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.
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