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


ArtBo2013 – Through the Eyes of a Foodie

This past weekend I went to ArtBo, a huge art festival in Bogota that brings in artists and their work from all over Latin America, the United States and Europe. It was truly an impressive display of international creativity and talent.

But who goes to ArtBo and focuses…on the food?

Only a food writer would do that. Like me.

So I went to ArtBo on the last day of the event, October 28, braving a torrential downpour on a very grey Bogota afternoon. I arrived at Corferias, the expo center, wet and cold, and frankly, the first thing that caught my interest and soothed my tired soul was not the excellent art to be seen, but the sight of an Oma coffee cart dispensing free coffees. I immediately got mine and felt warmed up and ready to tackle the task of seeing every last painting, sculpture, drawing and photograph in the immense exposition area.

Oma coffee

After walking up and down rows and rows of artwork I have to say that the sight of the Andres D.C. pop-up restaurant/bar was a welcome one. It wasn’t the shiny yellow cow at the entrance that made me smile. Or the huge windmill in bright red, green and blue. Or the plastic grocery baskets painted in the colors of the Colombian flag.  Or the odd statue of a metallic horse head emerging from the center of a table. No, I was glad to see food. Not to mention the drinks. Surely a shot of good Colombian aguardiente would chase away the chill of this Bogota afternoon.

Artistic Andres D.C. pop-up restaurant
Artistic Andres D.C. pop-up restaurant

At little kiosks around the expo area champagne was sold by the glass or the bottle for those that felt like celebrating, and further along I noticed that Luna had a restaurant set up with a wide antipasto selection.

Champagne for sale

But when I needed to get off my feet after hours of looking at art, I headed to the Banco de Bogota VIP room, feeling comfortably like a VIP on their environmentally friendly couches, surrounded by environmentally friendly walls made up of grey plastic baskets complete with spider plants peeking out.

VIP room

I had a tasty Oma cappuccino made by expert hands, and tried snacks that were passed around by waiters in chef’s jackets. I was even treated to sparkling wine, completing that VIP feeling.


Sparkling wine

Yes, I enjoyed the art. There’ll be a future post about all the art I enjoyed. But as a food writer, it was natural for me to focus on the food. So here’s the awful truth…at ArtBo2013 I enjoyed eating and drinking, too.



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


Expat Tips and Experiences: Interview in Expats Blog

The kind people over at Expats Blog interviewed me about my experiences as an expat and writer in Colombia.

Where are you originally from?
I was born and raised in a suburb outside of Philadelphia, USA.

In which country and city are you living now?
I now live in the vibrant city of Bogota, Colombia.

How long have you lived in Colombia and how long are you planning to stay?
I moved to Bogota in the first months of 2012, and I don’t plan on leaving.

Why did you move to Colombia and what do you do?
I arrived in Bogota following my husband on his work assignment. As a journalist I find plenty to write about in this city I love. I enjoy writing about food, travel and culture in Colombia for newspapers, print magazines and websites in different countries.

Ready for the South American train adventure

Did you bring family with you?
Yes, my husband and my dog, a miniature Poodle that loves Bogota as much as I do.

How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?
In general, I loved the experience. I moved to South America almost twenty years ago, and was amazed to see how the move opened me up to a new world of ideas and a way of living I would never have been able to experience if I’d stayed home.

Of course, not everything is easy, and there’s always a tendency to remember the past and compare things with my home country. But I focus on the positive and feel that every day holds a new adventure.

Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?
I mainly socialize with Colombians, who are open and friendly. I’ve made deep, lasting friendships here in South America. Definitely life in Latin America revolves around people and enjoying life, not just work and achievements.

I have a lot of expat friends, who do understand me better in some aspects, but I try not to isolate myself from the culture of the country I’m living in.

On the Plaza de BolivarMaking friends on the Plaza de Bolivar

What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?
One of the best things to do anywhere in Colombia is eat. There are wonderful regional dishes, and Colombian generosity and hospitality definitely involves food. There are lots of great international restaurants to try, too.

Day trips to the beautiful towns and parks outside Bogota provide a needed escape from the crazy congestion in this mega-city. And with cheap flights, it’s easy to travel nearly anywhere in Colombia. There are amazing places to visit; you can stay on a coffee farm in the coffee producing area, get a dose of history in Cartagena, explore Medellin, hide away on tropical islands or visit small villages in the Amazon jungle.

What do you enjoy most about living here?
The people, since they’re so kind. And hey, it’s Colombia, so people always have time to meet for a coffee. I also enjoy the more laid-back lifestyle.

How does the cost of living in Colombia compare to the US?
It’s a lot cheaper here. One of the benefits of living in most parts of Latin America is that money certainly goes farther than in the States or Europe.

It’s also easier to live a simpler life. People here aren’t generally focused on what you have, but on who you are. So I don’t feel judged because I’m not keeping up with the latest cars, clothes and gadgets that everyone else has.

Beautiful Lake Guatavita just outside BogotaBeautiful Lake Guatavita just outside Bogota

What negatives, if any, are there to living here?
The standard of living can be quite low in some areas of South America, so at times I find increased crime and lack of organization and cleanliness difficult to live with.

If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving here, what would it be?
Anyone moving to Bogota should get ready to spend long hours stuck in traffic.

What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?
Being far from my family is the biggest issue, especially when someone gets sick.

When you finally return home, how do you think you’ll cope with repatriation?
I’ve been enjoying expat life so much, I don’t plan on going back to my country to live. But I think if I did, I would be more a foreigner there than I am in South America. Living in another country has changed me and my outlook on life, has broadened my ideas, my tastes and my view of people. That’s all positive, but it also means that I’m not the same person I was when I left, and going back wouldn’t easy. Something that I think would make the transition easier would be living in an area where there are a lot of foreigners.

Enjoying a morning trip to Monserrate

What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?

  1. Plan well. Research, research, research; you can never know too much about a place you plan on moving to.
  2. Be realistic. It’s a different country, but people are neither angels nor devils just because they’re foreigners. You’ll run into a lot of difficulties but that doesn’t mean the place is bad or wrong for you; it’s just part of the process of getting established abroad.
  3. Get to meet as many people as possible. That helps to overcome homesickness, enriches our lives, and helps us to learn about the local culture.
  4. Don’t focus too much on what you left behind. Reach out to embrace the new things around you.
  5. Relax and enjoy ! It’s all about the experience. Things aren’t done the same as at home, but it works for the people here. And along the way we benefit from it.

Feel free to read the full interview at Expats Blog.

An inspiring breakfast


Comida con estilo en Bogota

Side view Container City blog

En años recientes han aparecido por todo el mundo, en lugares tan dispersos como México, Tokio, Escocia, Costa Rica, Sud África, Alemania y los Estados Unidos. Han sido utilizados en todo tipo de construcción: casas, estudios de arte, cafés, haciendas, parques y hoteles. Hasta Starbucks y Tommy Hilfiger se han unido a la tendencia y han abierto tiendas en ellos.

¿Qué son?  Contenedores de envío. Sí, esos grandes contenedores metálicos que se utilizan para mandar cosas vía marítima. Utilizando esos contenedores para la construcción les da una segunda y más permanente oportunidad de ser útil.

Colombia se ha unido a la tendencia.

Lea el artículo publicado en This Big City.

5 Things I Learned in Cartagena

Cartagena street scene

The sounds, sights and special moments of each place we visit immerse us in learning experiences. On the coast of Colombia, the enchanting city of Cartagena teaches its lessons, too. The hippest hot spot to get some Cuban retro, where to search for the most pristine beaches and even how to get the best out of a sunset are all lessons that Cartagena leaves with visitors.

Check out the full article at Societe Perrier.

Romance in Bogota

Italia Rustica

A table adorned with flowers and candles, an irresistible meal, a box of chocolates and a bottle of champagne. Everyone loves a little romance. It can spark a friendship into something more, celebrate a significant moment such as an engagement or anniversary, or add some interest to a long-standing marriage.

Romance in Bogota is alive and well, and there are plenty of extraordinary places to wow that special someone over a drink, a meal, or for some dancing.

Read the full article in The City Paper.

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.


Hamburguesas gourmet en Bogotá

Burger town burger

La hamburguesa es la reina de la comida rápida. Al mezclar las carnes, el pan y las verduras con las salsas, el resultado es una comida deliciosa, placentera y reconfortante que el consumidor busca una y otra vez.  A la vez, la hamburguesa tradicional es una comida práctica, rápida, y económica; ni siquiera es necesario usar utensilios o disponer de mesas para consumirla. Ha convertido más de una persona en dueño de un negocio exitoso basado únicamente en esta receta.

Lea el articulo completo en la edición 59 de la Revista La Barra.

International Chefs at the 3rd Bogota Wine and Food Festival



The directors of the Bogotá Wine and Food Festival, Gaeleen Quinn and Iris Quinn, have created a gastronomical event that promotes Colombian gastronomy and chefs, as well as international cuisines.

Some of the activities going on this week in Bogota include:

  • La Gran Degustación
  • Bubble Night
  • BBQ Night
  • Tacos and Tequila Night
  • National and international gastronomical fair
  • Brunch
  • Mixology classes

Some of the international chefs that will be present this year:

Virgilio Martinez

Virgilio, a Peruvian chef and restaurant owner, promotes the spread of Peruvian cuisine by applying modern cooking techniques to indigenous Peruvian ingredients. Recently his restaurant located in the Miraflores District of Lima, Peru, Central Restaurante, was considered by the UK magazine Restaurant to be #50 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. In 2012 he opened Senzo in the Palacio Nazarenas hotel in Cuzco and LIMA, a modern Peruvian-style restaurant in London, UK.

Hiroko Shimbo

Hiroko’s bestselling cookbook, The Japanese Kitchen, has won awards such as the Food & Wine magazine’s “Best of the Best”. Considered the definitive guide for Japanese cooks, and one of the best Asian food cookbooks in the last decades. A third cookbook will be coming out this fall.

Enrique Olvera

Some of the many awards Enrique has won over the years include: GQ Mexico’s 15 Men of the Year, Food & Wine’s 10 Most Promising World Cuisines, Travel + Leisure’s Best Tasting Menu, Best book of the Year and Best Spanish-Language Television Program. His restaurant placed 16thin the 2013 Elite Traveler & Laurent Perrier Top 100 Restaurant Guide.

Carlo Mirarchi

Chef Mirarchi is a partner in Roberta’s, which opened January of 2008. Carlo is a self-taught chef who was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2011 and gotten attention from the New York Times, Bon Appétit, and other publications. Mirarchi’s food has appeared at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, SXSW, Art Basel, and elsewhere.

Pierre Van Oost

Born in France and now living in La Paz for the last 15 years, Pierre is an international chef that has contributed to the history and development of the culinary arts in Bolivia. Among the many activities he’s participated in include being instructor for culinary workshops on quinoa, co-authoring the book Reflejo Culinario de los Lípez – Variaciones sobre Quinua Real y Llama  and co-owner of La Abuelita Restaurant.

Iñaki Aizpitarte

Iñaki is a self-taught chef, using his instinct to improvise menus that change daily.  Having traveled from Asia to Central America passing and most places in-between , Iñaki is an influential chef whose restaurant Le Chateaubriand was voted 9th best restaurant in the world according to San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best list in 2011.

Fernando Trocca

Former owner and chef of Llers in Buenos Aires and current owner of the restaurant Sucre. He spent some time as an executive chef in Mexico, and cooked his way through London, France, Spain and Italy.

Jan Niedrau

He’s the owner of one of the best restaurants in Quito, Zazuito, known for its amazing drinks and extensive menu.

Carlos Sanchez

Born in Colombia, Carlos worked in Switzerland at the Hotel Real, followed by 11 years working in New York. He’s cooked in the James Beard House in New York, and five years at the Walt Disney Resort. As the pastry chef at Parcel 104 in the Santa Clara Marriott Hotel, Carlos uses local ingredients to impress diners.

Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli     

These two Franks have been busy in recent years. They opened Frankies 457 Spuntino in Brooklyn in 2004. Two years later they opened Frankies 17 Spuntino in Manhattan. Prime Meats followed in 2009 and a month later saw the birth of Café Pedlar. That summer they opened Francis Louis Events & Catering, as well as a second Café Pedlar in NYC.

Festival runs from August 28– September 1, 2013.

Get more info from the Bogota Wine and Food Festival webpage.




Everything Edible in Colombia