lambs are fed quality food, resulting in a good product and reducing the need to bring lamb from, say, Australia.

Matiz is a small restaurant. In fact, to be able to provide the kind of detailed, personalized attention that they pride themselves on, small is a good factor. The tasting menu gives free reign to Nicolas’ creativity, liberating him from the constraints of a menu; it’s like a personal agreement you come to with the chef, and it’s his creative process that surprises you and delights you.

Vegetarian ceviche at Matiz restaurant
Vegetarian ceviche at Matiz restaurant

future

His focus is not on making money but on creating, transcending. Nicolas’ family has a nut farm in Chile and among his many dreams is the one where he goes back home to work that farm, along with a boutique store to sell his products. And high on his list of priorities is raising his family with the same love of food that he’s found.

Note: At the time this post was published, Nicolas Quintano was the chef at Matiz.

To read more about Matiz, check out the article published in UK’s Four Magazine.

Kitchen Talk: Basque Invasion in Bogota

Guggenheim Bilbao
Guggenheim Bilbao photo courtesy of Maria Giovanna Colli via Flickr

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.

Chef in action

Plate design

Plate design

Almost done

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.

Daniel

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 Garcia interview

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

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.

Compota navideña

Beñat

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

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.

Jabier Gartzia

“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.

Food fight

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.

Basque chefs working

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Kitchen Talk: Interview with Chef Harsh Bhatia from Taj Mahal

This article forms part of the Conversation with Chefs, a series of articles featuring chefs in Colombia.

Two chefs from India work at the newly opened Taj Mahal restaurant in Usaquen, Bogota. Harsh Bhatia and Rajender Sharma come from different parts of India (Rajasthan and Punjab) and have united their culinary efforts here in Colombia.

Amid the decorations, music, and aromas of the Taj Mahal restaurant, I recently sat down with Harsh to talk about where he’s been, what he’s doing now and what his future plans are.

Interview withchef Harsh Bhatia

After studying at a culinary school in India, he was later recruited to work in five star hotels around India, which brought him the enjoyable challenge of working with chefs from diverse areas of the country and their different culinary traditions.

He arrived in Bogota in June 2013, right before the opening of Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal focuses on food cooked in a tandoor, which is often a clay oven with charcoal or wood placed at the bottom as fuel. The food is exposed to the fire at temperatures that can get pretty extreme. Harsh explains to me that tandoors were originally a hole dug in the ground that was then coated in clay and used for cooking. In time they evolved and now take on many different forms.

I was pleased to visit the kitchen at Taj Mahal; modern, yet with traditions, techniques and flavors reaching back thousands of years. Small bowls of spices, all lined up neatly in a row, were ready to impart flavors to the food.

Spices at Taj Mahal Usaquen

The tandoor, shiny and new, sits in a corner. This tandoor is fueled with charcoal at the bottom, giving the food a smoky flavor as the fat from the food drips onto the hot coals. The top opens up and naan or other breads are placed on the walls of the hot tandoor, and those burning coals provide the heat to bake the bread. Peeking in, I saw the coals burning red hot and the naan clinging to the sides, delightfully puffing up and browning. Other types of food are skewered and placed in or near the coals to cook.

Chefs Harsh Bhatia and Rajender Sharma at Taj Mahal restaurant
Chefs Harsh Bhatia and Rajender Sharma at Taj Mahal restaurant
Breads baking in the Tandoor oven
Breads baking in the Tandoor oven

In India Harsh usually cooked with two tandoors, one always full of naan and the second one with other dishes. At the hotels he worked at in India he was used to cooking for events of up to 200 people, and those events and the frenetic pace of the kitchen in general keeps, as he says, his mind sharp as he works to impart the same taste to every single dish.

What he thinks of Colombia: Harsh loves the permanently cool weather in Bogota. In India he cooked in very hot places, and comments that it’s a challenge to work over two very hot tandoors in that climate. And since Colombians are kind and helpful, he’s found it easy to adapt to life in Bogota.

Keeping Colombians happy: At Taj Mahal, the menu is crafted keeping in mind the likes and dislikes of Colombians. They try to balance the menu to appeal to those unfamiliar with Indian cooking as well as those who love the spicy heat. For the many Colombians not used to eating hot food, they tone down the heat.

Future: Harsh plans to teach cooking classes in the near future, but first has to work on his Spanish language skills.
Chef’s recommendation: His favorite meal at Taj Mahal is butter chicken served with butter naan.

To find out more about the Taj Mahal restaurant, read this article published in The City Paper.

Taj Mahal Usaquen

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Peruvian Cuisine in Bogota: Interview with Chef Omar Ben-Hammou

This post forms part of a series entitled Kitchen Talk – Conversations with Chefs, focusing on interviews with chefs in Colombia.

La Despensa de Rafael sits on a quiet street in a posh neighborhood of Bogota, tucked away inside a small brick house. A huge white awning covers the outside dining area, letting the bright Bogota sunlight shine through.

On a typically cool afternoon Omar Ben-Hammou and I sat at a table on that outdoor patio to talk about his culinary journeys and his plans for the future.

I was surprised when I met this young chef with the long face and thick eyebrows give him stern appearance. Was this the Peruvian I’d been hearing so much about? How does a Peruvian get a last name like Ben-Hammou and a Middle Eastern face?

His mom, who is from the north of Peru, lived for years in Europe and later married a man from Morocco, Omar’s dad. In time the international mix in his family got even more interesting when his mom remarried. Omar’s stepfather was a man of Japanese descent, and Omar grew up with strong Peruvian and Japanese influences at home, although his face reveals his Moroccan roots.

Omar Ben Hammou

Love of the sea

Omar was raised by the sea, so he has a natural love of seafood and fish, a love that is apparent in the dishes he prepares. He grew up surrounded by food; his mother was a cook and he would often hang out at the restaurant with her.

After studying at a French school in Peru, his work later took him to restaurants in the United States, Switzerland, Chile, and Brazil. His time working at D.O.M. in Brazil were memorable as he learned about Brazilian ingredients and the Portuguese influence on Brazilian cuisine. He felt at home with the use of products from the Amazon, which are common in Peruvian cuisine too. While working at Emilio in Chile, Omar was voted Best New Chef 2012. La Despensa was voted best casual restaurant in the Colombian La Barra awards this year.

Raphael Osterling, one of the top chefs in Latin America, saw his talent and gave Omar the opportunity to work in a kitchen that focuses on modern Peruvian cuisine.  Omar entered the kitchen of La Despensa in 2012 and left his mark on the menu, which is constantly updated.

Omar’s eternal search for greater challenges is one of the things that keeps him on the move, going from country to country and to different continents. His passion for cooking and life is evident in his body language; he’s ready for action even when he’s sitting still. He speaks quickly, as if wanting to unburden some of that passion.

His future plans include cooking his way through New York, and then perhaps Asia, with the goal of opening up his own restaurant within the next 5 years. But for the moment, he’s busy at La Despensa, presenting Peruvian cuisine to the delight of food lovers in Bogota.

Lessons he’s learned: He’s realized the need to have a good grasp of the basics, but the important thing for him is to be passionate about his work. He’s also seen that technique comes with practice, and maturity comes over time.

What moves Omar: “You can always give a little more, even beyond what you thought. And for chefs, it’s important to remember that, or else you’ll lose it all”

Calle 70A #9-95, Bogota

Interview Omar Ben Hammou, kp Attman

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An Excuse to Drink Wine: Restaurante Nueve

This article is part of the Kitchen Talk – Conversations with Chefs series of this blog.

What I’d heard about Restaurante Nueve sounded good to me. I’d been told that this small restaurant in Bogota not only has 150 different wines on the wine list, but that the menu is basically designed around getting people to experience how wonderful wine can be.

That’s right up my alley. I had to visit.

I arrive at the two story building and can’t find the entrance. How do I get into this restaurant? I ask at a boutique clothing store, and am ushered through the door. I am assured that yes, this is the restaurant entrance. Yes, through the boutique clothing store. After I get passed the clothing, handbags and shoes, jewelry, I do arrive at the restaurant.

And on thinking about it, I realize that’s not such a bad idea, to combine several passions in one. Dining, wining, and shopping. Convenient.

But although I was there to eat and drink, I had another purpose; to talk with the chef, sommelier and owner, Pedro Escobar. So, to the soft voice of Norah Jones crooning in the background, Pedro and I sat in the lounge area of the restaurant to chat about food, passions, and travels.

Pedro Escobar brr

 

Pedro, who hails from Manizales, Colombia, first studied to be a lawyer. Then he decided cooking would be a less dangerous option for him, so he studied in Gato Dumas, and learned about wine in the Escuela Argentina de Sommeliers.

“Trips change us, because we learn about different flavors.”

Pedro begins to tell his Colombian story… in Spain. While travelling through Europe, he was thrilled by what he tasted. As he says, “Trips change us, because we learn about different flavors.” And he wanted to bring those flavors home to Colombia.

He also spoke of an advantage cooks have in Colombia. In Europe, there´s a lot of talk about eating vegetables in season. But in Colombia…What seasons? Here, harvest season is all year round, which is a huge advantage for a chef.

In the kitchen at Nueve

Wine and food

The full wine list at Nueve is set out on 3 slabs of wood; Argentina, Chile, U.S., Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal. Recommended wines are written on a blackboard, with their shockingly good prices. Pedro recommends a wine pairing for each course, and to go “in order”, starting with a sparkling wine, then onto a sherry, followed by rosé, then onto a red.

Cava at Restaurante Nueve

 

The menu, composed entirely of Pedro’s creations, is changed every four months. The tapas-style menu focuses on small dishes that allows diners to ask for exactly what they want, rather than just accepting the side dishes determined by the restaurant. That way people can try lots of flavors, creating a chain of flavors to go with wine pairings.

Some of the usual dishes expected of a Mediterranean-inspired kitchen are present, like risotto and ravioli. But there were unusual ones, like the rice cake made of arroz con coco (delicious coconut rice) with grilled prawns in a lemon sauce with pink pepper. The gnocchi served here have a Colombian twist: they’re made with Criolla potatos and costeño cheese served with a bacon sauce. Pedro recommends a rosé wine pairing.

 

 

Pedro loves to meet the people that come to his restaurant, and that’s why he’s kept the restaurant small: 32 seats. That way he can personally talk with the diners. To take the Spanish word that never seems to have an adequate equivalent in English, he likes to “atenderlos,” meaning attend to their every need. Not a bad philosophy for a restaurant.

 

Calle 70 A # 10 A – 18, Bogota

To find out more about the restaurant in Spanish, check out Nueve’s website.

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