I’m packing for a trip. I’m surrounded by the usual disaster scene: suitcases are scattered around my living room, my closets look like they’ve been ransacked, and items on my packing list are getting crossed off. It’s complicated to pack for a trip – and I’m just packing for two.
Now imagine packing for 1,000.
That’s the challenge facing Juan Manuel Barrientos and his team at El Cielo. They’re taking his famous restaurant – with locations in Medellin, Bogota and Miami – on the road for the months of September, October and November.
Recently the World’s 50 Best Restaurants came out with some news that will affect Colombia’s top restaurants and chefs. And, if you live in Bogota or are planning a visit, this may very well affect you too.
It’s about their restaurant awards for Latin America.
However, before I get to the news, I want to talk about the awards themselves. Because you may be asking yourself why in the world you should care about restaurant awards.
Perhaps you’ve heard criticism of restaurant awards. After all, who is truly qualified to judge restaurants? Chefs, journalists, people in the restaurant industry – couldn’t they all be biased or have criteria that are completely skewed? Sure, they do know much more about the industry than the average person. But then again, the average person that would consider following their suggestions might not value the same dining experiences.
If that’s what you’re thinking, well…you’re right.
You could also ask yourself how they can judge the best offerings in a vast area, such as an entire country or a vast region. Have their judges eaten at all of those restaurants to be able to compare all those experiences?
And again, you’d be right: few judges can afford the luxury of trying all the restaurants in a large area or even one city. Unless, of course, you’re Jeffrey Merrihue, the man who’s literally eaten through the world’s best restaurants list. But he’s a different story, which we’ll someday get around to telling our version of.
Another point you could question is what are those awards based on? Glitz? Famous chefs? Fancy ingredients that few people can afford? A restaurant owner’s influence in the industry? You could be right about each of those points. At times, restaurants do get on those lists because of everything except the chef’s skill in the kitchen.
So why should you care about these awards?
Because in spite of any challenges and drawbacks to choosing the restaurants that make it onto the lists, awards are still the best way to recognize and congratulate those who are doing something extraordinary in a tough – and often unforgiving – industry.
Most food awards do give a nod to lesser-known chefs who are doing extraordinary things in the quiet obscurity of their kitchens and other delightfully creative spots (home stoves, backyard fire pits, or rural gardens).
Yes, after taking their turn in Peru and Mexico, the awards ceremony will land this September in another gem of a culinary city, Bogota.
For those of us who believe in the restaurant industry’s ability to change lives and the value of discovering Colombia’s fascinating culinary traditions, we truly do applaud this move.
This year the world will turn its eyes to Bogota and ask, “Why Colombia?” And over the next 7 months leading up to the awards ceremony, the chefs, restaurant owners, culinary schools, and yes, food writers here in Bogota will stand up and shout out the clear answer.
So keep your ears open this year to discover the best in Colombian ingredients, innovative techniques, renewed traditions, and perhaps the most passionate chefs anywhere. Because whatever Colombians do, they bring to it a passion and energy that takes the ordinary and makes it shine.
A word of warning – remember that many of the true gems in this city and around the country have never been on an awards list, and probably never will be. Over the coming months we’ll be focusing on those little-known but incredibly valuable chefs that the world has largely forgotten to talk about. Please join us – subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date (you’ll find the form at the bottom of this page).
Perhaps you’re not interested in fancy restaurants with staggering price tags. That’s right up our alley, too – after all, the best way to discover a city’s culinary roots is to get out on the street. Read about some of our favorite places for food lovers in Bogota.
Colombia’s top chef, Leonor Espinosa, brings international attention to lesser known ingredients like corozo, yacón, and fried ants. Her artistic creations have put her in the limelight. In 2016, her restaurant LEO, in the heart of Bogota’s downtown financial district, was at number 16 on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
That achievement positions her as the best chef in Colombia. Although some chefs have reached that fame by expanding beyond Colombia’s borders for inspiration, Leonor sticks not just to Colombian food, but to food from little-known regions of the country.
Through her Leo Espinosa Foundation, she works with small rural communities all over Colombia. She brings rare ingredients and methods to her restaurant and combines a love of discovery with a sense of social well-being.
Even the coffee at LEO will make you feel good: it comes from a rural Afro-Colombian community that has been afflicted by unrest and violence. For a more casual look into Colombian cuisine, try her Misia restaurants.
Calle 27B # 6 – 75, Bogota
Criterion has been on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list ever since the awards began. Led by Colombia’s beloved culinary brothers, Jorge and Mark Rausch, in 2015 the restaurant moved up the list to come in at #18 and in 2016 they placed at #29.
Criterion’s location in Zona G puts this duo in one of the hottest restaurant areas with some of the top dining establishments. The menu is based on French cuisine with Latin touches. Hidden among foie gras, gigot d’agneau and bouillabaisse on their menu, they include typical Colombian dishes like the famous posta negra cartagenera, a braised short rib with tamarind and panela (raw sugar). Their desserts appropriately focus on Colombia’s outstanding tropical fruits, with guanabana sorbet, coconut mousse with arequipe cream, or cuajada (fresh cheese) with melao and guava sauce.
Calle 69 A # 5 – 75, Bogota
One of the first Colombian chefs to gain celebrity status, Harry Sasson headed up fine dining back in the mid-1990s in Bogota.
His restaurant, set in a gorgeous National Heritage mansion with a Tudor look, is just a stone’s throw from one of the most impressive gastronomic scenes in the city. From the elegant upstairs bar and chef’s table to the bright and modern atrium outside, Harry knows how to set the scene for an outstanding meal. This is where heads of state, national and international artists, and famous musicians go for memorable meals.
The menu isn’t just about Colombian food. You’ll find Asian and international touches mixed in with Colombian ingredients. Dishes done on a Japanese robata grill sit on the menu next to salads with hearts of palm from Putumayo, the south of Colombia. Harry came in at #40 on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016.
What Juan Manuel wants to transmit to those who eat at his version of heaven is Stop. Live 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 of life is precious and we won’t get it back.
After visiting the restaurant you’ll understand why Barrientos is considered among the top chefs in Colombia. El Cielo came in at #30 on the Latin America’s Best Restaurants List in 2015.
Calle 70 4-47, Bogota
Andrés Carne de Res
Volumes could be written about the craziness at Andrés Carne de Res. It’s on most must-do-while-visiting-Bogota lists. And when you walk through the door, you’ll realize why. Musicians wander from table to table to play typical Latin ballads, waiters are dressed in colorful and bizarre outfits, and random objects such as steel cows and neon hearts dangle from the ceiling.
The menu is almost 70 pages long, presumably in an attempt to list the majority of Colombian dishes. As the name suggest, this place shines when it comes to meat preparations like lomo al trapo. Most of the dishes are overpriced for typical Colombian food, but what you’re really paying for is the party (which is priceless).
The original restaurant is in Chía, but if you don’t want to battle traffic to get out of the city, try the five-level monstrosity in Bogota for a crazy, fun night out. Andrés Carne de Res squeaked in at #49 on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2016.
Calle 3 N° 11A – 56, Chia
Calle 82 #12-21, Zona Rosa, Bogota
Where do you love to to eat in Colombia? Do you have your favorite Colombian chef? Please tell us about them! Let’s start our own 50 Best Restaurants in Colombia list.
Quick Reviews are short peeks at restaurants in Colombia
Colombia’s beloved culinary brothers, Jorge and Mark Rausch, have been on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list with their restaurant Criterion ever since the prestigious awards began. In 2015 they moved up the list to now come in at number 18.
Their popularity has reached new heights since Jorge formed part of the Master Chef Colombia team. Criterion’s location in Zona G puts this duo in one of the hottest restaurant areas with some of the top dining establishments.
Quick Reviews are short peeks at restaurants in Colombia
While Matiz tends to fly under the radar, it’s one of the hidden jewels in Bogota’s dining scene. A refined and understated restaurant set in an ivy-covered restored house near the posh Parque de la 93, Matiz is based on Mediterranean roots. Chefs from around the world have taken their turn at the stove here, and each new chef brings a different air to the restaurant.
Quick Reviews are short peeks at restaurants in Colombia
One of the first Colombian chefs to become a celebrity, Harry Sasson headed up in the mid-1990s what has become a fine dining boom in Bogota.
His restaurant is set in a National Heritage mansion with a Tudor look. It’s just a stone’s throw from Zona G, one of the most outstanding gastronomic scenes in the city. This restaurant is where heads of state, national and international artists, and famous musicians go for unforgettable meals.
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”