Colombia Rising: A Look Back at Latin America’s 50 Best : New Worlder

It’s always a sign that the right thing is happening at the right time and in the right place when everyone seems genuinely excited to be there. Late last month, that was the case in Bogotá, Colombia for the 2017 edition of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, which took place on October 24 at the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo. Absent was the feeling that anyone was too cool, that this had been done before or that the awards themselves were beginning to feel a bit insular or stale, as has been criticized.

Instead, what Bogotá gave to the 50 Best Awards was a breath of fresh air. In the spirit of what, I think, award juries and ceremonies like this are supposed to do, the real purpose is not necessarily to rank, but to highlight movers and shakers, innovative trends, surprise up-and-comers and, of course, entire regions and countries. Colombia, in particular, has been in need of an image makeover, particularly outside the region, and this year decided to put its money where its mouth is.

With regard to the World’s 50 Best, which is operated by London-based Restaurant magazine and William Reed Media, there’s a commonly held opinion that whichever destination “gets” the awards is a reflection of changing trends and attitudes — a signaling of the next big thing. Though in a region that’s heating up in many ways, not the least of which is through culinary-driven initiatives, it’s hard to find a place in Latin America that isn’t considered innovative and exciting.

The truth is, though, it comes down to money. “This is a business, after all,” a World’s 50 Best staff member who asked to remain anonymous told me. The awards and the events surrounding them require a lot of money to produce, as well as a lot of cooperation (read: donations) from various governmental organizations, including tourism boards, and local businesses — and in this case, event spaces, bars and restaurants. Bottom line: the awards go to the highest bidder, and for 2017 and 2018, the winner was Bogotá, Colombia.

It’s rumored that Colombia paid $1,000,000 to secure a two-year contract to hold the fifth and sixth edition of the awards in Latin America. For context, the next World’s 50 Best Awards were granted to Melbourne, for which Tourism Australia has officially claimed they paid $600,000 to other publications, though estimates from insiders put that number much higher, and well into the millions. ProColombia brought 33 journalists from around the world, this correspondent included, with the greatest number of journalists coming from Mexico and greater Latin America and a smaller number from the United States, Canada, France, Spain and the United Kingdom.

The result is that for a few days during two consecutive years, all eyes in the culinary world are on Colombia. The effect is likely much different than the impact the awards had on Lima and Mexico City, places that were already being lauded and celebrated for their culinary prowess. Colombia is emerging from 53 years of civil war and external strife, owing to a Marxist counterinsurgency and intense drug-related violence. The peace accord between Farc and the Colombian government was signed a year ago, in November 2016, providing a literal and symbolic opportunity for Colombia’s culinary scene to shine.

Up until 50 Best, the Bogotá Wine and Food Festival, which started in 2010, had been the major large-scale food event in town. Founder Gaeleen Quinn thinks that both events have had an inspiring effect on local chefs and restaurateurs. “Since the festival started, we’ve seen chefs and restaurateurs propose interesting concept and become proud of Colombian ingredients and our traditions. I think this was also the right timing to hold the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, as we have new restaurants from a new generation of chefs opening, who are really digging into Colombian flavors. I’m proud,” she tells New Worlder.

Laura Hernández-Espinosa, sommelier of LEO, says she’s excited to show Colombia off to the world in what she calls the country’s “post-conflict” era. Her mother is Leo Espinosa, the owner and head chef, who was awarded Best Female Chef in Latin America along with the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize earlier this year. “Gastronomy is a living thing, like language,” Hernández-Espinosa says of the philosophy espoused by both she, her mother and the staff at LEO. “Colombia is the second-most biodiverse country on the planet, so there are hidden ingredients we can find throughout Colombia’s different climates and regions,” she says.

The menu at LEO is dedicated to this discovery, with all flavors on the menu being pulled from different corners of Colombia’s ecosystem. The menu, itself, is called “Ciclo-Bioma,” and refers to that interplay, with each dish labeled with the climate zone from which it hails. It also features dishes most diners are not likely to have tried before — and even if you lived in Colombia, much of the menu’s ingredients are esoteric, pulled deep from little-visited regions of the country.

Pirarucu, also known as paiche or arapaima in other regions of the Amazon, is a large, finless animal with the distinction as the world’s largest freshwater fish. It was served in a peppery, sour yucca and brazil nut broth and people either loved it or hated it. My favorite was from the Andean high forest and consisted of mashed cubio and chugua, Andean tubers, served in tallo leaves and smothered in a smooth, savory three-meat gravy — a riff on indios de guiso, which is a kind of Colombian stuffed cabbage. At the beginning of the menu, an amuse bouche of chirarán from a dry region of the Pacific rainforest was served. Known in English as capybara, it’s considered the largest rodent in the world and is served stewed in its own juices, recalling a suckling pig terrine minus the crispy skin. Neither life-changing nor offensive, I was the only person at my table who tried it.

It was undeniably exciting to be served so many new things but out of the cloud of so much discovery came a few distinct attitudes: those who have no interest in trying things deemed “strange” to them, those who do only to shout how “amazing” it is, and those who walk a middle line. With tasting menus designed to make you think, the majority of diners tend to fall on one of the two more polar sides. New is not always easy, and the menu was challenging from a purely gustatory perspective, though a number of dishes I tried were delicious. Intellectually, dining at LEO was captivating and necessary, something to look for in fine dining. If more diners can admit that moving outside of your comfort zone can be hard, fine dining and eating in general would feel less like a show, and less fraught overall. Struggling with some textures and flavors is the point of an important restaurant like LEO, but it’s the interplay between what Espinosa does and what other, more accessible Colombian restaurants do, that shine the full light on Colombia’s larger food scene.

Awards like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants play into these biases about fine dining, but there were some easier choices on the list, too. Villanos en Bermudas, a restaurant in Bogotá that exudes a hipster, counterculture vibe, debuted at #40 and presented an uncontroversial, straightforward tasting menu that chefs Nicolás López and Sergio Meza concoct from what they call “ingredients in your pantry,” though that might be a bit of a stretch. An amuse bouche of poached and fried chicken skin under sliced pear with chili powder was referred to by Meza as a “poor man’s foie gras.” Two of my favorite dishes were a lamb tartare with sorrel and coconut yogurt and a simple cauliflower floret pan-fried in butter and dressed with sunflower seed ice cream and microplaned almonds. Dining there is less about thought and more about animal instincts. The third Colombian restaurant on the list, Harry Sasson, is a Bogotá mainstay that has modernized with the times and kept quality ultra-high, managing to stay relevant in a fast-changing market.

With a focus on fine dining, though, there is an entire culture of street and market food that is left out of the discussion, even though some flavors might be reflected on tasting menus. Tamales, made with pork belly, chicken, boiled eggs, rice and potatoes, encased in masa and then steamed in a plantain leaf, are hearty, delicious and unique to this corner of South America. Ajiaco is a humble homage to the variety of tubers that are found in Colombia’s mountains, and its evolution over time displays Colombians’ changing tastes and access to more expensive foods, like chicken. Ceviche and sudado, a shrimp stew, are ubiquitous on the lesser-explored Pacific coast. Sancocho is another emblematic soup, existing everywhere but changing key ingredients depending on where it’s made, making it perhaps the most Colombian dish of all when considering the geographic diversity of the country. And serving high quality cuts of beef remains one of the country’s great pastimes — no emphasis on “tweezer food” dining will ever change that. Hopefully, by drawing in visitors and attention through the 50 Best spotlight, the rest of Colombia will catch attention for the rest of its food culture, too.

The effect that the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants’ arrival to Colombia will have on the country’s overall dining scene remains to be seen, but what is evident is that its culinary awakening was in full-swing long before foreign eyes began paying closer attention. For the first time, possibly ever, Colombian diners and those from other countries are being given a look into all aspects of eating in Colombia, whether that’s a humble arepa de choclo con queso, ants from the Pacific coast or seasonal vegetables dressed up in a punk rock way. Meza said he struggles getting wealthier Colombians to part with “their expensive piece of meat,” but that he looks to his native Mexico for inspiration, where he says the attitude was exactly the same 10 years ago. One only need to look at the 13 successful restaurants from Mexico on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list to see how that trend has accelerated. With just three Colombian restaurants on 2017’s list and 2018’s selection ahead of it, it’s all the proof that Colombian chefs — and the country’s tourism board — need to continue along with the parade.