Mark Twain called cherimoya, a fruit native to Bolivia, “the most delicious fruit known to men.” Claus Meyer, the Danish culinary entrepreneur, food activist, and founding father of New Nordic cuisine, agrees; it’s also one of his favorites. But cherimoya is not the only Bolivian food that Meyer finds exceptional. Copoazu (also cupuaçu), a tree that is related to the cacao tree found predominantly in the Amazon River basin, used to make ice cream and other snacks, is another one of Meyer’s favorite Bolivian products. The list goes on to include sopita de mani (a peanut soup), anticuchos (meat kabobs), huminta, a traditional corn dish akin to humitas and tamales, and cuñape, or cheese bread.
Trying Bolivian food made Michael Lei, a USC film school graduate, realize “there are new flavors” that exist in the world. Lei is the director of a new documentary called A Taste of Sky that examines the interconnected stories of Meyer and two young Bolivian chefs. The film recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Gustu, the fine dining restaurant in Bolivia’s capital that Meyer started in 2012 as a project of his charitable Melting Pot Foundation, served as the catalyst for Lei’s documentary. When Lei and a friend were traveling through Bolivia several years ago, they stopped for a meal at La Paz’s Gustu and were so impressed with their meal that they ended up talking with Kamilla Seidler, then the restaurant’s head chef. This conversation evolved into the film’s premise and Lei would eventually spend five months in Bolivia filming A Taste of Sky. Here, he was introduced to a new world of gastronomy, as well as the personal stories of some of the young chefs-in-training at Gustu’s culinary school, specifically those of Maria Claudia and Kenzo.
A Taste of Sky follows these two young would-be chefs chosen to be part of the inaugural class of trainees at Gustu’s culinary school. According to Meyer, these chefs-in-training were chosen based on “the vulnerable environment,” from which the students originated, and the individuals’ “responsibility, honesty, commitment, and willingness to learn.” Meyer explains that the group of students included those who were “proud of their country and of what their country produces” as well as exhibiting the traits necessary to thrive in a world as competitive as gastronomy.
When A Taste of Sky introduces viewers to Maria Claudia and Kenzo, both have left their homes for La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, to pursue their culinary dreams as professional chefs. Lei and his team juxtapose the stories of Maria Claudia and Kenzo with Meyer’s, focusing on legacy. Meyer’s own childhood was marked by divorce and his food experiences were characterized by a lackluster Scandinavian food culture. Escaping to France, he lived with a baker, Guy, and his wife, whom he credits with introducing him to the light of a thriving food culture. A second father to Meyer, Guy opened up a new way of living to the future food entrepreneur, and Meyer would like Gustu and the mentors there to pay it forward as his French counterparts did, opening up a new world for the youth of Bolivia.
Bolivia is “one of the countries with the greatest living cultural richness and highest biological diversity,” Meyer points out, and while many Bolivians have been proud of their food culture in the past, too often other cuisines have been seen as more desirable. Maria Claudia, Kenzo and the other trainees aim to make sure that Bolivia rises to the top of South America’s food cultures, ultimately becoming a destination for those passionate about food.
“I have learned that…Bolivians are some of the most generous and warm people in the world,” says Meyer. “They [also] hold tremendous power and potential that is released when they get access to resources and opportunities,” he adds. Maria Claudia and Kenzo are living examples of the cultural ecosystem that Meyer has nurtured and A Taste of Sky brings it all to life. These young chefs ensure that Bolivia’s bounty will be seen – and tasted – in the future.