He’s got a sweet baby face, like that guy in school you had a secret crush on (and never told anyone about). I wasn’t expecting to find that kind of superstar magnetism in a chef. I knew that his restaurant is among the top in fine dining in Bogota. I’d seen enough of his Instagram account to know that this chef tapped into a truly hip vibe. But I wasn’t expecting the openness, bright smile, and intense gaze of a man thoroughly comfortable with himself and his world.
At Expovinos, the biggest wine fair in the region, he invited the Flavors of Bogota team to join him in the Cava de Selección, a semi-private tasting area. As we entered the area, I wasn’t thinking about the thin wine glasses set on elegantly rustic wood tables or how in the world the designers made this convention center into something so gorgeous. I was thinking about the interview with the chef I’d heard so much about.
Juan Manuel Barrientos. Founder of El Cielo, which in 2015 came in on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants List at #30, if you follow those things. It’s impressive enough to be recognized as among the best in a region, and even more impressive for such a young man. Just 26 when he opened El Cielo in his home turf of Medellin, he followed that up with one in Bogota and then switched continents to open one in Miami.
Fine dining in Bogota
His Bogota branch of El Cielo is tucked away in a corner of one of the top restaurant districts in Bogota where rent is intimidating and competition frightening. You can walk past it and not realize what it is. Underneath giant prehistoric-looking ferns, it looks like an upscale ski lodge stuck in the tropics. Of course, there’s no snow in the mountains that surround this restaurant, but you do get the wood and stone and leather.
At El Cielo, the experience branches out from food to include all your senses, with rose petals and candles and the careful play of light and shadow. The main dining area’s high ceilings let in the bright Bogota sunlight. A lush vertical garden creeps up the back wall and the oversized leather seats make you sigh with comfort.
The first course isn’t a course at all, but an experience to set the mood. A spa moment for my hands that washed away all the stress from the hectic streets of Bogota. My mind was reset. I was ready to live the experience. As the courses arrived, I realized I truly was at a spa. A spa for my palate.
That’s what Juanma, as the chef is affectionately called, aims for. The experience. The wow that pops you out of your life, out of the mental rut of the routine, and shakes you alive again. I saw it throughout the tasting menu at his restaurant and I saw it again as we walked along the rows of wines at Expovinos.
Juanma is alive in the sense of being very, very present. He’s not tired of the journalists, or the wine events, or the pressing rush of life in the limelight. He animatedly spoke with me, had me taste each wine with him, handing me his wine glass and asking me – ME – what I thought of each wine. As if I was someone to guide him in what wines he should serve at his restaurant. But he’s that kind of person – he lives with the concept that he can learn something from everyone. He looked at me as if my opinion mattered, and he listened to the sommeliers with that same intense, immediate presence.
Every moment is an experience for Juanma. A moment to thoroughly live, to enjoy the feast that is life, to embrace the impact on all the senses. At the wine fair he lived the moment, did not bury it in all the impressive moments he’s lived as a chef who has cooked for presidents.
The reason behind the tasting menu
That’s what he wants to transmit to those who eat at his version of heaven. It’s about stopping and living the moment. Look at what you have in front of you, and look again because maybe you didn’t see it right the first time. Feel it. Smell it. Turn it over and over and understand it. Each minute is precious and we won’t get it back.
After all, why do we go to fine restaurants and sit through those long, expensive tasting menus? It’s not for nutrition. A corrientazo will take care of that for us.
It’s the experience. It’s the hope that taking two hours for lunch will bring us back to who we are, bring us back to being humans with the capacity not just to fill our bellies but to fill our senses and our minds.
We want to put our lives behind us and return to what we are – living beings that need to thrive, absorb the water and nutrients around us like the towering palm trees that Juanma planted around his restaurant.
We want to soak in the stimulants from the work of a chef with a restless mind that offers to caress you, nurture you, feed you and inspire you so that when you return to your world, you go with your senses alive, vibrant, reaching towards life like the newly unfurling fronds of a fern.
Exactly what a good spa – and a good tasting menu – should do.